How the illegal harvesting of giant trees in California shines a light on rural poverty | US crime

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The last time I talked to Danny Garcia was two weeks before he was killed.

In December 2022, a 6.4-magnitude earthquake rattled northern California. Its strength was such that along stretches of Highway 101, which runs north-south through some of the state’s most celebrated forest, the asphalt heaved and cracked. A hundred people were displaced from their homes.

That night, Danny Garcia was sitting on his living room couch in Eureka, the seat of Humboldt county. Garcia had just returned from his night shift at a lumber mill, about 28 miles away from the earthquake’s epicentre, where he operated a board edger, repeatedly straightening and smoothing slabs of rough lumber. After the shaking stopped, he stood up and drove back to the mill to check on his co-workers. Later, he messaged me: “It hit hard. Power just came back on.”

A week later, Garcia was shot in the gut and died on his living room floor. Garcia had spent the previous decade hauling himself out of a pattern of drug misuse and crime. It proved impossible for him to leave that violence behind in death. Through him, we see a glimpse of the intractable, cyclical power of rural trauma.

The crime scene: a wound shorn into the trunk of an old-growth redwood

I first spoke to Danny Garcia in 2019. Over a two-year span, I interviewed him regularly, recording hours of conversation as I reported a book in which he was a key player. I’d wanted to talk to him because he had committed an esoteric crime that fascinated me: tree poaching.

Humboldt county is one place to find people who poach wood, in one form or another, from state and national park land. The local preference tends toward redwood burls, which are in demand for turning into veneer and artisan-made furniture and kitchenware. Sometimes, people harvest driftwood from riverbanks and the shores of the Pacific Ocean, bucking it up for firewood. There’s also a market for redwood trunks, which are used for fence posts, shingles and other building supplies.

Timber poaching was a familiar practice to Garcia: in the early 1990s, he’d been charged with stealing cedar from state land in Washington. In 2014, he was convicted of poaching redwood burl from an old-growth redwood tree protected within the bounds of Redwood national and state parks. The crime scene he left behind was an 8ft-high wound shorn into the trunk of an old-growth redwood. By his own admission, Garcia regularly poached in the woods. Mostly, he had “taken” burls, the knobbled, bark-covered bulbs that grow on trunks or near the base of trees. Burls – whether poached or legally sourced – are often sold to the “burl shops” that dot the northern stretches of Route 101 and the Avenue of the Giants, where they’re carved into statues and trinkets for tourists, or sold as slabs to woodworkers and artisans. Sometimes, wood is posted for sale online. One spring day, Garcia took a haul of eight burls to a burl shop and received $1,600 for them. For his crime, he was fined slightly over $11,000 and banned from the national park.

Garcia’s poaching branched into the park from a base in the nearby town of Orick, a former logging community at the southern edge of Redwoods. He was not the only wood poacher in town, which is home to 346 people, is 66% white, and has a poverty rate of 27% (more than double the state’s rate of 12% and notably higher than the county’s 19%). In the year leading up to Garcia’s arrest, the national park’s investigators had conducted studies showing close to 100 wood poaching crime scenes clustered around the tiny town.

Garcia’s family roots run deep in Orick: his grandparents moved there from Tennessee in the early 20th century, and his grandfather and uncles worked in the woods and in mills surrounding the town. They all witnessed the relentless boom and bust of the region’s timber industry. Redwoods national park was instituted in the 1960s, then expanded in the 1970s, and in the late 20th century the town was not spared from the Pacific north-west’s timber wars. Orick’s logging industry began to shrink, then all but disappeared as mills and lumber companies closed or moved.

Orick is now considered a national park “gateway town”, but tourism has not filled the void left by shuttering the town’s primary source of employment and tax revenue. The town’s hamburger shack, hardware store, gas station and convenience store are welcoming, but most tourists just drive straight through without stopping. From the road, Orick looks quiet, faded, and, in some parts, dangerous. Very few businesses have survived. The Economic Innovation Group, in its distressed communities index, shows Orick nestled between municipalities considered “distressed” and “at risk” of becoming distressed (the research does not cover Orick itself, but towns and cities nearby).

Timber poaching exists at a confluence of this rural economic decline and environmental policy. While Garcia spoke with me most often, a number of poachers in Orick detailed their motivations as an alchemy of poverty, lack of opportunity, drug misuse and resentment toward national parks, the federal government and environmentalists. All in, it is a snapshot of how rural communities across North America come face to face with deindustrialization, the ways they have been failed in transitioning away from those dependent economies, and the people who remain rooted through the change.

