SAVANNAH, Ga. -- As chain saw massacres go, this isn't the bloodiest.
But in terms of offbeat Savannah crimes, it's certainly one of the bolder ones.
City officials, alerted by a neighbor and an Abercorn Street businessman, are on the lookout for a chain saw-toting man in bright orange safety equipment who is cutting knots, or burls, off mature trees at some of Savannah's busiest intersections.
His 6-foot-long chain saw blade also makes him a bit conspicuous.
"It was the strangest thing we'd ever seen, honestly," said Chris Rawlins, manager of Kimballs, a mobile electronics store at Abercorn and 40th. "He didn't look guilty or act suspicious at all. I knew he wasn't with the city, but I thought he might have been with a tree service."
So far, about six trees have fallen prey to the mystery man's blade.
As Rawlins watched about 3 p.m. May 26, the man stepped from a dark blue or black Mustang. He had an orange cap on his head, an orange safety vest, protective eyewear and insertable ear protectors. Then he went to the trunk and pulled out that big ole chain saw.
"It looked like the blade you use to cut the whole tree down," Rawlins said. "It was a pretty (gutsy) move."
Neighborhood activist Virginia Mobley first alerted city officials to the problem about two weeks ago. Mobley, president of the Thomas Square Neighborhood Association, called Jerry Flemming, the city's director of park and tree and of cemeteries, after she noticed fresh cut marks on several trees.
In her typically feisty manner, she opened with, "I don't think this is pruning by the city, and if it is, I'm going to question your practices."
Flemming assured her the city had no part of it. City officials have found about half a dozen trees on Anderson, Henry and 34th streets that have been sawed. Most are sweetgum trees, and the working theory is the tree hacker wants the burls to make ornamental carved bowls. Police are reaching out to the arts community to spread the word the chain saw pruning needs to stop.
Burls are thick, rounded growth that form on trunks or branches. They are filled with small knots from dormant buds. That makes them prized by woodcarvers because of the unique patterns they create in bowls.
The problem is, the cutting severely damages the trees. Savannah-Chatham police Star Cpl. Tracy Walden and Flemming said police can cite the chain saw bandit with violating city ordinances and assess fines or pursue felony charges of destruction of city government property.
"This is a public tree," Flemming said. "It belongs to the citizens of Savannah. The value of the tree in real estate value and in terms of (positive environmental impact) contributes to the city. On a hot day like today, even the shade it provides is important. This is a value that we're losing because of some form of vandalism."
One tree near Abercorn and Anderson had burls cut off both sides of its trunk, and Flemming believes it can't be saved. The tree on 40th was "severely damaged," he said, and may have to be removed so that it's not at risk of eventually falling into the street. Cutting into the trunk exposed the tree to decay and, in the case on Anderson, was severe enough to compromise the structural stability of the tree. The city has worked with the International Society of Arboriculture in other cases to appraise the value of trees and determine the cost of replacing or treating them. A fully mature live oak tree, said city spokesman Bret Bell, has been valued before at up to $60,000.
Mobley is worried some of the historic old oaks might fall prey to the chain saw. With the drought, it will be harder for a damaged tree to survive.
She's asking neighbors to stay vigilant in looking for the bandit, but, considering his instrument of choice, cautious.
"You don't have to confront him," she said. "Just get his tag number and go from there."