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Timber turmoil: Crew crosses property line, takes 12 mature oak trees

A two-year-long battle has ensued over accountability and compensation.

Jennifer Kiel, Editor, Michigan Farmer and Ohio Farmer

May 31, 2024

10 Slides

When Roger McCarthy bought his homeplace and 80 acres in 1974, he and his dad cleared the land across the road for farming, but left 12 oak trees in a line along the fencerow.

Imagine his raw emotion when waking up the morning of Feb. 5, 2022, to see every one of those mighty oaks felled, trunks taken, and ruts left in his field where a bulldozer dragged the logs to his neighbor’s property.

“Boy, was I steaming mad,” says McCarthy, 78, who farms 1,100 acres in Blanchard, Mich., as well as some rental ground with his son, Mike.

“I was out of town the day before, and it was dark when I returned. When I got up and looked out the window, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. We saved those trees so my grandkids could have some cupboards or furniture made from the farm, like my son and daughter do from other trees here.”

The police were immediately called. A report was filed. The culprit was not hard to determine. His neighbor, Jonas Keim, had hired Elton Mast to select-cut his woods, and his crew had crossed the property line, despite a fence.

Mast, 33, is a self-proclaimed professional timberman — a license is not required for Amish — and owner of Mast Brother Hardwoods in nearby Vestaburg.

What went wrong?

Before the harvest, Mast’s brother marked trees in Keim’s woods for harvest, which did not include McCarthy’s trees. Mast brought in a crew for the job, but he was not on-site when the trees were taken, he says.

“While in the process of cutting trees, Jonas [Keim] gets the idea these trees are his and wants to cut more trees, so he contacts us and asks if we’re interested in more trees,” Mast explains. “Well, yes, of course we’re interested in more trees. I trusted Jonas to know where his boundary lines are. I gave him permission to tell my crew which trees he wanted cut.”

He contends it was an unfortunate accident and had he known where the trees were located, he would not have given permission. “I’ve been doing this for 10 years, and I know better,” says Mast, while ultimately taking responsibility for his crew. “I hate to work with boundary lines and like to stay back 10 feet or more, and had I known that, they would not be cut today. This is Jonas’ fault, Jonas’ deal, he should have been the one paying for it.”

McCarthy doesn’t think it was an accident, noting Keim is also Amish and has since moved. In his area, he says, Amish are noted for getting around the law and getting a free pass.

“I’m not saying all Amish [have bad intent], but when things go wrong and they break the law, there needs to be accountability. It’s the law and the same standards that apply to me, or anyone else, should apply to them,” McCarthy says.

“I’m the only one willing to speak out, and I wasn’t going to let this go. Right is right, and wrong is wrong. Like my timber appraiser said, had this been done by anyone else, they would have either been in jail or paying a hefty fine.”

Negotiations fail

A year was spent trying to settle the mayhem through negotiations between McCarthy and Mast, who first offered $2,500 for all the trees, which were between 19 and 33 inches in diameter.

“The value of those 12 trees was not more than that,” Mast says. “There was no veneer in them — there was not — I know my trees. Half of it was pallet lumber [lowest grade] and at 75 cents a foot — that’s what we get paid — does not factor in trucking and labor. I might have made $1,000 in a $2,600 value, if I’d have paid that for it. I lost my butt. But those trees shouldn’t have been cut, and it definitely was a trespass on his side [property].”

McCarthy quickly denied the offer and hired a registered and licensed forester and timber buyer, Terry Loomis, who estimated the value at $8,467.80 total.

Loomis laughed when he was told Mast’s estimated value. “I don’t know how he came up with such a little amount,” he says. “I’m guessing they were using a lower stumpage price on what it was worth standing.”

He estimated the value by measuring the stumps, looking at surrounding trees and using an average of 1,000 board foot of delivered oak logs at market price at the time.

