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

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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.

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8 Arresting Facts About Scotland Yard
Jack Taylor, Getty Images
Jack Taylor, Getty Images

Depicted in fiction for well over a century as the world's premier police force, Scotland Yard might be the most famous banner for law enforcement in history. Though the name itself is officially a term for the location of the London Metropolitan Police headquarters, it’s taken on a colloquial use to describe the collective brain trust of that station’s patrolmen and detectives. Here’s what we’ve deduced about the past, present, and future of this historic—and sometimes controversial—institution.

1. IT GOT ITS NAME FROM A TRICKY BIT OF GEOGRAPHY.

London didn’t have a formal police force until 1829, when Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel arranged for a squad to replace the fractured system of watchmen, street patrols, and the River Police. Colonel Charles Rowan and Richard Mayne were tasked with organizing the force: Mayne’s house at 4 Whitehall Place opened to an adjacent courtyard that had once been a medieval palace that hosted Scottish royalty while they were in London. This “Great Scotland Yard,” which was also reportedly the name of the street behind the building, became synonymous with Rowan and Mayne’s efforts to create a new era in law enforcement.

2. CHARLES DICKENS TAGGED ALONG ON PATROLS.

Author Charles Dickens poses for a photo
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The renowned author of Great Expectations and other literary classics wasn’t a policeman, but he did perform the 19th-century equivalent of a ride-along. Dickens was friends with Charles Frederick Field, a Scotland Yard inspector, and their relationship led to Dickens occasionally accompanying patrolmen on their nightly rounds. He even based a character in his novel Bleak House on Fields.

3. THERE WERE DIRTY COPS AMONG THE RANKS IN THOSE EARLY DAYS.

For all of the public acceptance of Scotland Yard—Londoners were initially wary of the plainclothes cops walking among them—the squad suffered a sensational blow to its image in 1877. Known as the “Turf Fraud Scandal” or the “Trial of the Detectives,” the controversy erupted after a Parisian socialite named Madame de Goncourt was conned by two men named Harry Benson and William Kurr. Scotland Yard inspector Nathaniel Druscovich was dispatched to Amsterdam to capture a fleeing Benson while others pursued Kurr. The men proved surprisingly elusive, which prompted suspicion among Scotland Yard officials. When the two con men were finally arrested, they explained that an inspector named John Meiklejohn was taking bribes in exchange for tipping off Kurr to police activity. Two other policemen were implicated; the three each received two years in prison. The high-profile breach led to a reorganization, with the Yard inserting detectives into a new Criminal Investigation Department (CID) to help minimize misconduct.

4. THEY HELPED PIONEER FINGERPRINTING.

A Scotland Yard employee examines fingerprints
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At one time, the science of fingerprinting was more of a theory than anything that could be put into practice. Most police forces instead relied on anthropometry, a system created by French police officer Alphonse Bertillon, which used 11 body measurements taken by calipers to provide a unique physical identity for an individual. While fingerprinting was beginning to take off in India in the late 1800s, the English-speaking world didn’t adopt the forensic technique of lifting and matching prints until 1901, when Sir Edward Henry, then the assistant commissioner of Scotland Yard, instituted the Metropolitan Police Fingerprint Bureau. In 1902, a billiard ball thief was convicted based on a fingerprint he left on a windowsill. In 1904, a Yard detective demonstrated the efficacy of fingerprinting at the St. Louis World’s Fair, helping spread the new science to American law enforcement officials.

5. THEIR PATROL OFFICERS DIDN’T CARRY GUNS UNTIL 1994.

The uniformed police officers who wander London’s streets with an eye on keeping the peace were unarmed for most of the 20th century. It wasn’t until 1994 that select patrol officers were permitted to carry guns, a policy shift that stemmed from increased assaults on police. The addition of firearms was limited to armed response cars intended to be dispatched to high-risk calls; previously, officers were instructed to keep their weapons in a lockbox inside their vehicles. Today, 90 percent of Metropolitan police officers go on duty without a gun, a policy largely maintained in response to a relatively low number of guns carried by civilians. Less than four in 100 British citizens own a firearm.

6. THEY HAVE A SQUAD OF “SUPER RECOGNIZERS.”

A surveillance camera is posted in London
Leon Neal, AFP/Getty Images

With surveillance cameras dotting London, facial recognition for identifying criminal suspects is in high demand. But no software can outperform Scotland Yard’s team of “super recognizers,” who are recruited for their ability to match a face to a name based on their own memory. These officers are hired by administering a facial recognition test first implemented by Harvard in 2009. Those in the top percentile have an uncanny ability to retain facial feature details and are often dispatched to cull out known criminals like pickpockets at public gatherings. One such specialist, Constable Gary Collins, identified 180 people out of 4000 while examining footage of the 2011 London riots. Software was able to identify exactly one.

7. THEY KEEP A SECRET CRIME MUSEUM HIDDEN FROM THE PUBLIC.

Housed across two floors at the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police in London is the Black Museum, a macabre cavalcade of evidence from nearly 150 years of investigative work. Established in 1875, the collection houses body parts (gallstones that failed to dissolve in acid along with the rest of a murder victim) and seemingly innocuous items that take on sinister connotations: A set of pots and pans that once belonged to Scottish serial killer Dennis Nilsen and were used to boil human flesh. It’s closed to the public, though visiting law enforcement and sometimes celebrities can secure an invite: Laurel and Hardy and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle have toured its inventory. A sample of the collection went on display at the Museum of London in 2015.  

8. YOU COULD LIVE THERE ONE DAY.

The former New Scotland Yard building at 10 Broadway
Jack Taylor, AFP/Getty Images

The Metropolitan Police have changed locations several times over the years. It was situated at its original location of 4 Whitehall Place from 1829 to 1890, then housed in a large Victorian building on the Victoria Embankment from 1890 until 1967. That’s when the operation was moved to a 600,000 square-foot building at 10 Broadway in Westminster: a famous revolving sign announced a New Scotland Yard was taking up residence. In 2014, the building was sold to investors from Abu Dhabi for $580 million: London cited operating expenses and budget cuts as the reasons for the sale. The buyers plan to mount a residential housing project in the spot. Scotland Yard staff moved to a trimmed-down facility at the Curtis Green Building in Westminster and within walking distance of the Houses of Parliament.   

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Why an Ex-FBI Agent Recommends Wrapping Your Keys in Tinfoil Whenever You Leave Your Car
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iStock

A car thief doesn't need to get their hands on your keys to break into your vehicle. If you use a wireless, keyless system, or fob, to unlock your car, all they need to do is steal the signal it emits. Luckily there's a tool you can use to protect your fob from hackers that you may already have in your kitchen at home: tinfoil.

Speaking with USA Today, retired FBI agent Holly Hubert said that wrapping car fobs in a layer of foil is the cheapest way to block their sensitive information from anyone who may be trying to access it. Hackers can easily infiltrate your car by using a device to amplify the fob signal or by copying the code it uses. And they don't even need to be in the same room as you to do it: They can hack the fob inside your pocket from the street outside your house or office.

Electronic car theft is a growing problem for automobile manufacturers. Ideally fobs made in the future will come with cyber protection built-in, but until then the best way to keep your car safe is to carry your fob in an electromagnetic field-blocking shield when you go out. Bags made specifically to protect your key fob work better than foil, but they can cost more than $50. If tinfoil is all you can afford, it's better than nothing.

At home, make sure to store your keys in a spot where they will continue to get protection. Dropping them in a metal coffee can is a lot smarter than leaving them out in the open on your kitchen counter.

[h/t USA Today]

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