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Witness reveals information about Honking Tree incident

The Honking Tree along Minnesota Highway 61 three miles south of Two Harbors was found April 30, 2009, cut down by vandals. (Forrest Johnson / Lake County Chronicle)

It was supposed to be a hearing about where to put a Honking Tree memorial. Eight people were in the audience Thursday night ready to offer ideas.

But there were gasps as the first speaker told the Two Harbors Trees and Trails Commission what she saw the night before the Honking Tree was discovered lying on the ground April 30.

She said she saw a man dressed "all in white" -- white hard hat, long white coat, probably in his 50s -- with a small chainsaw. "I thought it was a tree doctor," she said. He had a white pickup, with flared fenders but no emblems or identifying marks for a tree trimmer or other business. She could see everything perfectly, she said, because it was still light -- between 7 and 7:30 p.m. -- which she knows because she was riding with her

sister who doesn't like to drive at night.

"We locked eyes," she said, adding he wore safety goggles. He wasn't using the chainsaw, just standing near the tree.

Lake County Sheriff Carey Johnson confirmed on Friday that the report had been taken, along with other leads in the case, but said it wasn't reported to the public to protect the investigation. He said the description the woman offered was one of the most detailed his office has received and it was acted on.

"We're following everything," he said. "Do we have a suspect? No."

Johnson talked with the woman -- who is in her 40s and who asked not to be identified publically for fear of retribution by whoever cut the tree -- again Friday after hearing that she told her story the night before at a public meeting.

She said she knows the Honking Tree, admitted she climbed it a few years ago, and recalled the tales her grandparents told about why you should honk as you pass it. "They told me there was a little bird in the tree," she said.

At the commission meeting, she said she didn't report what she saw to the sheriff's office until about a month later, when the tree was gaining the attention of the media, adding: "I was busy, maybe."

Johnson told the Lake County News Chronicle there were other reports that people linked to the felling of the tree that night. He said neighbors recalled a buzzing sound about 10:30 p.m. that could have been a chainsaw or a motorbike. A red car was seen parked along the southbound side of the expressway around 2 a.m. No license plates were recorded on the car or the white truck.

Johnson said he was interested in the "man in the white coat" account because the eyewitness says the chainsaw wasn't very large. That might tie in with a theory, Johnson said, that the large trunk was simply girdled and the tree disabled enough to fall over in the heavy winds that night. Johnson said he will have to look again at the stump piece that is in the evidence room.

Johnson said he understands the frustration of the eyewitness in a case that has lingered for 11 months. "It meant a lot to a lot of people and we want to get it solved." He said he's sure that one day he will know who cut the tree down. "But we might not be able to prove it."

As to why it took the woman a month to report it, Johnson said she had a lot going on in her life "and the last thing she was worried about was a tree."

Plus, she was having an odd relationship with the sheriff's office, considering her brother was in the county jail at the time.

"I apologize," she told the News Chronicle Friday of her delay in reporting. "I guess I just didn't know who to turn to, who to trust."

She said when she heard rumors flying around the county about who may have cut the tree down, she had to say what she knew. "I knew who it wasn't, and that's why I went forward."

Yet she said she didn't have a good enough look to point him out of a lineup.

"It's been eating at me," she said. "I know. It was one lone man, looking official."