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When I last wrote, the NCAA was investigating Auburn University’s star quarterback, Cam Newton, for allegedly violating NCAA policies. Since that time, the NCAA suspended Cam Newton in a largely symbolic gesture, reinstated him a day later, and Auburn went on to win the National Championship. As the old saying goes, all’s well that ends well, right? Unfortunately for Auburn and its fans, it appears that the story of the 2010 season has not quite seen its final chapter.
News broke last week that the 130-year-old live oak trees of Toomer’s Corner on the Auburn University campus are dying because of an apparent act of vandalism by a rogue Alabama fan. The site is one of the iconic locations in collegiate sports, where Auburn fans have celebrated for decades by rolling the trees after key victories — an act which this author has himself participated in, despite (or because of?) his allegiance to Vanderbilt University’s oft-struggling football team. The vandalism was first claimed by a caller to a sports talk radio show. The caller identified himself as “Al in Dadeville” and said he performed his act using a powerful herbicide the weekend after the November 26 Iron Bowl, which Auburn won with a stirring come-from-behind victory.
After a few days of investigation, which included round-the-clock police surveillance of the football statues outside of Alabama’s football stadium (seriously), police announced a break in the case. Alabama police arrested Harvey Almorn Updyke from Dadeville last Wednesday night for the poisoning of the oak trees at Toomer’s Corner in Auburn. Harvey “Al” Updyke, who shockingly used his real name and hometown on the call-in radio show, is a lifelong ‘Bama fan who named his two children ‘Bear’ and ‘Crimson’ (again, seriously). Mr. Updyke was charged with one count of criminal mischief in the first degree, which is a Class C felony. A Class C felony carries a punishment of one to ten years. As prosecutors look into additional charges, he’s being held on $50,000 bond.
Criminal mischief is defined in the Alabama Code as “(a) A person [who] commits the crime of criminal mischief in the first degree if, with intent to damage property, and having no right to do so or any reasonable ground to believe that he or she has such a right, he or she inflicts damages to property: (1) In an amount exceeding two thousand five hundred dollars ($2,500); or (2) By means of an explosion.” Based on this statute, the prosecution will have to show (1) that Mr. Updyke had the intent to damage the trees, (2) that Mr. Updyke had no right to damage the trees, and (3) that the damage to the property exceeded $2,500. Ala. Code § 13A-7-21.
The first two elements should be easy to satisfy because it is clear Mr. Updyke had the necessary intent based on his call to the radio station bragging about his deed, and because Mr. Updyke had no government or university-granted right to destroy the trees. The more interesting question for the prosecution will be whether it can show that the trees were valued at an excess of $2,500. The prosecution will likely need to hire an expert witness to testify that the value of the oaks exceeded this amount. This is necessary because the value is not calculated in the eyes of Auburn University, but rather, it is calculated using the value of the trees in the eyes of a reasonable person. Although this hurdle will likely not be too high for the prosecution to clear, this element of the statute may be the defense’s best bet.
Nonetheless, the fallout from from the act has been swift, ranging from Alabama fans raising tens of thousands of dollars to saves the trees to talking heads around the country asking if football rivalries have officially gone too far. In this writer’s opinion, anyone who calls into a radio show and uses his own name and actual hometown when bragging about the felony he just committed is nothing more than an idiotic outlier whose actions do not represent those of the broader community. There will always be attention-starved individuals who take things to the extreme. Although the loss of Toomer’s Trees is undoubtedly sad, it has given everyone who follows collegiate sports a moment of pause, and allowed fans to take a step back and realize how silly some of these rivalries can be. As for Auburn, the planting of the new trees gives another generation of fans an opportunity to be a part of a continued tradition in Toomer’s Corner, allowing the University to turn a negative event into a positive new opportunity.
– Blake Carter
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