Northwest Iowa tree thief found guilty of 51 charges
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources alleged that Jason Ferguson, of Rolfe, cut down a bur oak on public property that was six feet wide at its base. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Courts Online)
A 41-year-old rural Rolfe man is guilty of felony theft and 50 timber violations for taking dozens of trees from public property, a jury recently decided.
Jason Levant Ferguson’s criminal tree-theft case went to trial last week in Pocahontas County. He had been accused of taking about 150 trees from a wildlife management area northeast of Rolfe last year, purportedly to build himself a house, according to court records.
Timber thefts are an uncommon but growing crime in Iowa, according to the state’s Department of Natural Resources. Ferguson’s thefts stood out for the number of trees taken and for one of the trees he was accused of felling: a bur oak that was about six feet in diameter at its base.
“That tree was a sapling when Iowa was made a state,” said Craig Cutts, chief of the DNR’s Law Enforcement Bureau. Iowa gained statehood nearly 180 years ago.
Ferguson’s prosecution hit a snag last month when a district court judge decided that search warrants for his rural acreage were improperly approved and the evidence obtained by the subsequent searches couldn’t be used to prosecute him.
Those searches allegedly found evidence that someone had been growing marijuana and manufacturing methamphetamine on Ferguson’s property, and he faced numerous felony drug and weapons charges. Those charges were dismissed, but the tree theft case continued with the evidence DNR officers had obtained before the searches.
That evidence included an admission by Ferguson that he had taken the trees from the Stoddard Wildlife Management Area and photographic evidence of tree trunks on his property, court records show.
The trial last week spanned four days and ended with a 12-person jury finding him guilty of every criminal charge he faced, court records show. The jury deliberated for about two hours, Pocahontas County Attorney Dan Feistner said.
Ferguson’s sentencing hearing is set for Jan. 26. He faces up to five years in prison for the felony theft charge and one year imprisonment each for the 50 counts of timber buyer violations, which were for cutting down trees he had not purchased and “had no legal right to do so,” according to court records.
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