In 1989, Someone Tried to Murder a 600-Year-Old Oak Tree in Texas

Getty Images
Getty Images

A Southern live oak that presides over Baylor Street in Austin, Texas predates the city itself. For centuries, the Treaty Oak awed onlookers with its mighty trunk and sweeping branches that covered an area nearly 130 feet across. Its elegance was celebrated far beyond Austin: In 1927, the American Forestry Association named it the most perfect specimen of a North American tree.

Then, in 1989, residents noticed something peculiar about the 600-year-old landmark: A patch of dead grass had popped up beneath it, and soon after the tree began showing signs of disease. But it wasn’t the victim of a virus or an unfortunate mistake; someone had saturated the roots with large quantities of plant poison with the intention of taking the tree’s life.

Former Austin forester John Giedraitis was one of the first people to learn of the crime. Hoping to get to the bottom of the oak’s symptoms, he sent soil samples to the Department of Agriculture for analysis. Tests revealed that the dirt contained Velpar, an aggressive liquid herbicide used by pine foresters to kill any non-pine plants that invade their plantations. A few ounces of the compound is enough to kill a full-grown tree; the Treaty Oak had been poisoned with up to a gallon of the stuff. “We knew there was no accident,” Giedraitis told the Criminal podcast years later. “There was absolutely no reason to put this stuff at the bottom of this tree unless you wanted to kill the tree.”

When news of the poisoning spread throughout Austin, residents were outraged. The tree was a treasured part of the region’s history: Before European-Americans settled the land around it, the tree was revered in Tejas, Apache, and Comanche culture. A plaque beneath the site tells the (unsubstantiated) story of Texas settler Stephen F. Austin negotiating a border treaty with Native Americans on that very spot in the 1830s.

In an attempt to save the dying tree’s life, the city launched a full-blown recovery campaign. The contaminated soil was replaced with fresh dirt and the damaged roots were treated with sugar. A sprinkler system was installed in Treaty Oak Park to provide the tree a steady supply of revitalizing spring water. Other efforts were less practical: a Dallas-based psychic named Sharon Capehart tried healing the tree by transferring energy into it. (In the process, she allegedly discovered that its spirit had once belonged to an ancient Egyptian woman named Alexandria.) Without any supposed psychic gifts or tree expertise to offer, some Austin citizens responded with good vibes. Visitors made small gifts and “get well” cards that quickly piled up beneath the tree’s canopy.

As the public processed the shock and grief, the Austin police worked to nab the perpetrator. On June 29, 1989—a few months after the crime had been committed—they arrested their primary suspect: a 45-year-old local named Paul Stedman Cullen. He was convicted on a second-degree criminal mischief charge nearly a year later. His motive? Cullen poisoned the tree as part of a mystic ritual. “Prosecutors said he used the herbicide in an occult ritual to kill his love for his counselor at a methadone clinic, protect her from another man, and pay back the state for outdoor work he was forced to do while he was in prison,” The New York Times reported in 1990.

Before pouring the Velpar on the oak’s roots, Cullen had placed objects that belonged to his counselor in a circle around the trunk. He told an acquaintance that every time he passed the tree and saw it dying he would “see his love for the counselor dying.” The jury had the option to sentence him to life in prison, but in the end they settled on a sentence of nine years (which he served a third of) and a $1000 fine.

Cullen only lived to age 57 after he was released from prison. The Treaty Oak, however, endured: Though it’s only a third of the size it was in its prime, the tree remains a thriving and beloved part of the community. Acorns gathered from the tree’s first post-poisoning germination in 1997 were planted around Texas and the greater U.S., creating opportunities for the Treaty Oak’s legacy to live on for centuries to come.

11 Masks That Will Keep You Safe and Stylish

Design Safe/Designer Face Covers/Its All Goods
Design Safe/Designer Face Covers/Its All Goods

Face masks are going to be the norm for the foreseeable future, and with that in mind, designers and manufacturers have answered the call by providing options that are tailored for different lifestyles and fashion tastes. Almost every mask below is on sale, so you can find one that fits your needs without overspending.

