Timber thieves often target friendly, unsuspecting neighbors. “Especially for the older generation, a handshake is good enough — a man's word is solid,” said Tonja Kelly.
“But that's not the way it is anymore. Many of these criminals have lived down the road from their victims for years, maybe for their entire life. The folks they rip off are often long-time acquaintances, if not friends. A lot of times, victims don't want to write up a contract with someone who lives across the highway. It's unbelievable, but there are people who prey on that.”
Pine-choked south Arkansas is especially bad for tree thievery, said the Arkansas Forestry Commission investigator. “It is mostly in the south, but it happens all over. We've worked cases on cedars in the north, Royal Paulownia trees have been stolen, walnut trees — you name it.”
On the job for five years, Kelly said certain timber crimes tend to cycle. Lately, there have been a number of logger run-offs.
“You know, a property owner has 40 acres of timber and someone stops at his house and says, ‘Hey, I'll pay you $20,000 for the timber on your property.’ They make it legal and the logger goes out and cuts it and hauls it off.
“Then, the landowner isn't paid. That happens frequently.”
Most often timber theft is a white-collar crime, said Kelly, because it involves contract fraud and/or forged timber deeds.
Since it was created in the 1930s, the Arkansas Forestry Commission's primary charge has been to fight forest fires. While the commission has taken on forest management as well, “fighting fires is still our focus,” said Kelly.
The investigators — Kelly is one of four in the state — tend to work felony theft cases but will also work fire cases if arson is involved.
Until a few years ago it was hard to prosecute timber theft in Arkansas. The state viewed timber theft as something for civil courts.
In 2001, however, a new law was passed. “It said, if you're owed money by a logger and he fails to pay within a certain time period, it's a prosecutable crime. If it's over $500, it's a felony.”
By the 1990s, the married couple had been in the south Arkansas timber business for years. Looking for timber owners in the county, they would often peruse courthouse records.
“That's common practice, actually. Loggers will send out letters asking if the owners want a free appraisal on their timber value. That's a legitimate, legal practice. No problem.”
But in the early 1990s something sparked the couple into a string of thefts and company names. If their logging business acquired a bad reputation, they simply changed the name. And in conjunction with their county record searches, they sent letters out too.
“What they were really doing was searching for landowners who were either out-of-state or lived out of the county,” said Kelly. “They specifically wanted elderly landowners.”
Once a mark was identified, a “come on” letter and contract were sent. The contracts were legitimate — “nothing wrong with them, really.” But sometimes it didn't matter whether the owner signed or not. The couple would forge a contract and cut the timber anyway.
“They were robbing Peter to pay a little of what they owed to Paul. If one of their victims was complaining, they'd send a little money to keep them placated — just enough to keep from being sued. You know, ‘I owe you $1,000 but I don't have it right now. Here's $200 and I'll get you the rest later.’”
In 2000, some 10 landowners filed charges on the couple.
“That was before the new state timber theft law was passed. So we took them on in federal court. We were able to do that because this couple had called folks on the phone and sent phony contracts through the mail. We got them on mail and wire fraud — federal crimes.”
The couple was convicted and sentenced to over seven years. They remain in prison and, when released, will owe over $800,000 in restitution. Kelly is sure the couple's crimes haven't had a full accounting.
“They burned so many people. We never did find out the whole roster of victims. By the time of sentencing, we were still finding victims. We just ran out of time looking for more. I believe they got off light with the fine.”
In Arkansas, Kelly rues, there's no good way to track cut timber. That's not true in Louisiana, though. “In Louisiana, the load of timber must be tracked — you must list exactly where the timber came from: the owner's name, the location of the property. Copies of that information stay on the logging site and with the truck. The ticket on the truck goes to the mill. That way, if someone needs to check on a load of timber, it can be tracked. I'd welcome a ‘paper trail’ law here — we need something.”
Right now, in Arkansas, the only way to find out how much timber was taken off a property or to the mill is by walking the scene of the crime. “Yeah, someone has to go to the property and do stump counts. That's the only way to determine how much timber was on the property. It's very, very difficult to track timber here.”
For landowners wanting to avoid timber theft or fraud, Kelly offers some advice. Among her suggestions:
Don't take just one bid. “Get three good bids. If your timber is worth money, you'll have multiple bidders. Usually, a good operation will come out and give an estimate for free. Take advantage of that.”
Have a good, written contract. And specify when the timber is to be cut. “You don't want to allow the logger five years to cut on your property. Have a starting and ending date. We've had loggers claim they didn't have to pay the landowner because they weren't finished with the cutting job. When we looked at the contract, there was no ending date specified.”
Be precise on what is to be cut. “Sometimes, loggers will come in and say, ‘We want to do a selective cut.’ Well, they may decide to select every tree on the property — clear-cut it down.”
Have something in the contract about rehabbing the property. Is the logger responsible for replanting?
Include the price to be paid for the timber. “Will it be paid per ton or lump sum? There are pros and cons to both approaches.”
Mark your property lines very carefully and take pictures. “We work a lot of cutover cases where boundary lines aren't clear and loggers moved into neighboring property that isn't clearly marked. That's very common.”
Editor's note: To report a theft to the Arkansas Forestry Commission call 501-332-2000 or visit www.forestry.state.ar.us