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Auburn University: Famous live oaks poisoned

By Phil Gast, CNN
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Auburn tree poisoning suspect arrested
  • Auburn University says someone poisoned famous live oaks
  • Radio show caller claimed he poisoned the trees at Toomer's Corner
  • City police department is conducting a criminal investigation
  • University president asks fans not to express anger inappropriately

(CNN) -- Someone put a toxic knife in the hearts of Auburn University football fans who learned Wednesday that the landmark live oaks at Toomer's Corner have been deliberately poisoned and may not survive.

The university in eastern Alabama confirmed a herbicide commonly used to kill trees and brush was deliberately applied in lethal amounts to the soil around the two 130-year-old oaks on the edge of campus, next to downtown Auburn.

"There is little chance to save the trees," the university said in a statement.

Auburn University said it learned that a January 27 caller to "The Paul Finebaum Show" in Birmingham claimed to have applied the herbicide.

As a precaution, 33 soil samples were taken the next day and were sent January 29. The expedited, final results that came back February 11 showed the levels as a "very lethal dose," according to the school.

Crews quickly ordered activated charcoal to absorb the herbicide and block its progress, university spokesman Mike Clardy told CNN Wednesday evening.

The caller claimed he poisoned the trees in late November or early December.

Auburn fan: Tree poisoning 'ridiculous'

For generations, fans of the orange and blue have thronged to the trees (named after a historic drugstore at the opposite corner of the intersection) after football victories, tossing toilet paper rolls across the tree's limbs. The latest celebration was after the Tigers defeated Oregon for the national championship on January 10.

"It is the heartbeat of the place on weekends," said Clardy.

Within 90 minutes of the press release going out, about 200 concerned students gathered at the oaks, throwing toilet paper and chanting school cheers.

"It's a criminal act," city of Auburn Police Chief Tommy Dawson, a lifelong resident of the city, told CNN Wednesday evening. "It makes you sick to your stomach to what appears to be over a football game [for someone] to poison a living tree."

Dawson was mum on details of the investigation, but said it was a top priority and he had assigned several detectives. He would not comment on whether there were any suspects, but did say there has been no arrests.

His department also serves as the police force for the university.

When asked about the call to the radio show, Dawson said, "I think it's something we want to look at."

The website of the Paul Finebaum Radio Network on Wednesday posted the audio and transcript of the call from an "Al from Dadeville."

"Let me tell you what I did the weekend after the Iron Bowl [the annual Auburn-University of Alabama game]. I went to Auburn, Alabama because I live 30 miles away," the caller said.

"And I poisoned the two Toomer's trees."

He indicated he used Spike 80DF.

"They're not dead yet, but they definitely will die," the caller said, saying he didn't care if his actions were against the law.

"Al" ended his call with "Roll Damn Tide," according to the show transcript.

Auburn defeated Alabama 28-27 in Tuscaloosa on November 26, 2010.

The university learned the herbicide is Spike 80DF, or tebuthiuron, and is manufactured by Dow Chemical.

According to the Dow website, Spike is used for long-term brush and broadleaf weed control, notably along fence rows. It usually is applied by spraying.

Auburn University, which maintains the oaks, does not use Spike, according to Clardy.

A representative from Dow Chemical is advising the university on removal procedures, and expert horticulturalists are also being consulted, according to Auburn.

Samples were sent out of state because of small fire that occurred at a lab on campus.

Scott McElroy, an assistant professor of agronomy at Auburn, told "The Paul Finebaum Show" Wednesday that the herbicide has proper uses, but the application on the live oaks was "evil." According to Auburn, even a normal application is enough to kill the trees.

"We are assessing the extent of the damage and proceeding as if we have a chance to save the trees," said Gary Keever, an Auburn University professor of horticulture and a member of Auburn's Tree Preservation Committee. "We are also focused on protecting the other trees and shrubs in Samford Park. At this level the impact could be much greater than just the oaks on the corner, as Spike moves through the soil to a wide area."

University President Jay Gogue asked members of the Auburn Family to "continue to be 'All In' in upholding its reputation for class" and not allow anger to be expressed inappropriately, the university said.

The Toomer's oaks have faced threats before, but nothing so lethal.

In 2009, the university shored up their limbs, expanded their roots area and replaced brick with concrete so water would flow in a healthier manner, Clardy said.