Nevada man is guilty of killing trees

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)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

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.

The men waited for police at a nearby fire station where, according to testimony, Hoffman threw out some cotton work gloves that he said no longer kept his hands toasty. Authorities scoured the area where Hoffman was apprehended and counted dozens of slashed trees.

When they searched his home, they found a seven-page screed against the community’s landscaping. Hoffman’s wife told them that her husband had whacked back some branches in order to get a better view of the Strip. The foliage slaughter that followed was Hoffman’s plan to cover up his initial chopping, Deputy Dist. Atty. Josh Tomsheck said.

After Hoffman’s arrest, someone spray-painted “tree chopper” on a block wall near his home. “It was shocking that it was one of their own,” Jackowich said. “They’ve never been victims of this type of malicious vandalism.”

Hoffman, attorney Joseph Sciscento argued, was made into a scapegoat by panicked neighbors who thought they were immune from crime.

“It was a witch hunt,” said Debbie Hoffman.

Her husband, who is being held without bail at the Clark County Detention Center, could not be reached for comment.

His wife described him as a caring person who had grown more isolated in recent years because of numerous ailments. His hip replacements -- along with back, heart and prostate problems -- would have made it impossible for him to run around sawing down trees, she said.

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.

Friends testified during the weeklong trial that Hoffman was in Arizona or Santa Rosa, Calif., when some of the trees were destroyed. Debbie Hoffman said other suspects were spied lurking in areas thick with trees: the driver of a red truck, motorcycle-riding teenagers and a man with black-rimmed glasses who resembled an “old farmer from the Mediterranean.”

Jurors didn’t buy it. They convicted the stout and graying Hoffman of malicious destruction of trees. His attorney plans to ask for probation.

“It’s like you can murder someone and it’s OK,” Hoffman’s wife said, “but you’re accused of killing trees and it’s like, execute him.”

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