Just past the "Welcome to City of Manassas" sign, it begins. A bald cypress lies toppled. Then another and another.
For nearly a mile, a trail of felled saplings stretches down the grassy median of Route 28, cut two-thirds of the way through their thin trunks. Almost 100 in all.
Nearby at a city baseball field, 50 white pines have also been cut, most with dried sap still running from the wounds. A few are still standing, held in place by plastic ties, with only the browning of their pine needles betraying their slow death.
Sometime during the night of Sept. 10, 149 trees planted by the city last spring were cut with a handsaw -- an act of spite against Manassas that officials say would have taken one person a couple of hours to do.
"Why? I don't understand why. All trees do is good," said city horticulturist Barbara White. "Someone was very mad at the city of Manassas over something or disturbed about trees being planted. You cannot get into the mind of someone who would murder 150 trees."
White said she cut the ties securing the trees so they would fall of their own weight and line the median for a couple of weeks in mute testimony to the bizarre act. "I think it really speaks loudly about what happened," said City Council member Robert Browne.
Before, drivers would pull over to the side of the road during the planting and tell White how lovely the trees looked; motorists now call City Hall irate over the carnage.
The police say they have no clues, and no witnesses have come forth or called the Crime Solver number listed on a sign offering $1,000 reward for information. Officials also have appealed for help on a local cable TV show. Destroying city property is a misdemeanor with a maximum punishment of a year in prison.
The city planted the five-year-old trees, ranging from five to eight feet in height, in April and February, at a cost of $10,000. White said the trees will be replaced next spring, in addition to the yearly planting effort to beautify the city.
The strip of trees starts at the east edge of Manassas, close to the sprawling IBM facility and city baseball park, on well-traveled Route 28, near Godwin Road. Besides the baseball complex, the only visible buildings in the area are a couple of auto parts yards and some rusting barns. To relieve the bleak vista, the city planted the saplings after the road was widened last spring.
From Debbie Aubrey's unshaded window across the road it was a welcome sight. "It would have been gorgeous once they grew up," she said wistfully, gazing out at the stubble of splintered trunks and dry leaves. "It would have been real nice."
For White, whose earliest memory is accidentally breaking off a twig and planting it to see if it would grow, the destruction of the trees is a horticulture major's worst nightmare come true.
On the job for just over a year, White said Manassas planted at least 1,200 trees during that time and is putting an additional 1,000 into the ground this year.
"There're always some crazy people out there who will break the limbs off a young tree. People get drunk and drive over a tree or get rowdy at a park and knock a young tree over," she said. "But someone thought this out: cold-blooded murder."