Environmental Criminal to be Released from Prison

prisonJohn Wood, convicted five years ago of a series of environmental crimes, will leave prison for a half-way house tomorrow.

Mr. Wood lost his bid to stay out of jail when he failed to comply with a court order to repair environmental damage done on property formerly owned by his wife and himself.

Five years ago Mr. Wood sought permission to remodel his house, a two-bedroom bungalow set on a wooded lot with a stream running beneath the dining room window.  He applied to the West Haven building department for permits to install a picture window in the dining room to improve the view of the stream and to build a screened porch adjacent to the living room.

The building department approved the picture window, but not the porch because, while the house had been built before passage of the Wetlands Preservation Act, the law forbade new building within one hundred feet of a stream.

Disappointed, Mr. Wood asked permission to open up the area beneath the dining room, creating a patio.  The building department, satisfied that these changes would not compromise the structural integrity of the house, agreed to the modifications and Mr. Wood hired a contractor to proceed with the work.

In the course of the renovations, the contractor came upon what he thought was a nest of termites and advised Mr. Wood to hire an exterminator.  Mr. Wood called Kritter Killers but when the exterminator came he saw very quickly that the insects were not termites.  They were, in fact, something he had never seen before, and he took a few live specimens before applying pesticide.

Work recommenced on the house and had proceeded for almost two weeks when Ken Kelly, president of Kritter Killers, and Dr. Herbert Holzlaus, Tibetan beetlecurator of entomology at the West Haven Museum of Natural History, dropped by to examine the site from which the specimens had been removed.  Dr. Holzlaus told Mr. Wood that he was sure the insects were very rare Tibetan Wood Beetles and asked if anyone in the house had visited Tibet recently.  Mr. Wood explained that while none of his family or friends had been to Tibet, they had recently begun to patronize a newly-opened Chinese laundry in town whose owner was rumored to be a deserter from the army of the People’s Republic of China

Satisfied that he had probable cause to suspect that the insects were Tibetan Wood Beetles, Dr. Holzlaus, in his capacity as president of the Society for the Preservation of Endangered Species International (SPECI), presented Mr. Wood with an Order of Protection for an Endangered Species that forbade work to continue until experts could determine the extent of the damage that had already been done to the site and what corrective measures would have to be undertaken to preserve the wood beetle’s new American habitat.

The contractor had already laid the flagstones for the floor of the patio but had not yet joined them so Mr. Wood paid him for the work done so far and promised to call him when the order was lifted.  That evening the Woods placed a table and chairs on the loose flagstones and began to enjoy their new, if unfinished, patio.  When beetles occasionally surfaced, Brahms, the family’s Saint Bernard, made short work of them.

Several weeks after his first visit, Dr. Holzlaus returned, this time in the company of three agents from the Office of Preservation of Endangered Species, Compliance Division, who, upon seeing the furniture and the dog on the patio, placed Mr. Wood under arrest for wilful destruction of habitat and maintaining a hostile environment for an endangered species, both class E felonies.

At the ensuing trial, the contractor testified that Mr. Wood had ordered construction halted the moment he was served with the Order of Protection.  Mr. Wood’s lawyer argued, therefore, that his client could not be held liable for willful destruction of habitat, but the government’s expert witness explained that as the Tibetan Wood Beetle lives in the soil the additional weight of the patio furniture and the Saint Bernard was likely to have caused distress to the remaining beetles.  Also, Brahms had been permitted to eat those beetles he found, causing additional distress to the beetles.  Since Mr. Wood had placed furniture on the flagstones and had allowed the dog to use the patio, the jury found that he had indeed created and perpetuated a hostile environment for the beetles.  Mr. Wood was convicted and sentenced to seven years at the Rolling Hills Correctional Facility.

Subsequently, upon examination of the transcript of the trial, Mr. Wood’s lawyer found grounds for an appeal and Mr. Wood decided to proceed despite the fact that he had already exhausted his savings.  The appellate court voided the charge of willful destruction because the weight of the house as it originally stood had not seemed to cause the beetles any distress and the lessening of weight occasioned by removal of the wall might have improved, rather than poisoned, the atmosphere for the beetles.  The charge of maintaining a hostile environment was also found to have been without merit when a Buddhist monk produced scientific data showing that a few hours in the intestine of a dog was an essential part of the Tibetan Wood Beetle’s life cycle.

