Tree DNA Helps Convict Washington Timber Thief

The lead defendant in a scheme to steal maple wood that resulted in a massive 2018 forest fire on the Olympic Peninsula was recently convicted in U.S. District Court in Tacoma following a 6-day jury trial.

According to records filed in the case, between April and August 2018, Justin Andrew Wilke conducted an illegal logging operation in the Elk Lake area of the Olympic National Forest, near Hood Canal. In July 2018, just days after his release from state prison, another defendant, Shawn Edward Williams, 49, joined the conspiracy, helping Wilke remove maple from the National Forest and transporting it with Wilke to a mill in Tumwater, Washington. 

This was the first use of tree DNA evidence in a federal criminal trial. Wilke claimed the wood he sold to a Tumwater mill had been harvested from private property with a valid permit. However, at trial, Richard Cronn, Phd., a Research Geneticist for the USDA Forest Service, testified that the wood Wilke sold was a genetic match to the remains of three poached maple trees investigators had discovered in the Elk Lake area. The DNA analysis was so precise that it found the probability of the match being coincidental was approximately one in one undecillion (one followed by 36 zeroes). Based on this evidence, the jury concluded the wood Wilke sold the mill had been stolen.   

“When people steal trees from our public lands, they are stealing a beautiful and irreplaceable resource from all of us and from future generations,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Gorman. “That theft, coupled with the sheer destruction of the forest fire that resulted from this activity, warrants federal criminal prosecution. I commend the various branches of the U.S. Forest Service who worked diligently to investigate and hold this defendant accountable.”

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