FRANKLIN COUNTY, MO (KTVI) - Stealing walnut trees for drug money: that’s what’s happening in Franklin County. It’s part of a larger auto theft ring that investigators uncovered about a month ago.
Franklin County Sheriff Gary Toelke says at least two dozen vehicles have been stolen, mostly big trucks, even a few tow trucks. Fox 2 Now first reported the theft of a wrecker in St. Clair, caught on camera a few weeks ago.
It turns out the thieves were using the tow trucks to steal lumber.
“The tow trucks, I think they used those to help lift the logs onto some of the trucks,” Toelke said.
Why walnut trees? According to Roger Branson, owner of nearby Red Rooster Sawmill, the market is sky-high for walnut wood right now. It’s popular with interior decorators, and foreign companies are buying it in bulk. They slice the walnut into razor-thin pieces and glue it onto cheaper wood.
Branson says it’s somewhat common for walnut logs to bring in $10,000 each.
“One of the suspects they arrested had a check in his pocket, where he had sold a log, and it was a little over $2,000 for the one log,” Toelke said.
Investigators say the criminals chopped down trees on private property, and possibly on state or federal land. They sold the logs to saw mills. Then the criminals would ditch the stolen vehicles, some stripped of expensive parts.
“We think they’ve been taking orders for different parts, off the trucks. So they’ve been parting them up, selling the wood, just a combination of ways to make money,” Toelke said.
All that money, the sheriff says, was used to buy drugs.
Four suspects, Jerry Courtway, Brian Jones, Michael Smith, and Roger Sohn, face a variety of charges, ranging from vehicle theft and property damage, to receiving stolen property and drug trafficking.
Meanwhile, another stolen vehicle was recovered Thursday morning in Washington, and two people were taken into custody. Investigators believe these two suspects are associated with the four men already charged.
The sheriff says this investigation is far from over. If, in fact, walnut trees were stolen from government land, there could be some serious charges associated with that.