LA VISTA, Neb. – Residents of this small city have been gathering for years at Christmastime for the lighting of a 55-foot-tall Colorado blue spruce, singing carols and watching as Santa is hoisted up to touch the star on top.
In the small town of La Vista, Neb., the fate of a local vandal is tied to the survival of a 55-foot Colorado Blue Spruce.
But after last Christmas, the city learned that a vandal had struck. Someone had hacked through the tree's dense evergreen branches -- and even through strands of lights that had been carefully strung around it -- and attempted to saw it down.
Now, the alleged perpetrator's fate depends on whether the tree lives or dies.
The narrow cut that nearly encircled the trunk was discovered by city workers when they were taking down the decorations in January. Arborists were quickly called in and diagnosed the wound as a fatal slice through the tissue that carries nourishment to the tree.
La Vista, in the state that created Arbor Day in 1872 to honor trees, was outraged by the damage to the tallest of the several spruces that grow in front of city hall. They were planted more than 40 years ago. "I was extremely upset to think someone was so cruel to try to cut down a tree that had lived so many years," said Helen Sinnett, 79, a resident of La Vista since the city was incorporated in 1960. "Everybody was upset about it."
Calls poured in to city hall from residents whose holiday cheer had turned to post-Christmas anger. Clients who came in for a trim at the Stylehouse Barbershop, where Mayor Douglas Kindig cuts hair, carped to each other from chair to chair.
"This has been a symbol of Christmas for people in this area for years," the mayor said. "There was anger and just utter dismay that someone would do this. People were angry. They wanted revenge."
The town offered a $500 reward, and anonymous tips to a police hotline led them to 19-year-old suspect, Johnathan P. Roy. Police with a search warrant found five handsaws at Mr. Roy's home. He was arrested and jailed on charges of felony criminal mischief, which carries a possible five-year prison sentence and a $10,000 fine. He pleaded not guilty.
Arborcide per se isn't a crime in Nebraska, though it is in other jurisdictions, including New York City. According to the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, anyone who cuts down trees on public property can face a year in jail or be fined as much as $15,000 and face other civil fines.
Mr. Roy's trial was scheduled for fall. Plans were in place to feature testimony from a tree DNA scientist who would compare sap residue on the handsaws to the sap of the blue spruce. Crime scene investigators were set to take a rubber impression of the gash and compare it to the teeth of the saws.
But last summer's relatively cool weather and heavy rainfall across the Plains have apparently given the tree a reprieve. It seems to be recovering. Its branches are strong and green, and gray sap drips from the cut, scabbing over the wound in a sign that the tree is trying to heal itself.
Prosecutors called off the trial, at least for the time being, and are waiting to see how the tree fares through winter before proceeding with the case. For now, Mr. Roy's legal fate depends on the health of the tree.