ENCINO — From the cover of nearby bushes, they studied the lay of the land, the fall of the shadows from the floodlights, the movements of the police officers. When the time was right, the artifact hunters ducked under the yellow police tape to make a grab for the loot.
All night Sunday and much of Monday, police officers chased off the bark burglars and twig thieves--mostly law-abiding neighbors whose despair over the loss of the 1,000-year-old Lang Oak tree momentarily overcame them.
"If I let you take some, then I'd have to let everyone take some," Los Angeles Police Officer Tim Olsen explained Monday to a man with a camera in one hand and a hunk of tree in the other.
The man tossed back the hunk in his hand--but not the knot of wood he'd slipped into his front pocket before Olsen and partner Robert Runnels arrived.
"It got out of control," said LAPD Sgt. Dan Mastro. "It's sad that we had to take two policemen off the street to watch a tree."
But then, why not just let everyone just haul off a bit of wood? Give the cleanup crews the day off after a week of wet work, maybe? Let human nature take its course, saving the taxpayers a few cleanup bucks in the process?
Because this was the Lang Oak, that's why--a tree that was already 500 years old when Christopher Columbus set sail and which city officials and volunteer arborists, schoolchildren and senior citizens have fought for decades to keep in place and healthy. It's still a city-owned cultural treasure.
And city officials worried about liability if an oak scavenger came a cropper.
Indeed, while powers as elevated as a city councilwoman and Los Angeles' chief forester were pondering just what to do with the beloved oak, the immediate concern became security.
At one point, souvenir seekers were swiping remnants of another tree, a decidedly different evergreen that city workers had recently gathered up, believing erroneously that they were nabbing pieces of the famed behemoth.
By Monday afternoon, limbs and slices from the real Lang Oak were being kept at a city recycling center.
Which city recycling center?
"Well, I really can't tell you that," said Bob Kennedy, the chief forester.
"And it's under security."
Since the seven-story patriarch of Los Angeles' oak trees fell Saturday night, the victim of torrential rains and gusty winds, city officials as well as neighbors have worked around the clock. They have toiled not only to protect Encino's grand namesake but to decide how it should be treated in death, how it might be memorialized, how it might be moved.
The plan is to cart its massive trunk away for safekeeping while Kennedy (who has cared for the tree for 23 years), Ellen Stein, president of the city's board of public works (who fell in love with the tree when she moved to Encino 23 years ago), and City Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, seek input from the community on what to do with it.
Some suggestions include parceling out slices of the tree to local schools and museums, and perhaps returning the shorn trunk to its Louise Avenue Park, where it might be placed on a yet-to-be-designed display platform.
Even lifting the rain-soaked hulk, which is some 24 feet in circumference, is proving a daunting task, however. Public works employees first tried hoisting the trunk with one of their standard 13-ton capacity cranes, Kennedy said. It went nowhere. They brought in a bigger crane. Nothing.
They hope to borrow a crane capable of hoisting 125 tons from the Department of Water and Power, Kennedy said, but he's not entirely sure that will do the trick either.
Then there's the issue of a truck big enough and sturdy enough to transport the carcass, not to mention the logistical difficulties of driving it across town. And even the president of the board of public works needs to secure permits before she can have monstrous trees moved around town, said Stein.
A couple of conspiracy-minded neighbors suggested that the tree had been cut up too quickly when it might actually have been saved and replanted--sawed to pieces, they theorized, in order to open up the tiny island of midstreet real estate for development.
"There could have been a little bit of patience," said a woman in a cap that read "Compost Happens," who called herself Carol.
Stein said she would not even validate such suspicions with a response.
Kennedy said a total of six professional arborists--three employed by the city and three outsiders--inspected the downed giant, with some of the inspections coming right after the tree fell and more after some minor pruning had taken place. None of the six believed that any of the tree could be saved, he said.
"Trust me," Kennedy said, "I loved that oak tree."
So did Paula Molino, who moved into a nearby condominium 17 years ago because of the tree.
Molino's grandmother was named Louise, "and she was strong as an oak," Molino recalled. The combination of a magnificent 1,000-year-old oak out her front window on a street named Louise made her home-hunting easy.
"Now, without our tree, those of us who have lived here for some time are most unhappy," Molino said, her eyes welling up. "We have lost our best friend."