The state of California has filed a civil suit against a ring of alleged “palm rustlers,” that it claims stole palm trees from public land along the Santa Monica Freeway.
An NBC4 Investigation in October first exposed this alleged thievery of the forty-foot palms, which belong to taxpayers.
Caltrans, the state’s transportation agency, sued Global Trees, Inc., a nonprofit organization, seeking more than $400,000 in damages.
The suit, filed in LA Superior Court, alleges that this nonprofit illegally removed five mature palms from next to the freeway, and resold them “for illicit financial gain.”
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The Canary Island Palms, which are in demand from developers, are worth about $20,000 each, according to the lawsuit.
Workers for Global Trees were illegally digging up the palms in evening and early morning hours, possibly with the okay of Caltrans employees, according to evidence uncovered in an NBC4 investigation.
Residents of the mid-city LA neighborhood were angry when they learned of the state’s lawsuit, because it mentions no alleged role in the thefts of the state employees.
“Caltrans was either involved or let it happen,” resident Matt Koval said of the palm thefts. “I would like to see someone get fired at the very least, or perhaps someone go to jail.”
The NBC4 Investigation uncovered a letter signed by Jose Escobedo, a Caltrans supervisor, authorizing Global Trees and its president Kyle Olson to remove palms from the 10 and 101 freeways. Olson is named as a defendant in the suit.
Escobedo apparently skirted Caltrans mandatory procedures for granting anyone permission to remove trees from public land. “I don’t know why he signed that paper,” said Escobedo’s supervisor, Jim Fowler.
An internal investigation into the role its employees might have played in the removal of the palms is now underway, Caltrans told NBC4. The California Highway Patrol is also conducting a criminal investigation into the thefts.
The state’s lawsuit seeks $100,000 in damages for the value of the stolen trees, plus another $300,000 in "treble" damages, a legal term that indicates punishment for willful conduct.
Ever since the palms were stolen in July, Caltrans has promised residents near the freeeway that it would find the stolen trees and replant them, or replace them with other trees.
Residents tell NBC4 Caltrans hasn’t done either, and has stopped returning their calls
“Caltrans, you guys need to understand, we’re not going to let this go away,” said resident Brent Green. “If you think you’re going to ignore us, think again.”