No charges against cattle owner who said he felled tree Thursday.
The Fresno Bee, Sep. 7, 2002
By Diana Marcum
The man who took a chain saw to a tree in which some people saw the likeness of the Virgin Mary made no bones Friday about identifying himself and announcing he did it.
But the Fresno County Sheriff’s Department didn’t charge Bill Gaede, who cut down the tree Thursday morning and allegedly screamed, “You Catholics! There’s your virgin,” because they have no victim. And with no victim, they have no crime, they said.
Detectives on Friday asked a circle of people praying around the felled trunk if someone would press hate-crime charges. All said no.
“Why bother with him? He’s just a little speck in this world,” said Dora Garcia, 49, a packinghouse supervisor. “The image we saw is here in our hearts and he can’t cut it out of our hearts.”
Gaede, 69, a cattle owner, lives up the road from the tree trunk. The trunk, near Avocado Lake, had an outline that resembled Mary with her mantilla looking down at a baby in her arms. It gained attention across California but was mostly a draw to local families.
When Yvonne Lopez, 29, a witness to the sawing, described a white-haired man covered in dirt and driving an old tan pickup, people who live in the area pointed a finger at Gaede. They told sheriff’s deputies that he owned an old tan truck for hauling junk, but usually drove past the tree in a white pickup with a large swastika flag.
Gaede was unapologetic, even going in front of local television cameras to say he considered the tree an eyesore.
“We knew we were looking at him from the get-go. We were just hoping we could find something to charge him with,” Lt. Robert Kandarian said. “Then he goes on TV and says he did it.”
The tree trunk stood on private property that belongs to Alta Irrigation, which isn’t pressing charges.
“Their feeling is that it’s just a dead tree. And the ones who saw it as a shrine said they were peaceful people and to choose to be victims would sink them to his level,” Kandarian said.
“It’s a tough one. We tried our best to make a case. But this one just fell through the cracks.”
Neighboring farmers offered a crane to try to raise the tree. But the people gathered around the felled trunk said no.
“When I first saw her on the ground, something inside me felt hollow,” said Sylvia Silva, 47. “But then I could feel that she’s still here. I think now even more people will come and we will draw closer to each other.”
Just as many people have gathered to pray and sing and chat quietly around the stump as did when it was standing.
But the trunk on the ground may soon be gone. Alta Irrigation has been kind to the people who gathered over the past four months, even hooking up a water pump for them.
The company now plans to move the stump and post “No Trespassing” signs on the property.
“They offered to move it to wherever the people would like it. After what happened they’re afraid to leave it where it is,” Kandarian said. “They’re worried someone is going to get hurt.”