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Friday, Feb. 18, 2011

Auburn tree poisoning: Harvey Updyke charged with felony; remains jailed

- abitter@ledger-enquirer.com
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AUBURN, Ala. -- In front of Samford Hall, just down the block from the dying Toomer’s Corner oaks, Auburn police chief Tommy Dawson gave a candid opinion about Harvey Almorn Updyke Jr., the 62-year-old man accused of poisoning the university’s iconic trees.

“This is a person who obviously has problems to do something like this,” Dawson said.

Only hours after Auburn University announced its historic downtown oak trees had been poisoned by a herbicide called Spike 80DF and would likely perish, Updyke, from Dadeville, Ala., was arrested early Thursday morning on charges of criminal mischief, a Class C felony punishable with one to 10 years in prison.

Updyke, who was held on $50,000 bail, made an initial appearance in Lee County District Court to hear the charges. As of Thursday evening, he was still incarcerated at the Lee County Detention Center.

Dawson said Updyke could face additional federal charges.

“We are consulting with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the EPA folks and that is certainly a possibility,” he said. “We’re looking at all our options right now. We’re talking with several federal agencies to determine what charges are appropriate here and the direction we need to go with it.”

Auburn horticultural experts expressed little hope that the trees, which are estimated to be 130 years old, could be saved.

“It’s an emotional question,” said Stephen Enloe, an assistant professor of Agronomy and Soils, who got choked up. “I always want to hold out hope. Based upon the technical experts I have consulted with around the country, the concentration of Spike found within the soil would suggest there’s a very low probability (of survival).”

Updyke was arrested at 1:26 a.m. Thursday morning at the Auburn police office, although Dawson would not say if he turned himself in.

Dawson said police are still investigating but do not anticipate making any other arrests.

“I do believe he acted alone,” Dawson said.

An investigation into who poisoned the trees, which are traditionally rolled with toilet paper following Auburn football victories, had been ongoing for several weeks. A court affidavit filed Thursday indicated an investigation into the possible poisoning of the trees began late last month based on two phone calls.

The first was a Jan. 27 call on Paul Finebaum’s syndicated radio show by someone named “Al in Dade- ville,” who claimed to have poisoned the Toomer’s oaks with Spike 80DF a few weeks after the Tigers’ 28-27 Iron Bowl victory on Nov. 26.

The caller said it was in retaliation for Auburn fans putting a jersey of quarterback Cam Newton on a statue of famed Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant after the game.

Soil tests confirmed the presence of Spike 80DF, an herbicide used to eliminate vegetation, most commonly along fence rows.

Around Feb. 7, a professor at Auburn’s Turfgrass Management and Weed Science received a suspicious telephone message from someone who claimed to have knowledge about the tree poisonings. The message was recorded and was consistent with the voice on the radio show, according to the affidavit.

Auburn police obtained telephone records from Auburn University and made a covert call to the number from the suspicious message. The voice that answered was similar to that on the two phone calls. An investigation aided by the FBI, U.S. Marshals, State of Alabama Department of Agricultural Industries and Tallapoosa County Sheriff’s office led police to Updyke.

Updyke admitted to police that he called the Finebaum Radio Show and the Auburn professor, the affidavit said. He later denied actually poisoning the trees.

New Lee County District Attorney Robbie Treese asked the court to put additional conditions on Updyke’s $50,000 bond: prohibit him from entering the Auburn campus; prohibit him from possessing any firearms, weapons, or any toxic or dangerous chemicals, substances, or herbicides; and mandating he enter an anger management program.

Treese and Dawson declined to get into specifics of the case to avoid jeopardizing the investigation.

The court appointed Philip Tyler as Updyke’s attorney, but Tyler later filed a motion to be removed from the case, citing a “clear conflict” of interest.

The motion said Tyler’s law firm currently represents Auburn University, the victim in the case. Tyler was a former part-time professor at Auburn University and, as a resident in the city since 1988, has “numerous personal and family ties” to the school.

Auburn University President Jay Gogue praised the investigative work of the Auburn police.

“This is good news for the campus and community, especially since we delayed announcing the bad news about the trees for a few days to protect the investigation that was in progress,” Gougue said. “We’re proud of the City of Auburn’s police department and hope this arrest brings a sense of resolution to our fans.”

The poisoning of the trees was a direct attack on Auburn’s tradition, Auburn Mayor Bill Ham Jr. said.

“Over the years, these beautiful old trees have come to represent the Auburn tradition and spirit,” Ham said. “While this unfortunate act affects our entire community, I encourage my fellow citizens to move forward in the Auburn spirit.”

The question that remains is if the likely death of the trees will stop future celebrations at Toomer’s Corner, a distinct, long-time tradition of Auburn fans.

“We heard someone say, well, did the Grinch steal Christmas? No,” said Deedie Dowdle, Auburn’s executive director in the office of communications and marketing. “The celebrations at Toomer’s Corner existed before the rolling of the trees. ... There will be a lot of things we can do to make those celebrations continue and of course, if the advice is that we not roll the trees to save them, I imagine members of the Auburn family would honor that.”

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