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Cherry Tree Vandals at Large

Patrick Sullivan - February 27th, 2012  

Months after a strange and disturbing crime, still no answers

It’s been almost five months since someone took a saw to an orchard in Garfield Township and wasted 428 cherry trees.

The search for the culprit or culprits has gone cold, despite a $10,000 reward in the case.

Three other cases of orchard or vineyard vandalism have also gone unsolved in Leelanau County.

In two of those cases, 15 cherry trees were cut at one orchard and 22 at another. At a vineyard, someone destroyed 161 grapevines.

What’s partly stymied investigators is how strange these acts of vandalism are – these were not typical random acts of malicious destruction of property, which are often hasty, drunken undertakings, sometimes easy to solve.

These were acts which left no evidence behind and which required sweat, hard work, and long hours, presumably at night.

And for what reward?

NO SUSPECTS AT THE ORCHARD

Police in Grand Traverse County first investigated Oct. 12 when a sheriff’s deputy received a call from Gary Kroupa, whose son, Mike, had just discovered the loss of a large number of cherry trees on his orchard.

Dep. Justin Revnell met the Kroupas at the farm.

There he found hundreds of trees, around five years old, destroyed. Someone had cut into them, about halfway to three quarters of the way through the trunks, and then pushed them over.

Revnell talked to the owner, Mike Kroupa, who said he had no idea who might have done this to his orchard.

Kroupa told the deputy he thought all current or past employees could be ruled out as suspects – they were all friends or family and he knew of no reason why they would want to lash out at him or the farm.

Revnell also checked with neighbors across the highway and next-door.

They had not seen or heard anything, they said. They had no idea who might have done this.

Undersheriff Nathan Alger said investigators believe more than one person had to have been involved, given the scope of the undertaking.

He said another thing that’s made this case odd is that word hasn’t spread about it from those involved, bragging to friends about what they pulled off.

“You would like to think that because it is so unusual, people would know about it,” Alger said. “People would talk about it, and we could solve it.”

FEW CLUES LEFT BEHIND

That day at the orchard, Revnell walked through row after row of the now decimated orchard and inspected the trees.

He looked for footprints or vehicle tracks among the rows that had been cut, but found nothing useful.

“I was able to ascertain that the people did come in a vehicle as they had left tracks in the grass,” he wrote. “On further examining of the vehicle tracks, I could observe that the tracks had been rained on” and the tread patterns were no longer visible.

It appeared a vehicle had entered the orchard from M-72, on a driveway just east of where Jacob’s Corn Maze is located in the fall.

Revnell even attempted to get fingerprints from the trees but those efforts, after trying around 20 trees, were unsuccessful.

He examined the way the saw blades had cut through the trees.

He stood a broken tree back up on its stump and examined how it fit back together.

“Upon looking at the curve that was cut out by the saw, it appears to be a thinner blade,” Revnell wrote. “This could not have been done by a chainsaw.”

He also concluded that given the straightness of the cuts, the cuts could not have been accomplished by a rounded, spinning blade.

“Upon gathering all of the information, it is believed most likely a straight pruning or hand saw or possibly a battery powered reciprocating saw was used,” Revnell concluded.

He collected sections from two trees to keep as evidence.

TWO MORE LEELANAU CASES

Revnell also noted in the report that the case was similar to other acts of vandalism that had recently taken place in Leelanau County.

In one, around 15 cherry trees were cut on one farm “in a very similar manner and with a similar type of saw,” Revnell wrote. Those trees were older and thicker than the ones cut at the Kroupa farm.

In another case, 161 grapevines were cut at Crain Hill Vineyards.

“Once again, it looks like somebody has used a straight bladed saw for this destruction of property,” Revnell wrote.

Leelanau County Sheriff Michael Oltersdorf said there have been no developments in those cases and they remain unsolved.

He said they are difficult cases because there were no witnesses and there are no suspects.

Former employees were interviewed by investigators, Oltersdorf said, but no leads emerged.

He said he suspects all of the cases are related but he doesn’t know for sure.

“It’s our gut feeling they are, just because they’re so unique,” Oltersdorf said. “Nobody can even remember having orchards damaged like that in the past.”

‘IT WAS PRETTY DEVASTATING’

Mike Kroupa, owner of the Grand Traverse County orchard, said there is still a $10,000 reward offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of whoever is responsible.

Kroupa said he’s ordered new trees and he plans to replant the orchard in the spring.

What remained of the trees that were vandalized have been removed.

It was a difficult experience for Kroupa. “It was pretty devastating, that’s six years worth of work, gone,” Kroupa said. “But we kind of got over it. We’re moving on.”

Dr. Nikki Rothwell, coordinator of the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Station, said the number of trees and vines cut, although devastating to the farmers involved, was not enough to affect the cherry or grape markets.

“That’s always been the question, why would someone do this?” Rothwell said.

She said there was no pattern to who was struck or when. The case of 15 cherry trees cut in Leelanau County, which happened at an orchard near Maple City, were cut before cherry harvest, she said.

“There was no rhyme or reason, the growers didn’t really know each other or hang out that much,” she said.

She said growers are worried that whoever is responsible will return with the new season.

“I think that people have been worried about it and there’s been people that have put up quite a bit of money to help catch whoever did this,” Rothwell said.

Whoever is responsible for the vandalism might be a very angry, obsessed and meticulous person, said Mike Hayes, a licensed psychologist who is the director of Old Town Psychological Services.

Hayes is not a criminal profiler and he said he can only speculate about what kind of person would commit such an act.

But he said given the number of trees involved, someone had to have had a lot of anger to do something like this. He also said didn’t think it sounded like a random act, given how much work was involved.

“I feel bad for the owner” of the orchard, Hayes said.

Know something about the orchard vandalism? Call the Grand Traverse County Sheriff at (231) 995-5000 or the Silent Observer at (231) 947-8477.

 
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