Harvey Updyke arrested in connection with Toomer's Corner tree poisoning

tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.comFebruary 17, 2011 

  • Watch video of Toomer's corner the morning after BCS Championship win January 11th, 2011
  • Watch video of Toomer's corner on the nigh of Auburn's BCS win January, 11th

Authorities believe they have found the "Al in Dadeville, Alabama" who called a sports talk show to brag about having poisoned Auburn University's two iconic oak trees at Toomer's Corner.

Harvey Almorn Updyke, 62, of Silver Hill Road in Dadeville, Ala., was arrested and booked into the Lee County Justice Center this morning, said Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones.

Held on $50,000 bond, Updyke has been charged with one felony count of criminal mischief and if convicted faces up to 10 years in prison.

Auburn University announced Wednesday that after a man identifying himself as an Alabama fan called sports commentator Paul Finebaum’s syndicated radio show Jan. 27 and claimed to have poisoned the trees, soil tests confirmed lethal doses of Spike 80DF, or tebuthiuron, the chemical the caller said he had used.

According to the call Finebaum replayed Wednesday, the man identified himself as “Al” in Dadeville, Ala., and said he believed Auburn fans rolled Toomer’s Corner to celebrate the Jan. 26, 1983, death of former Alabama Coach Bear Bryant.

Finebaum doubted that.

The caller claimed to have attended 2010's Auburn-Alabama game, and in reference to AU quarterback Cam Newton, he said he saw Auburn fans celebrate their 28-27 comeback win by putting a "Scam Newton" jersey on a Bryant statue at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa.

“Well, let me tell you what I did,” the caller said. “The weekend after the Iron Bowl, I went to Auburn, Alabama, ’cause I live 30 miles away, and I poisoned the two Toomer’s trees. I put Spike 80DF in them.”

“Did they die?” Finebaum asked.

“They’re not dead yet, but they will die,” the caller said, adding he didn’t care whether what he did was illegal. “Roll damn Tide,” he said, and hung up.

The Iron Bowl, as the Alabama-Auburn game is known, was Nov. 26. Auburn officials said the campus does not use Spike 80DF. Auburn horticulturalist Gary Keever said the herbicide is used primarily in the Southwest to protect pasture fences from becoming overgrown.

It kills by inhibiting photosynthesis. The result is that a tree “doesn’t fix carbon dioxide in the foliage in the form of carbohydrates, so that the tree will starve,” Keever said.

As the tree takes up the herbicide through its roots, the poison spreads through leaf veins to the edges. “The first symptoms will be yellowing, followed by necrosis of the leaf margin,” he said.

He suspects that will happen this spring, as the trees sprout new leaves.

Wednesday morning the tree roots were drenched with activated carbon, or charcoal, to try to absorb the poison and prevent its penetrating the roots. “The big unknown is how much has been taken up,” Keever said. The trees will be doused with a fluid designed to impede moisture loss and slow their absorption of chemicals in the soil, he said.

Thought to be about 130 years old, the trees are regarded as a gateway to the Auburn campus. Each is 35 to 40 feet tall. One on College Street has a canopy about 40 feet wide. Another on Magnolia Avenue is smaller and was set afire after the Georgia game, Keever said. “And a couple of years ago, it was also burned,” he said.

That tree is about 25 feet tall with a canopy about 25 feet wide, he said.

“They are not huge, compared to, say, the mature size of live oaks,” Keever said. “They have such value to Auburn fans that it’s not the size that matters.”

Jana Tarleton, president of the Columbus-Phenix City Auburn Club, said poisoning the Toomer’s oaks is comparable to setting historic buildings afire.

She was reluctant to say an Alabama fan is the culprit, noting that an anonymous radio caller can claim anything. “If we do find out this is from the rivalry, it’s just gotten out of control,” she said. “This is crazy.”

Rival fans have been known to set fire to the trees dangling toilet paper late at night, but that’s likely the result of drunken revelry, she said. “They light the toilet paper on fire, and they think it’s funny,” she said. “It happened this year, and it’s happened before in the past. But poisoning? … This would be very premeditated.”

In a statement issued Wednesday afternoon, Auburn University President Jay Gogue asked Auburn fans to show restraint in reacting to the news: “It is understandable to feel outrage in reaction to a malicious act of vandalism. However, we should live up to the example we set in becoming national champions.... Individuals act alone, not on behalf of anyone or any place, and all universities are vulnerable to and condemn such reprehensible acts.”

About 50 people gathered Wednesday night at Toomer’s Corner. A couple of roses and a roll of toilet paper lay at the base of one tree with a note that read, “Get well soon.”

“It’s just like Auburn’s greatest tradition that we have,” said Matt McMullen, 15, a sophomore at Auburn High School. “I have little siblings that haven’t been able to come out and roll the trees and I guess they’ll never get to now because they’ve been poisoned and they’re going to die.”

Some people held “Honk for the trees” signs, and motorists honked as they passed through downtown Auburn.

Matt said he didn’t think Auburn fans would retaliate against Alabama because Tiger fans have “just so much more class.”

Staff writer Andy Bitter contributed to this report.

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