A federal wildlife officer’s three-year investigation into the illegal felling, removal and sale of an estimated $1.5 million worth of century-old timber from Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge has led to the fining and jailing of a man for the crime. Adam Baugus, nicknamed "Weed Eater,” was sentenced to 18 months in prison and fined $250,000 after pleading guilty to two counts of theft of government property. Officer Jared Allsbrooks played a key role in winning the conviction.
Timber theft is a growing problem nationwide, according to the U.S. Forest Service and law enforcement officials.
It was the spring of 2019 in the Tennessee River Valley when Officer Allsbrooks received an anonymous tip about individuals sawing a large white oak tree on the Duck River Unit of Tennessee Refuge. A witness led Officer Allsbrooks to the site of another stolen tree and told him the person responsible was a man known as “Weed Eater.” He said that Weed Eater was hauling the logs out of the woods with a black Chevrolet Super Sport pickup truck towing a homemade log-hauling trailer.
From May through October 2019, Officer Allsbrooks documented the illegal felling and removal of 16 more mature white oak trees from the refuge. All tree-cutting sites showed signs of the same sawing and removal techniques as those used at the initial theft site.
At one active poaching site, where four large white oak trees had been cut but not yet removed, Officer Allsbrooks installed four surveillance cameras. When he later reviewed the cameras’ memory cards, he saw images of a black Chevrolet pickup truck, resembling a Super Sport model, entering the theft site.
On his next visit, Officer Allsbrooks saw that all the cut timber had been removed, along with all four surveillance cameras. One camera had been replaced with a Mountain Dew can. Officer Allsbrooks collected evidence and took it to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation crime lab in Nashville for analysis.
That same fall, a suspect interviewed by Officer Allsbrooks and Tennessee Department of Agriculture Special Agent Morris Rogers also blamed “Weed Eater” for the timber thefts. Eventually, he identified Weed Eater as Adam Baugus.
Officer Allsbrooks and Agent Rogers went to the house where Baugus was staying. In the backyard, they saw the black Chevrolet Super Sport pickup shown on their surveillance video. The two law enforcement officers identified themselves to Baugus. He denied having cut any timber on the refuge or stolen any trees.
With Baugus's permission, Officer Allsbrooks searched the man’s truck. Inside, he found two of his stolen surveillance cameras. One camera's handle had been broken and its memory card removed. Baugus admitted that he had taken the cameras but still maintained that he had not stolen any timber.
After recovering the cameras, Officer Allsbrooks contacted several timber mills that had bought logs from Baugus. He asked that they hold all logs purchased from Baugus temporarily for comparison to evidence found on the timber theft sites.
In December 2019 the Fish and Wildlife Service hired a consulting arborist to assess the damage at the refuge theft sites, using aerial drone photography, visual inspections and physical samples of the stumps. The arborist appraised the damage at $540,000 at one theft site, known as Ward Hill, and $513,000 at a second theft site, known as Shake Rag Road.
In March 2020, Officer Allsbrooks and a fellow officer, Brandon Blackburn, matched a refuge tree stump with a log at one of the timber mills. They then seized 31 more logs for assessment by the arborist. The arborist matched five of the logs to stumps at the Ward Hill site.
On March 15, 2022, Baugus was indicted on two counts of stealing government property (18 USC § 641) — surveillance cameras (Count 1) and oak trees (Count 2) of a value greater than $1,000. He was also indicted on one count of Lacey Act violation (16 USC § 3372(a)(1), specifically the unlawful removal, transport and sale of oak trees from U.S. government property. Baugus pled guilty to two counts of theft — corresponding to the evidence the government collected at the refuge's Ward Hill site. Because the case did not go to trial, the government had no opportunity to present evidence linking Baugus to the log thefts at the refuge's Shake Rag Road site. Baugus was sentenced in May.