It’s bad enough D.C.’s trees were gouged. But why did it take so long for people to notice?

Courtland Milloy
Columnist April 20

I hope the law catches up with the District’s rampaging tree gouger. A suspect was arrested last month and charged with carving up more than 100 trees. But he was subsequently released pending a court date and now seems to have vanished.

Why were holes and circles cut into so many trees? And why, in this tree-loving city, did it take so long for anyone to notice?

“Everywhere we went, there was more and more damage,” Earl Eutsler, a supervisor with the D.C. Urban Forestry Administration, said Friday. He and a team of foresters recently completed a tree-damage assessment in three neighborhoods that bore the brunt of the defacement: Shaw, Bloomingdale and Logan Circle.

Eutsler said the carvings were found on more than 750 trees, far more than originally thought when the defacements were first reported in March. That’s not just a bunch of trees; that’s a forest.

“He used the pointy edge of a brick as a chisel and went after those trees like it was a job,” Eutsler said.


A defaced tree at the 100 block of P Street NW. A gouger defaced hundreds of trees in three D.C. neighborhoods. A suspect was arrested and released, then failed to show up for a court date. (Photo by Shaun Mckim/Courtesy of Urban Forestry D.C)

I happen to have a soft spot for trees. I don’t even like to see a campaign poster nailed to one, let alone see bark that has been hacked open with a brick. Maybe the sheer magnitude of these bizarre acts will help make this week’s Earth Day and Arbor Day commemorations all the more significant.

On March 14, a D.C. police officer reportedly saw a man defacing an oak tree in Shaw, at Ninth and P streets NW. Jose Villacorta, who at the time of his arrest gave his name as Bonerje Hernandez, was charged with destruction of property. A hearing was set for this month in D.C. Superior Court, but Villacorta, 45, of no fixed address, failed to appear, and a warrant was issued for his arrest.

“It’s horrible what he did to this neighborhood,” said Robert Gerber, a systems engineer and amateur arborist, who lives near Ninth and P streets. A Japanese maple that he planted in his front yard catches the eye. Two circles carved near the bottom of an oak beyond the sidewalk can easily be missed.

Much of the gouger’s work, however, is in your face, nearly impossible not to notice. Like the 10 circles carved into the trunk of an oak tree in the 100 block of P Street NW. And the 15 circles cut into a sycamore in the 300 block of Q.

“He must have been standing at a tree for a long time,” Eutsler said. “Then he’d move to the next one and put in a lot of time and effort.”

To carve up so many trees, the gouger would have had to work at it for months. The tree damage extends about a mile east to west, from Lincoln Road and Quincy Place NE to Ninth and P streets NW, and about a mile and a half north to south, from Howard University to Third Street and New York Avenue NW.

And yet Eutsler didn’t hear about the defacement until March 10. A Shaw resident had been trying to find out if a tree had been hit during a shooting when he came upon the gouger’s holes and called the forestry office.

Eutsler tweeted a bulletin asking residents to help catch the culprit, and Villacorta was arrested four days later.

The District, which planted 8,000 trees this year, has cherry, ginkgo and red buds blossoming on those grassy strips between sidewalks and curb. But it’s the tall oak that puts the tree in tree-lined street. For songbirds seeking to nest and raise their young each spring, there is no finer home.

Now, hundreds of those trees have been wounded. The trees won’t necessarily die as a result, but they can become disfigured over the years, become weakened and more vulnerable to fungi and bacteria.

Based on his conversations with D.C. police, Eutsler believes that the gouger was homeless, intoxicated at the time of his arrest and possibly suffered from mental illness.

“I’m told he thought he was beautifying the trees,” Eutsler said. “In a strange way, your heart goes out to him. I don’t think he was lying, just not in his right mind.”

That might be the gouger’s excuse. But what about those who saw him and did nothing?

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