By Eric Freedman
A Grinch who stole Christmas– at least Christmas trimmings — for years has gotten a lump of coal — and a felony record.
Law enforcement officers for the U.S. Forest Service busted the Grinch — 70-year-old Joseph Edminster — for stealing thousands of black spruce tree tops from the Chippewa National Forest in northern Minnesota and selling them for Christmas decorations.
Edminster — whose birthday coincidentally falls on Christmas Day — pleaded guilty to stealing federal government property and faces sentencing by U.S. District Judge Wilhelmina Wright later this year.
The U.S. Attorney’s office said in a press statement, “The popularity of black spruce tops and other forest products used in the seasonal holiday decorative market has surged over the last 20 years. The spruce tops are sold at landscape retailers and some grocery sand home improvement stores nationwide.”
Court documents show that Edminster peddled the tree tops to wholesalers for $1.50 to $2.50 each. The wholesalers in turn resold them for as much as $6 each to retailers in Minnesota, Illinois and Iowa. Spruce tops usually are sold in bundles of five or 10 at retail prices of $12.99 to $36.99.
“Edminster clearly knew that he was taking the tree tops from federal land,” his plea agreement said.
He lives in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, near the sprawling 660,000-acre Chippewa National Forest, which has hundreds of miles of trails and is home to Canada lynx and sandhill cranes.
Some of the victimized spruce don’t survive the cutting, said the forest’s supervisor, Darla Lenz. “It can kill trees, depending on ages and how much is cut.
Timber thefts are not uncommon in national forests.
However, the Forest Service “is not aware of large-scale tree-top cutting operations in the Great Lakes region’s national forests in the past,” said Scott Farley, a public affairs officer at the Chippewa National Forest.
“But as stewards of these lands, we take thefts like this seriously. We will continue to work with state and local counterparts to identify misuse of public land,” Farley said.
Edminster’s scheme ran from 2008 through 2014, court documents show.
In October 2014 alone, he “knowingly stole 2,756 black spruce tops” that he could have sold for $6,890, the plea agreement said.
He never got to sell those, however, because that was the month he got caught red-handed with about 500 spruce tops, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Laura Provinzino, who prosecuted the case. The other 2,000-plus tree tops had already been hauled out of the national forest that month.
The bust arose from an anonymous tip that came in the previous year, Provinzino said. Forest Service law enforcement officers knew the prime cutting season is late September through October, so based on that tip, they set up cameras in the area and waited.
Farley, the public affairs officer, said he couldn’t elaborate on Forest Service investigative procedures and protocols used in the case to avoid compromising future investigations.
The waiting paid off. The cameras captured Edminster and some of his relatives cutting the tree tops.
Nobody else has been charged in the case, Provinzino said. “To his credit, he was very forthright when confronted by law enforcement and took full responsibility.”
The plea agreement requires Edminster to repay the government the $17,309 he reaped over the years and another $24,199 in restitution for the value of the purloined tree tops.
The crime carries a maximum possible sentence of 10 years in prison, although the agreement envisions no more than six months in jail. The law also authorizes the judge to impose a fine of up to $250,000.