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Criminal: Save The Treaty Oak

A drawing of a sick tree.
Julienne Alexander

An iconic oak tree is the subject of this week's Criminal podcast, produced at WUNC. The program tells the stories of people who have done wrong, been wronged or gotten caught somewhere in the middle.

John Giedraitis was the city forester in Austin, Texas in 1989, when a beloved live oak tree there got sick.

"I proposed to my wife underneath the tree, because it's a big, strong, important tree that symbolizes timelessness, endurance, strength and that sort of stuff," Giedraitis says.

He's referring to the Treaty Oak, a 500-year-old tree that stands in downtown Austin.

"If you're in Austin, and you're the city forester, Treaty Oak is the tree."

The oak's name comes from the days before Stephen Austin pursued the colonization of Texas. It was a revered site for American Indian tribes, and regarded as a safe space for them to work out differences.

It's no wonder, then, that it made national news when the tree started to wilt.

In 1989, Giedraitis noticed a circle of dead grass around the Treaty Oak. Soon afterward, it seemed to be dying in certain spots. The Treaty Oak was being poisoned, but Giedraitis and his colleagues didn't know how or why.

The answer turned out to come from Paul Steadman Cullen's broken heart. Cullen had been turned down by the woman he loved, and he wanted to ease his pain.

"He went to the library, took out a book on the black arts, and cast a spell under the tree, creating a magic circle," Giedraitis says.

The circle was indeed killing Treaty Oak, but it was not magic.

"That circle, of course, was herbicide," says Giedraitis. "I'm sure the book didn't have that in it, but that was his interpretation... as the tree would die, so would his love die for this woman."

Cullen was eventually arrested and charged with felony mischief. Because he had a previous felony conviction for burglary, he was facing a life sentence. Cullen got national attention as the man facing years in prison for poisoning a tree. He was sentenced to nine years and fined $1,000.

Meanwhile, Treaty Oak needed help. Giedraitis says foresters snipped off a piece of the tree, planted it next to the mighty oak, and have been using the smaller offspring as a sort of nursing tree.

Treaty Oak still stands in the city today, behind a rope barrier.

Eric Hodge hosts WUNC’s broadcast of Morning Edition, and files reports for the North Carolina news segments of the broadcast. He started at the station in 2004 doing fill-in work on weekends and All Things Considered.
Phoebe Judge is an award-winning journalist whose work has been featured on a numerous national radio programs. She regularly conducts interviews and anchors WUNC's broadcast of Here & Now. Previously, Phoebe served as producer, reporter and guest host for the nationally distributed public radio program The Story. Earlier in her career, Phoebe reported from the gulf coast of Mississippi. She covered the BP oil spill and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina for Mississippi Public Broadcasting and National Public Radio. Phoebe's work has won multiple Edward R. Murrow and Associated Press awards. Phoebe was born and raised in Chicago and is graduate of Bennington College and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies.
Will Michaels is WUNC's Weekend Host and Reporter.
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