Unsuccessful in criminal court, SPECI took the matter to civil court to effect a restoration of the beetles’ habitat based on a violation of the original Order of Protection of an Endangered Species.  Since that order had required an immediate cessation of change in the beetles’ environment, Mr. Wood, by placing furniture on the patio, had further altered the habitat with reckless disregard for the protection of the species, thus violating the Order.  The Court found in favor of SPECI and directed Mr. Wood to restore the beetles’ habitat to its original condition or face five years in jail.  Dr. Holzlaus also explained that the beetles in his care were languishing from lack of contact with their birthplace and petitioned the court to require Mr. Wood to complete the restoration within two weeks.  This request was granted.

His savings depleted and faced with mounting legal bills, Mr. Wood decided that the least costly way to comply with the court order would be to do the work himself.  Accordingly, he raided the library home improvements section and, after an all night cram session, compiled a list of materials which he purchased the next day.  He also drew up a detailed work plan to maximize the efforts of his wife and children and was able to begin construction within three days.  By the end of the second day they had removed the flagstones, poured the new cement floor and erected the framework for the siding.  Satisfied that he would be able to meet the deadline he slept for the first time in four days.

The next day as they were installing the insulation, eight-year-old Jeffrey, while carrying out his assigned task of making coffee for the family, accidentally overturned the coffee maker, starting a fire in a pile of sawdust.  High winds blowing in through the window and door openings quickly spread the flames until the entire house was engulfed.  The family fled. Everyone, including Brahms, escaped safely.

By the time the fire department arrived there was little anyone could do except to wet down the smoldering ruins.  Mr. Wood thought this might not be the catastrophe it seemed to be until his wife reminded him that there hadn’t been enough to pay the fire insurance premium because of their legal expenses.

The family spent the night in the car and at daybreak they began sifting through the mess to see what, if anything, could be salvaged.  Brahms was snacking on roasted beetles and the Woods were discussing how best to comply with the court order when an agent of the Residential Clean Air Section of the Federal Environmental Protection Bureau pulled into the driveway.  He explained somewhat apologetically that because of the fire their neighbors downwind had had to sleep with their windows closed and he would have to charge them with creating a Level 8 smoke pollution condition, an infraction carrying a penalty of ten thousand dollars or six months in jail.  As he was leaving, an agent from the Water Board arrived who, after showing his identification, wordlessly placed a summons in Mr. Wood’s hand.  Since Mr. Wood’s glasses had melted in the fire he had to ask Jeffrey to read the paper out loud.  It charged the Wood family with allowing run-off from fighting the fire to pollute the stream, an offense carrying a seven-thousand dollar fine or four month jail term.

As the senior Woods were sitting stunned by the edge of the stream, Jeffrey, who was re-reading the summons, let out a whoop.  Since he had caused the fire by knocking over the coffee maker, he was responsible for all the resulting damage.  He would take the blame and be sentenced as a minor, which would give him at most three months in juvenile detention.  At first his parents wouldn’t hear of it, but, as they were totally exhausted, he wore them down and they finally agreed.

When the marshalls came to arrest Mr. Wood, Jeffrey stepped forward and explained his role in starting the fire.  He was taken into custody and the lawyer who had handled the original complaint agreed to take Jeffrey’s case free of charge.

In pre-trial motions the prosecution argued that the senior Woods should not be allowed to fob off the charges on a minor child and threatened a possible child abuse investigation. Jeffrey’s lawyer countered that Jeffrey was invoking his right as a child to be charged with infractions for which he was responsible.  The judge ruled that while Jeffrey had the right to sue his parents for assigning him to make coffee, he had no right to be tried for damages resulting from his having knocked over the coffee maker.  Therefore, the original charges against Mr. Wood must stand.

From that point on, the trial was unremarkable.  Mr. Wood was convicted on all counts and sentenced to ten months on the pollution charges and five years for his failure to restore the habitat of the beetles within the two week period granted by the court, although the court did direct that the sentences run concurrently.

With his release imminent, Mr. Wood agreed to an interview today.  Asked about his plans for the future, he said that he has been studying environmental law while in prison and intends to open a consulting firm to help homeowners like himself.  His wife has already leased office space and is advertising for clients.  “I’m very excited to be starting a new venture that seems to have a lot of growth potential,” he told reporters.  “We’ve got a good location and the space doesn’t need much in the way of renovation – just a couple of walls that have to come down.  As soon as that’s done I’ll be ready to see my first client.”