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Home Essentials

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2. 3D Comfort Masks 5-Pack; $20 (25 percent off)

Brio

The breathable, stretchy fabric in these 3D masks makes them a comfortable option for daily use.

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3. Reusable Face Masks 2-pack; $15 (50 percent off)

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This cotton mask pack is washable and comfortable. Use the two as a matching set with your best friend or significant other, or keep the spare for laundry day.

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RipleyRader

Don’t let masks get in the way of staying active. These double-layer cotton masks are breathable but still protect against those airborne particles.

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5. Washable Protective Cotton Face Masks 2-pack; $13 (35 percent off)

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Avoid the accidental nose-out look with this cotton mask that stays snug to your face.

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6. Washable 3D Masks 12-pack; $24 (44 percent off)

Elicto

With this 12-pack of protective masks, you can keep a few back-ups in your car and hand the rest out to friends and family who need them.

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7. Reusable Dust-Proof Mask with 5 Filters; $22 (45 percent off)

Triple Grade

This dust-proof mask can filter out 95 percent of germs and other particles, making it a great option for anyone working around smoke and debris all day, or even if you're just outside mowing the lawn.

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8. Reusable Fun Face Cover / Neck Gaiter (Flamingo); $20

Designer Face Covers

Channel some tropical energy with this flamingo fabric neck gaiter. The style of this covering resembles a bandana, which could save your ears and head from soreness from elastic loops. Other designs include a Bauhaus-inspired mask and this retro look.

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9. Seamless Bandana Mask; $8 (52 percent off)

Eargasm Earplugs

This seamless gaiter-style mask can be worn properly for protection and fashioned up into a headband once you're in the car or a safe space. Plus, having your hair out of your face will help you avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth before washing your hands.

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Design Safe

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11. Neoprene/Fleece Neck and Face Mask (Purple); $10 (66 percent off)

Its All Good

This mask will definitely come in handy once winter rolls around. It features a fleece neck, face, and ear covering to keep your mask secure and your face warm.

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Prices subject to change.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links. If you haven't received your voucher or have a question about your order, contact the Mental Floss shop here.

Grave Error: A Man Attempting to Fake His Own Death Was Caught Because of a Typo

Faking one's own death is never easy.
Faking one's own death is never easy.
Johnrob/iStock via Getty Images

It’s never advisable to fake your own death under any circumstances, but if you do, it’s very important to take the time and proofread your fraudulent death certificate.

That was the lesson learned by Robert Berger, 25, a Long Island resident who tried to convince authorities he was dead by forging documentation. According to CNN, Berger was charged with fourth-degree possession of stolen property in December 2018 as well as third-degree attempted grand larceny in June 2019. Entering a guilty plea for both, he was expected to be sentenced on October 22, 2019.

But instead of showing up for court, Berger was nowhere to be found. His attorney, Meir Moza, claimed his client had died.

Days later, Moza gave the court a copy of Berger’s “death certificate,” which was provided by Berger’s fiancé. The certificate listed Berger’s cause of death as suffocation as a result of suicide. But officials were suspicious of the fact that the word registry had been misspelled as regsitry three times throughout the document and that different font types had been used.

Prosecutors made an inquiry to the New Jersey Department of Health, Office of Vital Statistics and Registry to confirm that they did indeed know how to spell registry and concluded that the document was a forgery.

Moza denied any role in the deception and prosecutors with Nassau County did not charge him. Berger, on the other hand, is now a subject of high interest. Curiously, he had been in prison in Pennsylvania since being arrested on other charges for providing a false identity to law enforcement in November 2019. He has since been extradited to Nassau County and now faces four years in prison for the new charge of offering a false instrument for filing, which is a felony.

Berger’s current legal troubles will need the aid of someone other than Moza, who has ended his representation of his un-deceased client.

[h/t CNN]