DNA Evidence Solves Crime, This Time With a Twist

For the first time, tree DNA was used in a federal criminal trial
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Jul 12, 2021 10:25 AM CDT
Updated Jul 17, 2021 8:31 AM CDT
DNA Evidence Solves Crime, This Time With a Twist
File photo of figured maple, valuable in musical instruments.   (Getty/brandtbolding)

That prosecutors used DNA evidence to convict a criminal isn't too surprising. But in this case—a first—the DNA came from a tree, reports the Seattle Times. A jury in Tacoma, Wash., convicted 39-year-old Justin Wilke last week of illegal tree harvesting in Olympic National Forest, per the Kitsap Sun. A forest fire that prosecutors say he started also doomed him. Authorities say that Wilke and a small crew would go into the forest looking for figured maple, which is particularly valuable because it's used to make musical instruments. They would cut down maple trees—illegal in a national forest—then sell them to a local mill with paperwork forged to say the wood came from private land, say prosecutors. In August 2018, however, they say Wilke tried to remove a wasp nest from the base of one such tree by burning it off.

That started a massive fire, known as the Maple Fire, that burned more than 3,000 acres, prosecutors say in court documents cited by the Washington Post. While investigating the fire, investigators spotted the stumps of illegally cut trees, then used DNA from the stumps to identify timber illegally sold by Wilke. "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 zeros)," prosecutors said. It's the first time tree DNA has been used in a federal criminal trial. A fellow tree thief pleaded guilty and received a 30-month sentence. Wilke opted for a trial and now faces up to 10 years at his October sentencing. He was convicted of theft of public property and trafficking in unlawfully harvested timber, though the jury didn't convict him on charges of actually starting the forest fire. (More DNA evidence stories.)

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