Poachers detailed their motivations as an alchemy of poverty, lack of opportunity, drug misuse and resentment toward national parks, the federal government and environmentalists. Illustration: The Guardian

There is a deeply felt, communal tension to this experience, which pervades public and private life. It is not uncommon for that undercurrent to surface through domestic violence.

On 30 October 2022, Russell Albers, Garcia’s brother-in-law, was arrested for misdemeanour domestic battery by the Humboldt county sheriff’s office, after being reported to the office by his girlfriend. Albers was released on bail and two days later his girlfriend recanted her charge (she did not respond to requests for an interview).

According to the Humboldt county district attorney’s office, prosecutors at the time felt that there was insufficient evidence to prove that Albers had committed a crime, and that there was no evidence to corroborate his girlfriend’s accusation. In a statement, the district attorney’s office said that the sheriff’s office in turn requested that she be charged for making a false report – the DA declined.

By Christmas Eve, his girlfriend had moved in with her sister, Jennifer Paddock, and Garcia, who were by then living in Eureka, 40 miles south of Orick, with their four-year-old daughter. She was happy to finally feel safe, and spent time with her niece. “[She] basically fled and sought refuge – she was in an abusive relationship with this guy, based on their history, and was wanting to separate herself and start a new life,” the county sheriff, William Honsal, later told the North Coast Journal.

Somehow, though, Albers found out where she was staying. On 27 December, it is alleged, he went to Garcia’s house and spoke with her on the porch. According to witness statements, Albers later forced his way into the home and shot four adults in the living room. During a 911 call, the dispatcher noted that they could hear a little girl crying in the background.

Garcia and Paddock both died on the living room floor that night. Albers is accused of forcing his girlfriend into his car and driving her around the city before dropping her off at the hospital, where she underwent surgery for a gunshot wound and survived.

‘If you take my husband’s job, he takes it out on me’

The sociologist Jennifer Sherman, a professor at Washington State University, has spent her career studying the effects of unemployment on rural communities in California and Washington. “Domestic violence is a huge part of my work,” she says. “It seems to accompany poverty, wherever poverty goes. It’s common in people’s narrative.”

For decades, income in rural America has lagged compared with urban areas, and according to the Rural Health Information Hub, the rural poverty rate is consistently higher than that of urban communities. Echoing Sherman’s findings, a study from 2011 found that 22.5% of women in small, rural, and isolated communities had experienced domestic violence, compared with 15.5% of women in urban areas. Rural women also reported higher severity of physical abuse, and longer distances between their homes and resources like shelters.

Humboldt leads California in violence against women; in particular, Indigenous women (close to 50% of Indigenous women in Humboldt are victims of domestic violence, according to Humboldt county domestic violence services). According to statistics from the sheriff’s office, in 2022 domestic violence cases made up 15.4% of all misdemeanour cases in the county. Humboldt county averages 50% more domestic violence-related police calls per capita than the rest of California, and of those close to half include a weapon. During the pandemic, domestic violence increased by 50% in Eureka, and there wasn’t enough room in shelters for survivors.

Sherman’s most recent work focuses on rural jail incarceration – she’s found that domestic violence is the most common violent offence that puts rural people in jail. Her work draws a direct link between unemployment and social crises. Logging, she wrote in 2009, was “the axis along which the pattern of lives were organized … there is a significant meaning to work.” Without it, there was “general disharmony”, she found.

These statistics did not come without warning: during the timber war protests that shook the Pacific north-west in the early 1990s, there were indications of what mass unemployment could bring. At an anti-logging protest outside a chip mill in the town of Calpella, pro-logging protesters arrived with their own signs. One woman’s read: “If you take my husband’s job, he takes it out on me.”

Garcia and his family were no strangers to this disharmony. By the early 1990s, Garcia’s mother had died by suicide. His grandfather and many of his uncles were killed in logging accidents, traffic accidents and by drowning. Some spent time in prison, some used hard drugs. One of his aunts told me about the assaults that she and her friends had experienced in the town, from husbands and boyfriends and other family members.

