01:03 - Source: WTVM
Auburn student confronts Toomer's Corner fire suspect

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Jochen Wiest, 29, remained in custody as of Monday afternoon, Lee County Jail says

In August, fans allowed to resume rolling trees after previous oaks were poisoned in 2010

CNN —  

Auburn University’s revered oak trees can’t catch a break.

The trees – as much a part of the east Alabama school’s tradition as they are the landscape – were poisoned by an Alabama Crimson Tide fan in 2010 and replaced last year. Early Sunday, one of the replacement trees was torched after Auburn’s upset victory at home over the Louisiana State University Tigers.

Following wins by their sports teams, Auburn fans converge downtown at Toomer’s Corner – so named for the 120-year-old drugstore that sits cater-corner from the oaks – and gleefully toss toilet paper into the trees’ sprawling branches.

About 12:15 a.m. Sunday, just hours after the LSU win, a man lit the dangling toilet paper ablaze, according to reports. It quickly consumed the top of the tree.

The suspect, 29-year-old Jochen Wiest, was in custody on an unrelated public intoxication charge when Auburn police ruled him a suspect in the fire. Auburn police described Wiest as “not affiliated with Auburn University.”

Later Sunday, police added a charge of desecration of a venerable object and upped his bond from $500 to $1,000, authorities said in a statement.

After experts were able to assess the extent of the damage, which was estimated to exceed $2,500, police added a felony charge of first-degree criminal mischief, in accordance with state law.

Wiest was still in custody, and his bond was raised to $4,500, police said.

Auburn University had said fans were free to roll the new, healthy oaks beginning this football season.
Courtesy Auburn University
Auburn University had said fans were free to roll the new, healthy oaks beginning this football season.

A woman answering the phone at the Lee County Jail said Wiest remained in custody as of Monday afternoon.

It’s not clear whether Wiest has retained a lawyer.

The fire left the tree’s bough scorched and its leaves curled and brown, Auburn University horticulture professor Gary Keever said.

The fire left significant damage to the tree's foliage and bough, a professor says.
Courtesy Auburn University
The fire left significant damage to the tree's foliage and bough, a professor says.

“From the ground, we can easily see damage to the leaves and base of the tree. It is significant,” Keever said in a statement. “I expect the foliage will continue to drop. The full extent of damage may not be known for several weeks. The best-case scenario would be to see a flush of new growth next spring, but right now it’s too early to tell how the tree will respond.”

Keever will use a lift to inspect the tree’s canopy more closely this week, the school said.

“I don’t think the fire killed the tree, but we may never see it return to its appearance before this act,” Keever said.

Landscape crews will also need to replace the irrigation pipes used to water the trees. They melted in the fire, the university said.

Auburn University is asking students and fans to refrain from rolling the damaged oak, which fronts Magnolia Avenue, until the extent of the damage can be assessed. Fans are free to toss toilet paper into the limbs of the other oak along College Street, the school said.

Auburn fans only recently got back to the ritual of rolling the oaks after football games. The trees were poisoned in 2010 by Harvey Updyke, a self-professed fan of Auburn’s rival, the Alabama Crimson Tide. He was arrested after calling a Birmingham radio talk show to boast of his deed, which he perpetrated after Auburn overcame a huge deficit to beat Alabama in the annual Iron Bowl.

In 2013, Updyke pleaded guilty to poisoning the oaks and was sentenced to serve at least six months of a three-year sentence for criminal damage to an agricultural facility, a felony, Lee County District Attorney Robbie Treese said at the time.

The following month, Auburn conceded that its bid to save the trees had failed and cut down the iconic oaks, which were more than 130 years old.

New trees were planted last year, but the university asked fans to wait before decorating them in toilet paper. Fans learned last month the custom would continue this fall.

“This is a tremendous day for the Auburn Family and for all sports fans across the country who love the fall and football,” Ron Booth, executive director of facility operations, said in an August statement. “Our hope has been to reinstate rolling this season, and, now, we can make that announcement.”

The LSU victory marked the second time this season the trees had been rolled, the first coming after Auburn’s September 10 win over Arkansas State.