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California couple fined for digging up and burying Joshua trees

A California couple has been fined for digging up and burying dozens of protected Joshua trees to make room for a home they were building, officials said.

Jeffrey Walter and Jonetta Nordberg-Walter, residents of San Bernardino County, have been ordered to pay $18,000 as part of a diversion agreement — the terms they must fulfill in order to have the 36 misdemeanor counts — one for each uprooted tree — against them dismissed.

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The couple has opted not to have attorneys in the case, Supervising Deputy District Attorney Douglas Poston told the media.

The media was not able to find contact information for the pair. Poston told the Los Angeles Times that the couple mistakenly believed small trees could be removed.

Poston has worked in San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Consumer Environmental Protection unit for about a decade, and although he’s dealt with cases concerning threatened or endangered wildlife, this is his first prosecution for an offense like this involving trees, he said.

It is “illegal to disturb, move, replant, remove or kill” Western Joshua trees, which are a candidate for species under California’s Endangered Species Act, according to California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife. The spiky desert icons, part of the agave family, are native to the Mojave Desert, can grow up to 40 feet high and can live for 150 years on average.

The wildlife department was tipped off to the illegal uprooting by a neighbor who called in February to alert the agency’s tip line, according to Poston and a joint news release from the prosecutor’s office and the wildlife department.

The couple was gone by the time a responding wildlife officer arrived, but he found “what was clearly a freshly dug and refilled hole,” the department said. Using a backhoe, the officer was able to dig up the buried trees, the department said.

The property, which is about an acre in size, is about 5 miles from Joshua Tree National Park, according to Poston.

The couple can move forward with construction of a house on the property, though many protected trees remain, Poston said. As part of the diversion agreement, they will also volunteer at the national park, Poston said.

The married couple was cooperative in the investigation, though they were initially reluctant to admit fault or responsibility, Poston said.

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“Most California citizens who reside in Joshua Tree habitat revere these iconic desert species, more so now than ever because of its degraded population status,” said Nathaniel Arnold, deputy chief of the state wildlife department’s law enforcement division.

“We’re pleased to see the citizen tip led to a successful disposition and we hope it serves as a deterrent to others who may think it is acceptable to unlawfully remove Joshua Trees to make way for development,” the release states.

The landowners originally faced a fine up to $4,100 and/or up to six months in jail for each count.

The pair is slated to return to court in December. If they do not comply with all terms of the diversion agreement, the San Bernardino County District Attorney plans to proceed with prosecution, the news release states.

If you kill a Joshua Tree and if the evidence is there we will prosecute. It’s a crime. You don’t have to like the law, but it’s the law and we take it very seriously,” Poston said.

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At least 9 dead after partial building collapse near Miami

What we know so far

  • At least nine people are dead, officials said on Sunday during a news conference.
  • There are at least 152 people missing after a residential building partially collapsed in Surfside, Florida, Thursday. Search and rescue teams are racing to find survivors.
  • Emergency officials are also asking people to call 305-614-1819 if they have relatives who are unaccounted for.
  • The cause of the collapse is still unknown

Survivors felt shaking during construction on nearby building, a Surfside commissioner says

Eliana Salzhauer, one of three town commissioners for Surfside, Florida, said Sunday night that survivors of the Champlain Towers South collapse she encountered have said they felt shaking during construction on a nearby building in recent years.

Salzhauer also said a 2018 report completed by structural engineers was alarming.

Family members of people missing in the rubble, including Magaly Ramsey, daughter of missing Magaly Delgado, also told CNN their family members had been concerned about shaking from the nearby construction. 

Salzhauer said some survivors told her they were bothered by all the shaking of their building that had occurred while a high-rise was being constructed next door. They told her there was shaking, cracking and water leaking in the garage, she said.

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“They were very traumatized and shook up,” she said, saying that she heard people saying the building “was shaking all the time,” during the construction.

An email to the town’s building official, Ross Prieto, in 2019 from Mara Chouela, a member of the condo’s board, says she is concerned the nearby construction was “digging too close to our property.”

She said: “We have concerns regarding the structure of our building.”

Regarding the Champlain Towers North and East that are under a voluntary evacuation, Salzhauer said they have yet to find a reason for concern.

“We have not found an immediate life safety issue that would cause people to panic and run for their lives or we would have already evacuated. We don’t want this to happen again,” she said.

The names of four more victims of the partial building collapse have been released by police

The identities of four additional deceased victims in the partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South condo building were released by Miami-Dade Police on Sunday night.

The victims were identified as Leon Oliwkowicz, 80; Luis Bermudez, 26; Anna Ortiz, 46; and Christina Beatriz Elvira, 74, a tweet from the agency said.

Oliwkowicz, Bermudez, and Ortiz were all recovered Saturday while Elvira was recovered Sunday, according to the tweet.

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One victim, Stacie Fang, 54, was publicly identified Friday while three more, Antonio Lozano, 83, Gladys Lozano, 79, and Manuel LaFont, 54, were identified Saturday night.

At least nine people were killed after the residential building partially collapsed in Surfside, Florida, on Thursday. One victim remains unidentified, Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said earlier during a Sunday night news briefing.

A total of 134 people have been accounted for while 152 remain unaccounted for, she said.

May those dead souls rest in peace. Amen