AUSTIN, Tex. — When Paul Stedman Cullen was handcuffed and taken to Travis County jail June 29, other prisoners gave him the treatment usually reserved for child molesters. They taunted him. Prosecutors said they might seek a measure of punishment for Cullen more commonly associated with murderers: life in prison. Such is the level of hostility here toward a man suspected of harming not a human being but a tree--the majestic, 500-year-old Treaty Oak, a shrine of Texas history and myth.
For Cullen, 45, that sort of rejection is nothing new. The prized tree that he is accused of poisoning has become a symbol of the vulnerability of all living things, but Cullen provides an unsettling human dimension to that notion. Since his teen-age years in northern Virginia, when he lived in an expensive brick house in McLean and rebelled against his father, Paul S. Cullen, an Army colonel, his life has been shaped by alienation, cynicism, loneliness, alcoholism, drug abuse and prison.
Old friends and classmates from the McLean High School class of 1962 remember Cullen as fitting one of the two flip-side stereotypes of Army brats who populated schools near the Pentagon: They were either very good and strait-laced or rebellious and troubled. He was the latter.
Cullen had a tattoo on his arm--a coiled snake--that he told friends represented his membership in a gang when his father was stationed in Germany. But he also wrote poetry--brilliant and bizarre, according to one classmate--and could speak eloquently on the symbolism of William Cullen Bryant and Walt Whitman.
Cullen was an occasional member of a youth group that met on Sunday nights at Lewinsville Presbyterian Church in McLean. A woman who dated him when he was 16 described him as "a real loner, an outcast" constantly at odds with his father.
"His father was extremely rigid, authoritarian, an inflexible kind of person," said this woman, now wife of a minister in Nashville. "Paul felt he could never meet his father's expectations. He went off in the opposite direction, and his father washed his hands of him. My one memory of being in their house is his father screaming at him from another room."
During his junior year in high school, Cullen left home and lived with the family of the church's minister, John Graham. "He was a very cynical young man," said Graham, now retired and living in South Carolina. "When he came to us, it was with the attitude that he was doing me a favor, making me feel like a Good Samaritan by letting him live with us. He had a good mind, but he was very angry."
Graham and the former girlfriend described Cullen as a heavy drinker, probably an alcoholic, before he reached 18.
The minister said he will never forget the Christmas card he received from the Cullen family the year Paul lived with him. "The father wrote it, and it was one of those cards that spoke of the accomplishments of every member of the family, the parents and Paul's younger sister." he said. "But there was absolutely no mention of Paul. None. As though he did not exist."
The father, Paul S. Cullen, retired from the Army in 1970 and now lives in Lawton, Okla. "I have no statement to make about my son," he said over the telephone.
The younger Cullen's criminal record began the year after he left high school. He was arrested in Cincinnati on a loitering charge. Within a year came a public drunkenness arrest in Show Low, Ariz., and a breaking and entering conviction in Fairfax County, Va., that sent him to the state prison in Richmond for 18 months.
When his time was up in Richmond, he moved to California. There he was married and had a daughter. The marriage was brief, but Cullen stayed in California for most of the next decade, spending part in Los Angeles, part in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco.
He was arrested and convicted four times in California--twice for drunk driving, twice for marijuana possession. In each case, he received a suspended sentence, probation and a small fine.
At the dawn of the 1980s, Cullen arrived in Austin and began efforts to straighten out his life. He attended Capitol City Trade School and earned a diploma in drafting. Later, resumes indicate that he worked briefly as a draftsman for the city of Austin, but city clerks say they have no record of his employment. He worked briefly for two local companies before being arrested late one night in March, 1983, after breaking into a drugstore, where police found him with a pocketful of narcotics.
Cullen received probation on that conviction. He worked as a carpenter supervisor for the Job Corps in San Marcos, Tex., later that year and then hit a stretch of unemployment before landing a job with the Austin Humane Society in 1986. During that period, he lived in a one-room shack in south Austin. "It was dirty and had foul smells, and I don't know how anyone could have lived there," said Mike Cantu, who worked with him on the night shift at the animal shelter.