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DNA test nabs timber thieves

Sun., July 4, 2004

INDIANAPOLIS — Maybe the crime-solvers at a Purdue University tree lab could inspire a new TV series: “Law & Order: Special Botany Unit.”

The scientists used DNA testing to match the stump of a stolen black walnut tree with two logs sold to a lumber mill 60 miles away.

“This DNA technology put the log back on the stump,” said Keith Woeste, a molecular geneticist at Purdue’s Hardwood Tree Improvement and Regeneration Center.

The case began in November when an incensed landowner in western Indiana’s Warren County contacted the state Department of Natural Resources after finding the stumps and chainsawed branches of a black walnut tree and a black cherry tree on his property. The wood from the 55-foot-tall black walnut was worth at least $2,500.

Conservation officer Don Dyson said a timber-cutting crew had been working in the area when the trees were cut, and a timber mill the harvester routinely sells to had two large black walnut logs that appeared to match the missing tree.

Although the end of the stump and the logs appeared to match, “we weren’t 100 percent sure,” Dyson said.

DNR employees met with scientists from the Purdue center after a state forester mentioned they regularly perform DNA tests on trees as part of their research.

Woeste assigned four students to perform a genetic analysis technique called DNA fingerprinting to compare the confiscated logs’ DNA to that of the stump and branches.

Woeste said the students’ analysis matched the various pieces of wood to such a high degree of accuracy that, like DNA evidence in a rape case, it would have been admissible in court.

A tree-poaching conviction could have cost the timber-cutter his state license, but he paid the landowner $9,000 — about three times the value of the trees — to avoid going to court.


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