Malibu High School’s queen palms vanish

Area of Malibu High School campus where $6,400 worth of queen palms had been planted is now bare, the trees having mysteriously vanished. Parents had raised the funds for the trees.
(Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times)

If Nancy Drew attended Malibu High School, she’d have a doozy of a deepening mystery on her hands. Call it the Case of the Purloined Palms.

Two Saturdays ago, several individuals in two white trucks dug up 80 or so tropical queen palm trees that parent volunteers had planted on the campus over Thanksgiving weekend.

Now, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department detectives are investigating, and parents who planted the trees are left feeling outraged.

“I’m basically heartbroken and traumatized,” said parent Jill Berliner. “It’s like someone stealing the American flag.”

It’s no mystery that the 15-gallon-size trees stirred up controversy after the parents planted them in an effort to spruce up a neglected hillside between the athletic field and the asphalt parking lot. Neighbors, already in an uproar at the prospect of the school’s installing permanent athletic field lights, complained about obscured views and fire danger.

After an emotional community meeting, the school district agreed to explore cost-effective solutions to satisfy neighbors’ concerns.

Funds to purchase and plant the trees had come from parents’ contributions for campus beautification. Volunteers said they planted the trees as part of an ongoing effort to improve what many contend was a wasteland, albeit one with a terrific view.

“When I started on the landscaping committee eight years ago, the school looked like a prison yard -- rocks, weeds, chain link and litter,” said Berliner.

“We as a parent group took it upon ourselves to . . . send the message through our deeds that we want the best for the students.”

Berliner said she realized that many neighbors were unhappy, but “I don’t know why they would feel the need to go vigilante.”

“What kind of message are we sending to our children?” one parent demanded in a letter to local newspapers.

“These volunteers are nothing but a hard-working and unselfish group whose intentions were for the good of the children, the community and all visitors to Malibu High,” wrote Mary Hughes-O’Leary, a former member of the landscaping committee.

“Over the school e-network, a parent went as far as saying kudos to those who removed the trees. Does that mean that she is promoting and accepts any or all criminal acts?”

A spokesman for the sheriff’s Malibu/Lost Hills station said Wednesday that detectives were investigating the tree removal as a criminal matter.

But the spokesman also said detectives were looking at whether the removal was the result of “an agreement between people” that might result in a civil rather than a criminal case. He did not elaborate.

As of now, school officials and parent volunteers say they have no idea who would have authorized anyone to dig up the trees and fill the holes left behind. Principal Mark Kelly said in a statement the school was “at a loss” to explain what happened, but he said: “Our information indicates that several individuals in two white trucks came to campus, removed the trees and filled the holes.”

The officials and volunteers hope the Sheriff’s Department can get to the root of what to them looks like the theft of more than $6,400 worth of trees.

Berliner said she can’t bear to visit the campus now that the trees have been pilfered.

“This isn’t how we do things in civilized countries,” she said.