An Apparent Murder Attempt on a Venerable Oak Tree Makes Texans Fear for Their Roots

updated 07/17/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/17/1989 01:00AM

The crime came to light on Memorial Day, when an Austin woman telephoned John Giedraitis, complaining that the city's 600-year-old Treaty Oak "looked sick." The message set off alarms; the tree is a revered landmark in the Texas capital, and legend even has it that the city's founder, Stephen F. Austin, signed an early land agreement with local Indians under its stout branches. Giedraitis, a municipal urban forester, immediately investigated and found that the leaves were indeed turning brown and dropping. His conclusion: Someone had poisoned the venerable oak.

So severe was the damage that "I didn't have to do any tests to determine it was poisoned," says Giedraitis. As it turned out, the ground around the tree had been soaked with a lethal dose of Velpar, a herbicide that kills hardwood trees. Fifteen city employees were put to work to try to save the oak. In recent weeks they have sprayed the leaves with fresh spring water, replaced the topsoil in a 30-foot circle, dosed the tree with antitoxins and even erected screens to shade it from the broiling sun.

As the frantic activity continues, a solemn procession of Austin residents have filed by daily in a kind of deathbed vigil. Some just stare in bewilderment, but others leave tokens of sorrow: flowers, notes, even a can of chicken soup.

Meanwhile city police set out to answer the bizarre question: Who would want to murder the Treaty Oak? There were rumors that the tree was sacrificed as part of a satanic rite. Then on June 29 authorities arrested Paul Stedman Cullen, 45, a drifter with a long record of petty crime, and charged him with poisoning the tree. If convicted of criminal mischief, he could get up to 20 years in prison. The motive may be as strange as the deed itself. "It had something to do with a girl he was trying to get over," says Police Sgt. John Jones.

At the scene of the crime, hope lingers. In the last month the tree has dropped two sets of leaves; a third has begun sprouting. Austin is waiting to see if these leaves, too, will turn brown and fall. "This tree didn't suffer the equivalent of being hit by a car," says Giedraitis, struggling for a human metaphor for what ails the Treaty Oak. "It's more as if it were in the midst of a chronic illness and this is the crisis stage. It could go either way."

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