He came, he sawed, but the law conquered

Click to follow

Not too many trees grow in the Nevada desert. So when a mystery vandal chops and saws at more than 500 of them in one of the shiny new retirement suburbs outside Las Vegas, it's a big deal.

The case of America's first serial tree-killer began when a resident, Douglas Hoffman, decided he wanted a better view of the city's neon-lit skyline from his observation deck. A jury has just convicted the 60-year-old on 10 charges of maliciously destroying trees a crime so obscure in Nevada that lawyers do not remember another case like it. When he is sentenced after Christmas, he faces up to 35 years behind bars.

Hoffman came across in court as an older, portlier version of the embittered defence contractor played by Michael Douglas in the 1994 film Falling Down a lower middle-class white guy with a gigantic chip on his shoulder. The former defence contractor and his wife, Debbie, lived for most of the year in Arizona but went regularly to the retirement community of Sun City Anthem to house-sit for his parents-in-law.

According to the prosecution, Hoffman railed against the strict rules governing life in the suburb and was furious that he could not plant low-lying shrubs and bushes to replace the trees blocking his view of the Strip about 10 miles away.

First, he chopped the tops off 60 trees in his way, but then he kept going to make the chopping (and occasional poisoning) look like something bigger than one person's unauthorised adjustment of the landscape.

For more than a year, no one could figure out who the tree-killer was. The local residents' association even offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to his capture a fraction of the estimated $250,000 cost of replacing the destroyed mesquite and other trees.

Then one night, Bill Edwards, a retired sheriff's deputy, spotted a man moving in the trees and chased him with a golf club that he kept in his car. Mr Edwards overpowered Hoffman with his eight-iron, then insisted on searching him. He found a single-bladed handsaw in his pocket, frogmarched him to a fire station and had him arrested. Police later found a seven-page diatribe at Hoffman's house in which he complained about the neighbourhood tree policy.

At his trial, Hoffman used every excuse he could think of. He claimed he was not even in Las Vegas when many of the trees were destroyed. Then he said he was too frail to have chopped them because he had had two hip replacements an argument contradicted by testimony that he often went walking.

Asked about the saw found on him, he said he picked it up during one of his walks and decided to keep it. The jury did not believe him and convicted him on all counts.