AUSTIN, Tex. — Austin police arrested a 45-year-old ex-convict and loner Thursday in connection with the most publicized crime in the capital city this year--the poisoning of the historic Treaty Oak.
Paul Steadman Cullen was booked on a criminal-mischief felony, a charge that could bring fines of as much as $10,000 and imprisonment for 20 years. He was arrested shortly before noon as he returned to his trailer on the yard of a feed store in the village of Elroy after a morning outing in Austin, where he had been under surveillance by police since dawn.
The arrest was announced at a news conference in front of the 500-year-old oak, which is struggling to live after being poisoned two or three months ago with Velpar, a potent chemical herbicide.
Velpar Sold at Store
Police Sgt. John Jones said Cullen, who according to court records has served time for stealing narcotics from a drug store, had been the prime suspect in recent weeks. Jones noted that Velpar was sold at the feed store where Cullen lived and worked, Pearson's Farm & Ranch Supply.
Although Jones declined to offer a motive for the poisoning, he indicated that the chemical was poured in a fashion that suggested a folk ritual or curse of some sort.
Sources earlier told the Washington Post that the suspect was seen with a book on curses and rituals. Court documents filed by police Thursday also indicated that police had heard a tape recording in which Cullen "referred to the fact that he poisoned Treaty Oak."
The culprit may have been trying to use magic to cast a spell to protect a woman or because of a rivalry over a woman, according to a report in Wednesday's Austin-American Statesman, which cited sources it did not identify.
The grand oak is named for the legend that Stephen F. Austin, the father of Texas, signed a treaty with the Indians under it.
Couples have been married under its branches and since the poisoning scores of visitors have left get-well messages in front of a roped-off area that limits access to the ailing oak.
A yellow ribbon also was tied around the base of the 50-foot tree this week as a bright reminder of people's concern.
The Treaty Oak is struggling to survive the poisoning. Since it was discovered early this month, state and national experts have recommended several forms of treatment, but it was not known if the tree would live.