TOWN OF LONG LAKE– With birch being seen as one of the embodiements of the “Up North” or cabin feel in décor, the theft of birch logs continues to be an ongoing problem in the area.
Four men have taken that to a whole new level with the alleged theft of $74,667.20 worth of birch off a mile-long section of Washburn County Forest land.
The four men – Michael Balog, 40, of Cameron; Bradley Kent, 30, of Spooner; Andrew Mortensen, 34, no address given; and Steven Turner, 42, of Ladysmith – have been charged with one count of conspiracy to commit theft of movable property worth between $10,000 and $100,000 and a count of conspiracy to commit criminal damage to property.
If convicted, each faces a fine of up to $25,000 and/or up to 10 years in prison on the first count and a fine of up to $10,000 and/or up to 31/2 years in prison for the second.
According to the criminal complaint:
The unraveling of their plans is alleged to have come after they had cut the wood but before they could haul it all away.
A deputy arrived at their staging grounds when the sheriff’s office received a tip that suspicious vehicles were parked on a clearcut part of the county forest and they appeared to be trying to hide their trucks and tarp-covered trailers. The area was south of the ATV trail that crosses Long Lake Road north of Stowe Road in the town of Long Lake.
The first vehicle to be identified through the license plate was Kent’s, and the complaint said the deputy was aware that “Mr. Kent is a known birch thief in this area.”
Balog, Mortensen, and Kent also were suspected of birch thefts in the area, according to the complaint. The complaint lists numerous areas in Sawyer, Rusk, and Burnett counties where Balog is suspected to have cut birch, including with people other than the other three men.
At the scene, a path into the woods appeared to have had someone drive on it with a small vehicle or ATV. The deputy walked back on the trail, into the 20-acre clear-cut, and came across Turner, who, when asked what he was doing, said he was out walking in the woods. The deputy countered that, saying it was unlikely that someone would be walking through the thick underbrush and Turner obviously was stealing birch and should just come clean about it and be cooperative or he would not be given “any breaks on anything.”
Turner continued to insist he was just out for a walk and that he was alone, despite the deputy having heard him speak to another male. He denied being out with Kent, too, and he said the pruners in his pocket were for gathering leaves.
Turner was escorted out to his truck as several officers arrived, and he told officers the butane torch on the seat was for lighting cigarettes. Turner admitted to being on supervision for meth possession, theft, disorderly conduct, and obstruction.
Officers located Mortensen and Kent in the woods. Kent said he was not doing a whole lot, while Mortensen said he was working.
Both were advised that their cutting was illegal, the extent of their work taking it well beyond a simple offense, and in addition they were destroying woods with their trucks and trailers.
Kent and Mortensen reportedly said that they were back in the woods with Balog.
The men were already on probation, and a deputy told at least one of the men that, as it is described in the complaint, he is “is sick and tired of the Washburn County Sheriff’s Office tying up multiple assets for these individuals who are continually causing problems trespassing on private property, destroying private property by driving through it, as well as destroying county property, driving and making their own trails through the woods that it is not there [sic] property, nor do they have the right to do so, and their complete lack of disregard for the public’s property.”
Pay receipts found in the trucks showed Balog had made more than $1,800 for the year, Kent had made “well over” $10,000, and Mortensen had made a couple thousand dollars.
Among the items officers took into custody, along with the men and their vehicles, were four chainsaws and 2 grams of meth.
Turner and Kent’s preliminary hearings are on January 3, and each has signed a $5,000 signature bond.
Mortensen and Balog’s initial appearances are on Monday, Nov. 29.
The same conditions have been set for alll of them: They are to have no contact with each other and they are forbidden to harvest any forest products without valid permits.