WINTER PARK, FL -- An arrest has been made in the case of the Jan. 16, 2012, fire that consumed a 3,500-year-old ancient cypress tree in Big Tree Park known as The Senator. An anonymous tip to a call-in crime line and a messy trail of evidence left at the scene, on social media and at the home of the accused, led to Sara Alisha Barnes of Winter Park, FL, being charged with intentional burning of lands, a third degree felony.
According to Chief Bob Johnson, head of the investigation by the Office of Agricultural Law Enforcement, Tallahassee, FL, an anonymous call to the Central Florida Crimeline on Jan. 17 led investigators to Barnes' residence. During the interview the 26-year-old woman denied any involvement in the fire, but subsequent investigation resulted in the identification of two witnesses who gave sworn statements naming Barnes as the person responsible for starting the fire. Additional information indicated Barnes had taken photos of the fire with her cell phone and downloaded them to her laptop computer. Barnes, according to some reports, allegedly posted images of the burning cypress on a social media site.
Authorities obtained a search warrant for Barnes’ cell phone and computer and on Feb. 28 the agents with the Office of Agricultural Law Enforcement and Seminole Co. Sheriff's Office executed the warrant, seizing the items, which were then turned over to the Seminole Sheriff's Office Computer Forensics section to examine. According to a department press release, during the search, methamphetamine, scales and paraphernalia were observed, resulting in additional charges being filed by the Seminole Co. Sheriff's Office.
According to Johnson, during a subsequent interview Barnes waived her rights, admitted "she had frequented the park to use illegal drugs" and that on Jan. 16, she “started the fire in the interior of the tree so that she and another person could see what they were doing."
Despite the arrest, Johnson said the investigation is ongoing. "We are following up on additional leads. We have been 'knee deep in alligators' with this investigation," he said.
Barnes, who has bonded out of jail, has reportedly been dealing with the outrage of several people over her alleged part in the destruction of The Senator. The Big Tree Park, home of The Senator also has had to contend with souvenir seekers taking pieces of the charred tree.
Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.