The California Highway Patrol is investigating the theft of soaring palm trees from public land, and one of the suspects is a Caltrans official.
An NBC4 investigation uncovered evidence of the thefts and now the California Highway Patrol is investigating.
The trees belong to you, the public, because they grow on state land along the freeways, managed by Caltrans.
They're known as "Canary Island Date Palms," and they're in huge demand by developers and wealthy homeowners because they're considered a symbol of Southern California glamour.
"A tree like that sells retail for about $20,000," said Brent Green, a landscape designer who witnessed the theft.
Green caught the palm rustlers in the act one Friday night this summer. He was driving home on a side street next to the Santa Monica Freeway, through Mid-City L.A.
A private work crew of about 20 men were digging up a healthy 40-foot palm on public land.
"I knew they were illegally trying to remove the tree because Caltrans doesn't work at 7 o'clock on a Friday night," Green said.
Other residents of the same working-class neighborhood told NBC4 that they too have seen crews working in the middle of the night, digging up and carting off more large palms.
"Tears were in my eyes because I felt like they used this neighborhood, that they came in to steal," said Marjorie Faniel, who lives in the area.
NBC4 confronted Jim Fowler, a Caltrans maintenance manager who is in charge of the land along freeways in LA and Ventura counties.
Fowler insisted that Caltrans did not permit the trees to be removed. But NBC4 found evidence that one of Fowler's own employees might be involved.
The private work crews caught removing the palms told residents they were hired by a nonprofit called "Global Trees, Inc.," which got permission from a Caltrans supervisor named Jose Escobedo.
NBC4 obtained a letter written on Caltrans letterhead, signed by Escobedo, that says "Caltrans has authorized Global Trees to remove palm trees from along the 10 Freeway in West Los Angeles and the 101 Freeway in Camarillo."
Just minutes after telling NBC4 that no one at Caltrans was involved in the palm removals, Fowler admitted he knew Escobedo wrote that letter giving permission for the palms to be taken.
At least four adult palm trees were removed from one stretch of land in Mid-City, and many more have been uprooted elsewhere, according to Caltrans.
NBC4 asked Fowler what happened to the missing palms, and he replied "I believe they were sold. They ended up with a private company."
NBC4 made repeated calls to the president of Global Trees, Kyle Olson, but he didn't return our calls.
Residents reported the palm thefts to Caltrans, the LAPD and the California Highway Patrol in late July.
After NBC4 questioned Caltrans last week, the agency said there is now a state investigation under way into the thefts. Residents of the Mid-City neighborhood want their palm trees back, and they want the people involved criminally prosecuted.
"Somebody's head has got to roll for this," says neighborhood resident Matt Koval.
NBC4 called Caltrans headquarters in downtown LA to try to get more information.
Kelly Markham, a spokeswoman for the agency, said Caltrans wouldn't comment on the thefts or the alleged involvement of its employee.
Caltrans issued this statement: "Caltrans is taking the matter seriously. The department however refrains from commenting on matters currently under investigation. And we are working to resolve the situation."
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