By adulthood, Garcia had a high “adverse childhood experience” (or ACE) score, which statistically left him more likely to participate in, or be victim to, violence in the future. Defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as “potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood”, ACEs include witnessing violence in the home or community, having a family member die by suicide, growing up in a home or community around drug use, witnessing mental health crises, and having family members in prison – Garcia was witness to, and eventually perpetuated, some of these experiences.

After spending his teenage summers in Orick, he later moved there full time, living in his grandmother’s basement, using meth. He had a son, Darren Miguel, during this time. “It was substance abuse problems, throughout,” Miguel says now. By the turn of the millennium, the men in Garcia’s extended family were left without full-time work. “They did the best they could,” Miguel says now. “But I can remember hiding under the bed from situations, as a kid.”

Many of the industry jobs lost during this time were not replaced, or were replaced with work that is service-based, low-paying, temporary, part-time and located in cities miles away, requiring reliable transportation. “I’m visualizing a dam,” says Melissa Reed, of Humboldt domestic violence services. “Water is pressing against the dam, until it gives way.”

High ACE scores are so closely linked to domestic violence that the Humboldt County Domestic Violence Coordinating Council says ACEs represent a “largely unrecognized public health crisis” in the county. In 2021, a report from Humboldt indicated that disproportionately high ACEs contributed to the county’s high alcohol and drug misuse rate, as well as violence. “Trauma is a gateway drug,” one participant in the study noted, “and this county is highly traumatized with ACEs.”

Experts such as Reed say that underfunded rural services contribute to the cyclical nature of that trauma – Greyhound buses only have one stop per day in Humboldt, and there is no train access, only one small airport, and no inter-community public transit. Garcia once described Orick to me as a place where people get trapped. “It’s kind of like living day to day. Like people live paycheck to paycheck, but there you’re living day to day,” he said.

Most of the county’s population lives along the highway, but those who live inland are often hours away from law enforcement, and Reed says some have had adverse experiences with police in the past. “It’s just part of the culture, you handle situations yourself,” she explains. The majority of this population commonly distrusts government agencies, which they see as working against them.

To live in Humboldt is to live in a landscape that is, historically, forged by lawlessness and violence against Indigenous peoples. The people who remain are witness to some of the most pressing problems in America’s rural areas – drug and alcohol use, gun violence, poverty, racism, homelessness and family violence – all without support services.

‘God, if only he could have had that for longer’

It was money that facilitated the modicum of stability that Garcia eventually found outside Orick, giving him what he needed to get back on track.

An inheritance from his dad provided enough time to find a job and rent a house in Eureka; he bought a truck that didn’t need constant repairs and started consistently making it to work. He’d been clean for years.

“I know the lifestyle my dad lived, and it calmed down a lot,” says Miguel. “Our respect for each other was so great – I’m proud of where he ended up. God, if only he could have had that for longer.”

I’d naively hoped that Garcia had been able to extricate himself from the cyclical nature of violence in the county and shamefully, my first reaction on hearing about his death was concern that he’d relapsed back into drug use, that maybe violence had found him as he scored or used. Instead, he was a bystander to violence he couldn’t escape. “I thought he would stay away from them, but they lived in this underworld of people,” says Miguel. “There’s a dead end to those roads.”

And money was something his sister-in-law didn’t have. “A huge majority of our clients who access our services, they are struggling to gain financial security,” says Reed. “That is a huge barrier to leaving an abusive relationship. They need a web of support, and we don’t have as many resources as more urban counties.” Rural sociologists have noted that the delivery of “human services” (such as addiction treatment, family support and domestic violence shelters) should be revamped to consider the rural context, including the high cost of service delivery and scarcity of service providers.

Like a lot of people I interviewed from these rural communities, Garcia hoped to leave Humboldt one day: “I plan on picking up and moving very shortly. It’s not where I want my daughter to be raised,” he told me in 2021. “There’s crime and murders going on here – it’s unreal.”

It took one day to locate Albers, arrest him and charge him. The sheriff’s department searched for him, and his arrest was the culmination of a 15-mile high-speed chase along Route 101. Highway patrol officers eventually ran his truck off the road, ramming it until it was immobilized and arresting Albers along the edge of the highway.

They posted photos of the arrest online, Albers pinned to the ground, hands behind his back, officers in camo kneeling around him, posing for the camera. He had driven over parts of the highway that had heaved in the earthquake, the police on his heels, bodies left behind him.

www.theguardian.com

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2023/sep/12/tree-poachers-murder-california-violence