“I took into account taper from the stump to the first log and interpolated that out,” Loomis says. “At that time, it was around $520 a 1,000 board feet.” He added in some veneer based on what an average woods would run as a percentage.

Michigan law allows for three times the value in restitution, which equates to more than $25,000.

Another offer by Mast, $7,500, was made and rejected. Keim then got involved and wrote a check for $15,000. But McCarthy held the check for a couple of weeks and continued to negotiate for cash. When that failed, he went to cash the check, but it had a "stop-payment" order on it. Mast says that’s because he was afraid it wouldn’t be over. Keim does not have a cellphone and attempts to locate him were unsuccessful.

McCarthy says he was advised to take cash, contending it wasn’t a sale, but rather restitution for a taking. “Those trees weren’t for sale — I wouldn’t have sold them for $50,000,” McCarthy says. “And when I brought the bad check up with officials, I was told it might have been a gift.”

Criminal charges

When negotiations failed, the Isabella County sheriff pressed criminal charges, Jan. 23, 2023, for malicious destruction of property of more than $1,000 but less than $20,000.

The felony carries up to a five-year sentence or a $10,000 fine, or three times the value of the trees. McCarthy also claimed logging equipment did $3,000 damage to his field with ruts and cleanup.

After a series of delays, and a short preliminary hearing in October 2023, the court broke and did not reconvene. A judgment was filed 15 days later dismissing and closing the case, citing Nolle prosequi, which is a Latin phrase that means "not to wish to prosecute,” as well as “in the interest of justice.”

McCarthy has repeatedly, to no avail, contacted the courts to get a full explanation. Farm Progress requested the same, but has not yet received a return phone call.

“I’m really angry with the judicial system,” McCarthy says. “This was not for the betterment of justice. My only recourse was a civil suit, which takes a couple years, and the statute of limitations of three years was coming up. Not to mention it has cost more than $7,000 in attorney fees.”

Compensation for liability

While talks with the Amish bishop associated with Mast were not successful, McCarthy talked with another Amish bishop to the north aware of the case but surprised it wasn’t settled. He notified Albert Shrock, regional director of the Old Order Amish Liability Aid, of which Mast was a member. It has a membership of about 10,000 across the country, according to Shrock.

“It’s a church brotherhood, an agreement among each other. If there are liabilities like this, we help each other pay for them because, after all, it is our Christian duty to pay for stuff like this when it happens,” says Shrock, who adds he didn’t know about the case until six months ago. “Elton himself never felt Roger shouldn’t be paid, but that it was way too much money for what was taken. Through this brotherhood aid, we were able to pay for it.”

Because Elton held the contract and his employees cut the trees, Shrock admits the liability.

“Both sides were partially at fault for this dragging out for as long as it did,” he says. “But they were Roger’s trees without a doubt, and they never should have been taken.”

Through negotiations, McCarthy has now deposited a $17,500 check from the liability fund. It’s been two painful years of demanding accountability, which McCarthy says has only been partly accomplished with payment.

“The whole community knows they stole my trees,” McCarthy says. “I don’t blame the sheriff; the blame lies with the prosecutor who is not willing to do anything against them. I don’t feel like justice was done here.”

About the Author(s)

Jennifer Kiel

Editor, Michigan Farmer and Ohio Farmer

While Jennifer is not a farmer and did not grow up on a farm, "I think you'd be hard pressed to find someone with more appreciation for the people who grow our food and fiber, live the lifestyles and practice the morals that bind many farm families," she says.

Before taking over as editor of Michigan Farmer in 2003, she served three years as the manager of communications and development for the American Farmland Trust Central Great Lakes Regional Office in Michigan and as director of communications with Michigan Agri-Business Association. Previously, she was the communications manager at Michigan Farm Bureau's state headquarters. She also lists 10 years of experience at six different daily and weekly Michigan newspapers on her impressive resume.

Jennifer lives in St. Johns with her two daughters, Elizabeth, 19, and Emily 16.

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