Crime of the century-old tree

Section of large, old pine lifted from high school parking lot in broad daylight

Durango High School Assistant Principal Joe Pecorino looks over where a large portion of the cut ponderosa pine. Enlargephoto

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald

Durango High School Assistant Principal Joe Pecorino looks over where a large portion of the cut ponderosa pine.

In a caper that has shocked locals and dashed Durango High School’s dreams for an outdoor classroom, a group of thieves has stolen the majority of an enormous, century-old tree from the school’s parking lot.

The week-old crime – bizarre, boldly executed and cold-blooded – has many in Durango School District 9-R reeling.

“Who would do this, steal from children? Why would anyone take this wood?” asked Julie Popp, district spokeswoman.

The tree, an 80-foot ponderosa pine, is as old as the town of Durango, said city arborist Ron Stoner.

Durango Police Department spokesman Lt. Ray Shupe said it was the first instance of wood theft in Durango.

Last year, a home construction project forced Kim and John Baxter, retirees, to remove the tree from their lot.

The Baxters said they were anguished about felling the pine, which had grown on their East Third Avenue property since the 1880s, until Stoner suggested they donate the enormous trunk to Durango High School, which was building an outdoor classroom.

Stoner said in age, girth and height, the tree was incalculably rare. There are only four or five such trees standing in Durango today.

“I don’t know, log-wise, what that tree would cost. But the value of the tree as a historic ponderosa pine alone was in the thousands of dollars,” he said. “Now, the high school has lost an invaluable means of building an outdoor classroom that would have combined every element – the history of the city, the value of the environment, the importance of trees.”

Paradise, lost

When the Baxters offered the district their century-old pine, DHS was delighted. Faculty and students spent months developing a blueprint for their outdoor classroom, which was to overlook Junction Creek. Eventually, they settled on a design: the historic ponderosa pine, cut into smaller sections, would wrap around the classroom along the creek, offering students seating.

Since last summer, students have spent hundreds of hours preparing the site, purging it of weeds and brush and moving in large rocks to anchor the historic pine seats.

The project was scheduled to be completed this weekend, when the district finally was set to install the historic wood.

But then, on Dec. 1, sometime in the morning, a crew of men rolled up to the DHS parking lot – where the tree had been stored – with a truck, a trailer and a forklift. They took half of the century-old pine, which had been cut into four sections.

Joe Pecorino, assistant DHS principal, said one DHS teacher had witnessed the heist.

“One of our teachers – she’s really embarrassed about it now – but she drove right by them. She said they looked official, so she thought they worked for the district.”

Premeditated

and professional?

The Durango Police Department has no suspects, spokesman Lt. Ray Shupe said.

Given the audacity of the crime – which was committed in broad daylight, in full view of passing cars on Main Avenue – many suspect it was a professional job.

Pecorino said each section of the tree weighed nearly a ton, “and we had them secured with snow fencing and a laminated sign saying they were school property,” he said.

Stoner said the tree sections had likely been pilfered by practiced criminals.

“I doubt this is their first time doing this,” he said. “These individuals felt comfortable: They had the specialized equipment, access to a trailer that was big enough and left in a short amount of time.”

Defense attorney Nick Anesi, who grew up in Durango, said he’d never heard of banditry this organized taking place within city limits.

“It makes me angry just hearing about it,” he said. “That wood was supposed to go to high school students. I guess you never know what people are capable of.”

The crime appears isolated. In an email, Shupe said locals needn’t fear for the safety of their trees and wood piles, saying wood thieving isn’t “a giant issue” in the city, nor is there a thriving black market for stolen wood in Durango.

But recovering the wood could prove difficult.

Shupe said when wood is stolen, there is no option of putting a picture of the missing wood on milk cartons.

Pecorino said he would recognize the wood anywhere.

“I would know it if I saw it,” he said.

Stoner said the tree was physically distinctive.

“I would be able to say with fair certainty whether that was the tree,” he said.

He said there are no readily available DNA tests that could establish whether a single wooden board was once part of the stolen pine, but its markings are unique.

“Ponderosa pines only develop bark like that when they’re 60, 80 years old, and this tree was in the 100-plus category,” Stoner said.

He said just as car thieves repaint automobiles, he feared the tree-nappers would strip the wood of its rare bark.

It would be a travesty if the historic tree were reduced to wood chips, he said, and he wouldn’t be surprised if the thieves decided to use it for a pricey home feature, such as a wooden column.

“Wood of that quality – it has incredible integrity,” he said.

Cliff Vancura/Durango Herald Enlargephoto

Cliff Vancura/Durango Herald