By John Zenor/The Associated Press
AUBURN, Ala. — The man allegedly responsible for poisoning the live oaks at Toomers Corner where Auburn fans have long celebrated big wins has been arrested and charged.
Auburn Police Chief Tommy Dawson said Harvey Almorn Updyke Jr., 62 of Dadeville, was arrested at the police station at 1:26 a.m. Thursday and was charged with one count of first-degree criminal mischief.
He admitted to making two calls claiming knowledge of the poisoning but later denied actually poisoning the trees, according to court documents.
Dawson said Updyke arrived at the jail without an attorney and could face other charges.
“This person obviously has problems to do something like this,” Dawson said at a news conference outside the administration building. Dozens of students and fans attended the news conference as the Auburn community mourns the apparently imminent demise of the trees.
Bond was set at $50,000. If convicted, Updyke could face one to 10 years in prison. A message left with his court-appointed attorney was not immediately returned.
A man calling himself “Al from Dadeville” phoned a radio show late last month, claiming he poured herbicide around the 130-year-old oaks that are the scene of celebrations after Auburn’s sports victories. The caller signed off by saying, “Roll Damn Tide.”
Alabama athletic director Mal Moore decried the poisoning as “a terrible thing to do.”
Updyke admitted to calling the radio show and to leaving a phone message to an Auburn professor claiming knowledge of the poisoning, court documents said.
Police traced phone records to Updyke’s house and said the person who answered there appeared to match both calls, the documents said.
Lee County District Attorney Robert Treese III asked District Court Judge Russell Bush to set bond conditions for Updyke, including that he stay away from Auburn’s campus, not have any weapons “or any toxic or dangerous chemicals, substances or herbicides” and that he completes an anger management program.
Dadeville is a rural town of about 30 minutes from Auburn with a population of just over 3,000 in the 2000 census.
The two nearby oaks still had remnants of toilet paper from groups of fans who gathered at Toomer’s Corner Wednesday night after hearing of the poisoning.
Orange and blue pompoms were laid at the base of the cordoned-off trees along with flowers and signs with messages like “Get well soon” and “PLEASE GOD SAVE THESE TREES.”
“It’s shocking that somebody would destroy a tree just over a football game,” said Steven Davis, who drove with his wife, Janelle and 2-year-old Kayla to see the trees. The family, all sporting Auburn shirts, said they were among those celebrating the recent national championship at Toomers Corner.
Stephen Enloe, an assistant professor of agronomy and soil, said consultation with experts around the country indicated that there was “a very low probability” that the trees will survive because of the concentration of the herbicide found in the soil.
“I have celebrated many times with friends, family, with the undergraduates after Auburn victories,” Enloe said. “And it’s just an incredible travesty to see this kind of malicious act occur and it breaks my heart to see somebody so willfully destroy such an incredible cultural landmark for the city of Auburn, for Auburn University.”
The trees were poisoned with a herbicide Spike 80DF, that is used to kill trees.
Auburn said tests results indicated the herbicide levels found ranged from .78 parts per million to about 51 parts per million. He said studies have indicated that “100 parts per billion was toxic to some species of oak trees.”
“Every expert I’ve talked to around the country in mentioning rates up to 51 parts per million, they were very discouraged and did not offer up a lot of hope due to the extremely high concentration,” Enloe said.
Gary Keever, a horticulture professor, said Thursday that Spike 80DF can sometimes inhibit growth for as long as seven years.
He said one possible way to expedite the fix if the trees can’t be saved would be to excavate and replace the soil. Keever said workers started treating the soil Thursday morning and are still looking for other solutions.
Keever said another fear would be that the herbicide spreads and damages surrounding vegetation.
“If it moves into the landscape, we’ve got hollies, magnolias, a white oak,” he said. “If those root zones come in contact with the herbicide, they’ll absorb it just like the live oaks have. And there’s a real chance of injury.”
Auburn senior Ian Shaw was listening to the radio show when “Al from Dadeville” claimed to have poisoned the trees with Spike 80DF. He said he’s celebrated almost every Auburn win at Toomers Corner the past four years.
“Where do you go from here? It’s very sad,” Shaw said. “It’s my last semester here and it’s a shame that this sort of thing happened to it.”
Shaw, who is from Fort Payne, Ala., said he grew up a Florida fan but always heard about the tradition of rolling Toomers Corner from friends.
“The first time it happened, I was hooked,” he said. It’s just one of those special things. Even when it’s not football season, you walk over to Toomers Corner … Maybe it’s the whole atmosphere, but it’s one of the most beautiful things on campus, maybe the entire town.
“Now that it’s not going to be there anymore, I don’t know how you replace it. But you certainly fall in love with the tradition if you don’t know about it beforehand.”
Auburn quarterback Barrett Trotter rode his bike by the site about lunchtime Thursday.
“It’s just sad. That’s all I can say,” said Trotter, likely the leading contender to replace Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton. “It’s sad that some guy would do that. It’s definitely one of the landmarks of Auburn and probably the biggest Auburn tradition that’s been going on here for many years.
“It’s something that we can live without but at the same time it’s not going to be the same.”