They disappeared in the middle of the night: 40 foot tall palm trees lining a stretch of the Santa Monica freeway in mid-city LA.
Now, the trees are back; Caltrans says it got the people who took the palms to return and replant them. But area residents are still furious, because they suspect a Caltrans employee was involved in the shuffle of the palm trees and hasn’t been held accountable.
Area residents say their calls to Caltrans about the matter went unanswered.
“It seems like everything is a big cover-up, and it’s upsetting,” said Brent Greene, an area resident who reported the missing palms to police in July 2011.
An NBC4 Investigation in October first exposed what Caltrans said was “the theft” of the huge palms, which belong to taxpayers and are bought by developers for up to $20,000 each.
Caltrans says a nonprofit called “Global Trees” illegally dug up and removed the trees along the Santa Monica freeway. “There was a crime committed here,” says Michael Miles, Caltrans District 7 Director. Caltrans filed a civil suit against Global Trees in LA Superior Court last October, demanding the return of the trees and $300,000 in damages.
But Global Trees got permission to remove palms from the 10 and 101 freeways from a Caltrans supervisor named Jose Escobedo, NBC 4 found. A letter signed by Escobedo authorized the palms' removal.
But signing a letter like that is against Caltrans policy. “I don’t know why he signed it,” Miles said.
Caltrans employees can’t give permission for someone to take trees from public land, MIles said.
For four months, Caltrans has refused to tell NBC4 if it is investigating Escobedo’s possible involvement in the disappearance of the trees.
This week Miles finally agreed to talk to NBC4. He said the agency got Global Trees to return and replant five mature palms along the Santa Monica freeway, and seeking to have the nonprofit pay damages too.
The California Highway Patrol is finishing a criminal investigation into the matter, and hopes to turn it over to the LA County District Attorney very soon, according to Caltrans.
“If there’s a Caltrans employee involved (in the disappearance of the palms) and we can prove it, we will take the appropriate action against that employee,” Miles said. He added that could include termination and even prosecution for a crime.
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