Yet in just two days in September, that tree was cut down with chain saws, turned into logs and hauled away, according to witnesses interviewed by police. The lumber ultimately sold for just over $10,000.
Now, two suspects — a brother and sister, Todd Jones, 56, and Laurel Hoffman, 54 — have been indicted in the felling of the tree that prosecutors say sat on Cleveland Metroparks property, just feet away from Jones’s land in Strongsville, about 20 miles south of Cleveland. The siblings face charges of grand theft and falsification — both felonies.
Neither Jones nor Hoffman responded to requests for comment from The Washington Post late Thursday. In interviews with the Plain Dealer, the duo said the tree was on their property and that they disagreed with the charges.
“This is so ridiculous that they’re doing this,” Jones told the Plain Dealer. “This is insane. There was no ill intent.”
The case is the latest recent example of people facing criminal charges after being accused of illegally removing trees from public land. In July, a California couple was fined $18,000 for bulldozing Joshua trees to make way for home construction. In November, a man was sentenced to 20 months in prison for harvesting maple trees in Washington’s Olympic National Forest, which led to a massive 2018 fire.
Black walnut trees are treasured for their high-quality lumber — a fine-grained hardwood used for furniture and gunstocks, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Jennifer Grieser, the natural resources director at Cleveland Metroparks who discovered the tree had been chopped down, told police the trunk’s 207-inch circumference placed it among Ohio’s largest black walnuts.
The tree could be over 250 years old, Jacqueline Gerling, a Cleveland Metroparks spokeswoman, said in an email to The Post.
“Given our urban setting and the threats to healthy tree growth, it is very uncommon to find a black walnut of this size,” Gerling said.
Grieser estimated the tree was worth more than $28,000 — a figure she considered “conservative,” the police report states.
According to police, the tree stood on land owned by Cleveland Metroparks, a state agency that manages some 24,000 acres of parkland, trails and recreation space across northeast Ohio, including the Mill Stream Run Reservation near Jones’s property. The black walnut tree sat 7½ feet from his property line, according to police.
Jones took ownership of the property in June from his father’s widow, Debra Jones. Her home was on the property for decades, Debra Jones told police, but she was having trouble paying the taxes. She thought the transfer would relieve the financial burden, she added, which included $15,000 in tax liens.
Todd Jones put the house up for sale in 2021, six years after his father, Robert, died.
The black walnut tree stood so close to the house that Robert Jones “assumed that tree was his,” Debra Jones told police, “and he blabbed about it.”
After his son took ownership of the property, Todd Jones decided he wanted to cut the tree down and sell it, which would “help pay for some of the taxes,” Debra Jones told police.
According to police, a logging company paid Todd Jones and his sister, Hoffman, $2,000 for the lumber it hauled away. The company owner told police Hoffman had assured him the property had been surveyed and the tree was theirs.
Hoffman supervised the tree removal in late September, a job that took about two days, the logging company owner said. The logger later sold the wood for $10,106, and — according to police — was not criminally responsible because he “took reasonable on-site measures to verify” the tree was on Jones’s property.
A couple of days later, Grieser came across the stump while checking on the progress of some saplings that had been planted for a restoration project. She called the police.
At first, Todd Jones allegedly denied knowing about the felled walnut tree when asked by police. “It was always well known” the tree rested on his land, he said, according to the police report — though he added he had never seen a boundary survey. He then told police Hoffman had no involvement in the tree’s removal, according to the report, adding that he did not “want anyone in trouble for this other than” himself.
“It’s not the crime of the century,” Jones told police.
In a statement to the New York Times, Michael O’Malley, the Cuyahoga County prosecutor, called the charges serious.
“We will not ignore people trespassing onto park property and illegally cutting down irreplaceable trees for profit,” he said.