Protecting the view

The night Hoffman was arrested, his wife said, he was racked with pain and had gone for a stroll in hopes of easing it. The saw was something he had scooped up on the side of the road. (Beatrice de Gea / Los Angeles Times)

Cloaked by darkness, a saw tucked under his jacket, Douglas Hoffman skulked through suburbia, methodically killing trees.

He severed some. Others he sliced just enough so they would slowly die. In a year's time, authorities said, he wiped out more than 500 trees near an upscale retirement community just south of Las Vegas.

Greenery, he had complained to a homeowners committee, was blocking his view of the Strip.

In November, a jury convicted Hoffman, 60, on 10 charges in the destruction of nearly $250,000 worth of mesquite and other trees. He will likely face sentencing next month and could get as much as 35 years in prison.

The "arborcide," as one lawyer dubbed it, has resonated in booming Clark County, where hillsides in recent years have been overrun with sand-colored homes and transplanted trees. In many neighborhoods, glimpses of the Spring and Muddy Mountain ranges -- and the Strip's neon skyline -- have vanished.

The retirement haven of Sun City Anthem is typical of the neighborhoods that have ballooned Henderson's population from almost 65,000 in 1990 to more than 240,000 last year. The development's 7,000 or so homes are governed by a lengthy list of rules that took a real estate agent more than an hour to explain, said Charles Davis, a resident who runs a Sun City website.

Aside from the bridge and opera clubs, neighbors take an active role in community policies and politics -- sometimes trading insults on several blogs.

Five years ago, Hoffman and his wife, Debbie -- who live most of the year in Goodyear, Ariz. -- bought a 1,632-square-foot home on Colvin Run Drive.

Hoffman, who had retired from military base construction work, had taken landscaping classes and spent hours pruning in his Henderson yard.

"Plant life is precious to him," said Debbie Hoffman, 44. "It's not a human life, but it's a life. When a bush would die, he wouldn't be crying-upset, but he'd be upset."

Sun City was in its infancy when they moved into their home, with a back deck that overlooked the peaks rimming the valley and the Strip. Soon the trees, some of which had grown 8 feet tall, marred the couple's view. The Hoffmans asked if they could swap them out for shrubs but were told no, Davis said

In October 2004, the tops of about 60 trees were lopped off.

"We thought it was a fluke thing, maybe teenagers," said Sasha Jackowich, a spokeswoman for the community's developer, Pulte Homes.

Over the next year, even more trees -- some worth $1,450 apiece -- were felled.

The developer hired a private security firm. Upset residents posted photos of the carnage online, and the community association offered a $10,000 reward for the tree-slasher's capture.

"They thought they had moved into a community where people behaved," Davis said.

On Nov. 26, 2005, just after midnight, William Edwards was driving to his home when he noticed a freshly cut tree -- and saw someone disappear into the dark. Edwards, a retired Ventura County sheriff's deputy, pulled over, grabbed a golf club from his trunk and gave chase, according to court testimony.

Edwards caught up with Hoffman, who was wearing Levis, a jacket and a baseball cap. Yes, he told Edwards, he lived in Sun City. No, he hadn't seen anyone messing with trees.

Edwards patted Hoffman down. He found a single-blade saw.