VICTIMS' GUIDE TO TIMBER THEFT - OBSTACLES
Not just in Kentucky but in other places, a "culture of theft" has grown up that says that stealing timber is not really stealing. As one handbook on timber theft stated, “The majority of timber theft occurs under what has been deemed a ‘culture of theft’. This [culture] is responsible for the belief that taking. . .trees here or there. . .has no real ‘harm’.”
It’s hard to follow logic that says that taking $5000 from a victim's billfold is stealing, but taking $5000 in trees from a victim's land is not. But that’s the way it seems to be. One County Sheriff investigating a timber theft approached his Commonwealth’s Attorney about convening a grand jury for what appeared to be a solid case of timber theft, only to be asked why he was cluttering up the criminal courts with a civil case.
This “Go file a civil case” approach is more common than potential victims might realize. One victim who lost timber called the Sheriff’s office and asked about getting a warrant against the alleged thief. The Sheriff explained that he had no authority to do that, and referred the victim to the County Attorney’s office. There, the victim never even got past the secretary, who just kept saying to the victim, “You need to file a civil suit.” The Commonwealth’s Attorney finally agreed to let the Grand Jury hear the case, bypassing the County Attorney and the warrant. A lot of other victims don’t get as far as a County or Commonwealth’s Attorney. Being told to file a civil suit is a story you hear a lot from victims who try to get criminal investigations.
Boundary Dispute: The authorities will automatically tell the victim that what he has is not theft but a boundary dispute, and they can’t open a case until the boundary dispute is settled. This is a wonderful way to get rid of a victim, and it’s used even when there is no boundary dispute. And it may not be the fault of the authorities. After all, if you were a logger wgi had taken someone’s trees knew that all you had to do to send the whole case into confusion was to claim you owned the land, wouldn’t you almost certainly do that? In fact, if you knew the system and knew before starting a logging job that that you could at least delay, and probably short-circuit, any action by the victim, wouldn’t that encourage you to steal? Especially if you didn’t have to bring a shred of proof of your claimed ownership, as is often the case? And if you were an owner who admired your neighbor’s trees and wanted to cut them, wouldn’t it be easy to state that you owned them? One owner being investigated for hiring a logger to cut timber on unowned land offered as a justification that a surveyor had been hired, and that said surveyor asked an elderly person in the area where the victims’ boundary was and apparently used that as valid survey information. In another case, a logger told a victim, when she caught him on her land cutting her trees, that he had asked someone in the neighborhood where her boundary was, and he was cutting in accordance with that person’s information. How many people, if they were interested in buying a car parked along a curb, would accept the word of someone on the street about who the owner was? Or when buying a house? Wouldn’t they want proof of ownership? You’d think they would contact the owner, especially since the Kentucky Timber Trespass Law, KRS 364.130, lays out what the logger ought to do, and one of those things is that he should do is contact adjoining landowners. Yet at least two victims have reported that the incursion onto their land was justified as being based on the word of someone casually met and having no ownership in the land.
But let’s say the logger who took trees from your land, or the person he is logging for, isn’t claiming your land. Chances are you may still be told that you have a boundary dispute. In the case of one victim, neither the owner nor the logger he contracted with claimed the victim’s land. But the victim was required to get and pay for a survey anyway, to resolve the non-existent ‘boundary dispute.’ In a criminal case, it surely ought not to matter who the land belongs to, so long as it doesn’t belong to the person or persons who took the trees. It’s a crime whoever the victim is, so if the logger or person he is logging for is not claiming the land the trees were cut from, why is there a ‘boundary dispute?’
To a lot of victims, this just looks like an excuse to avoid action. Two adjoining landowners who appeared to be victims of the same logger met with a County Attorney. The County Attorney determined that there might be some slight tinge of doubt about ownership in one of the cases, and refused to proceed with either case. He gave no rationale for why the second landowner’s case would not be prosecuted.
Not From Here: Setting aside the ‘boundary dispute’ problem, victims who own land in a Kentucky County but don’t vote there often feel that they are not receiving cooperation precisely because they don’t live and vote there. In Kentucky, Sheriffs and prosecutors are elected, and it’s a common belief among citizens that vote counts affect justice. No Sheriff or prosecutor would probably admit that, but if the accused is a member of a large family or otherwise controls a large number of votes, it’s hard to believe that fact may not at some point occur to a person whose continued income depends on how many votes he gets.
Setting aside the election issue, it is a human characteristic to give less consideration to an outsider than to people you know, live among, and may very well be friends with. For one thing, you probably won’t have to face the outsider again, but you may have grown up with the locals and will certainly see them again. It’s human, but it’s wrong. One prominent Kentucky tree farmer who lost valuable white oaks from one of his tree farms in another county said he twice tried to get an indictment in that county, and twice failed. Would it surprise anyone that he might occasionally suspect that the fact that he is an outsider was a factor in that, however wrong that is?
If you live in another state, lose timber in Kentucky, and run into the situations just described, it may affect the way you feel about the whole state. One victim stated that she had always had a good opinion of Kentucky, where she is from originally, but her experience with timber theft has turned her attitude 180 degrees, and she has no interest in ever coming back.
Corruption: There is also the corruption factor. Such an unfortunate number of local officials have been convicted of corruption in Kentucky, and perhaps especially in Eastern Kentucky, that only the most innocent and saintly won’t occasionally wonder if that is a factor.
Foot-dragging: Victims who get past the above obstacles often find that while they may be hearing agreement with their desire for criminal prosecution, they are not seeing any action. If victims hit the "boundary dispute" obstacle and are forced to get a survey even though nobody is claiming to own their land, law enforcement might not even open a case until after the victim gets a survey (more about that later). Even after that, victims may despair at the prospect that the case will ever move forward. There will be reason after reason why it’s not happening. Sometimes persistence, especially loud persistence, will do the trick when nothing else does. Sometime that is not enough. One victim who got an indictment but was years into the process without a trial, finally went to the Attorney General and got the case transferred to another prosecutor. “Justice delayed is justice denied.” does not seem to be a primary consideration in court schedules, and especially not for the victim.