Honking Tree case details emerge“OK. On April 29, about 7 to 7:30, I saw a man with a chainsaw at the Honking Tree.”
“OK. On April 29, about 7 to 7:30, I saw a man with a chainsaw at the Honking Tree.”
That’s how the usually mundane Two Harbors Trees and Trails Commission meeting started out last Thursday. It was supposed to be a hearing about where to put a Honking Tree memorial. There were eight people in the audience ready to offer input.
There were gasps as the first person to speak told the committee what she saw on the night before the Honking Tree was discovered on the ground April 30.
She said she saw a man dressed “all in white” – white hard hat, long white coat – with a small chainsaw. “I thought it was a tree doctor,” she said. He had a white pickup as well, with flared fenders.
She could see everything perfectly, she said, it was still light out. She was riding with her sister, who doesn’t like to drive at night, so she is sure it was between 7 and 7:30 p.m.
“We locked eyes,” she said about passing the scene going into Two Harbors. He wasn’t using the chainsaw, just standing near the tree. She said he was probably in his 50s.
She said it was curious that the truck had no emblems, no identifying marks for a tree trimmer or other business.
She reported what she saw to the sheriff’s office about a month later, she said, when the tree was gaining more and more coverage in the media. She said she doesn’t know why she didn’t make a report sooner. “I was busy, maybe.”
Committee member Chet Bianco asked what everyone was thinking at this point. “Why haven’t we heard about this?”
“I feel like nothing’s been done,” the woman said.
Sheriff Carey Johnson would dispute that. He confirmed on Friday that her report had been taken along with other leads in the case but it wasn’t reported to protect the investigation. He said the description the woman offered was one of the more detailed ones his office received and it was acted on. “We’re following everything,” he said. “Do we have a suspect? No.”
Johnson talked with the eyewitness, who is in her 40s, again Friday after hearing that she told her story the night before at a public meeting.
She detailed what she saw in the median of the Highway 61 expressway coming home from a birthday party in Duluth. She knows the Honking Tree, admitted that she climbed it a few years ago, and recalls the tales her grandparents told about why you should honk as you pass it. “They told me there was a little bird in the tree,” she said.
She and her family have asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution if her information leads to an arrest of whoever cut the tree down.
Johnson says there were other reports that people linked to the felling of the tree that night. He said neighbors recalled a buzzing sound about 10:30 p.m. that could have been a chainsaw or a motorbike. A red car was seen parked along the southbound side of the expressway around 2 a.m. No license plates were recorded on the car or the white truck.
Johnson said he was interested in the “man in the white coat” account because the eyewitness says the chainsaw she saw wasn’t very large. That might tie in with a theory, Johnson said, that the large trunk was simply girdled and the tree “disabled” enough to fall over in the heavy winds that night. Johnson said he will have to look again at the stump piece that is in the evidence room.
Johnson said he understands the frustration of the eyewitness and in a case that has lingered for 11 months. “It meant a lot to a lot of people and we want to get it solved.” He’s sure that one day he will know who cut the tree down. “But we might not be able to prove it,” he said.
Some might wonder why it took the eyewitness a month to put the pieces together. He said after talking with her Friday, she had a lot going on in her life “and the last thing she was worried about was a tree.”
She said Friday that when she heard rumors flying around the county about who may have cut the tree down, she felt she needed to go in. “I knew who it wasn’t, and that’s why I went forward.”
She had qualms about how much help her account could do. She said she didn’t have a good enough look to point him out of a lineup. He was wearing safety goggles. She remembers his build, but she sees that in people she comes across every day. She remembers the white truck but couldn’t say what make or model it was.
And she was having an odd relationship with the sheriff’s office, considering her brother was in the county jail at the time.
“I apologize,” she says of her delay in reporting. “I guess I just didn’t know who to turn to, who to trust.”
She was told by family members not to go public the past year. People would call her crazy or the culprit might want some payback, she said. “My husband wouldn’t let me write a letter (to the editor).”
But as talked spiked again around the tree and what the city of Two Harbors plans to do with its trunk, her feelings took over and she went to the meeting Thursday night. “It’s been eating at me,” she said on hearing that there have been no leads on who may have cut the icon down. “I know. It was one lone man, looking official.”
Now she’s hoping she isn’t “alone on this” and maybe others saw the man. “Even if just one more person comes forward,” she said.
She said there are people who think far too much has been made of the tree but it’s important for them to know the seriousness of the crime.
She is personal about the Honking Tree and felt so connected to it she got out one day a few years ago to test its branches. “I’m a tree climber,” she told the commission Thursday. “It was an honor to climb it.”
She said offering up her story provides “a little peace.” And she remains adamant about the events of April 29. “I saw what I saw.”
The sheriff’s office remains on the case no matter how frustrating it has become, Johnson said. No one last April could have guessed just how one act of vandalism could bring so many different emotions, the sheriff said.
Johnson said what might have started as a lark or a prank changed when media attention intensified after the tree was cut. In a typical case, those responsible probably would have slipped up and told someone, he said, but the response to the act probably shut people up tight. “They probably said ‘hey, we can’t say a word because we’ll probably get the death penalty.’”
Location, location, location
After the eyewitness bombshell Thursday, the Two Harbors Trees and Trails Commission got down to the business of the memorial for the Honking Tree. It’s already been decided that the trunk of the tree will be made into boards to replicate the Two Harbors Light Station. Now the commission will work on a location.
Members decided the memorial should be in a visible location, likely on the west side of the city along Seventh Avenue (Highway 61). Spots discussed included the corner of the intersection by Super One, near the new cairn sign, or near the Culver’s restaurant.
Key for committee members was finding a secure location, meaning high visibility to deter vandals but also to encourage tourists.
City council and committee member John Dover will approach the owners of Super One and ask if they would like the isthmus off its parking lot used for a memorial.