Chop a Trunk, Go to Jail

Arnold Wiseman just wanted to make a tree sculpture. But in Coral Gables, that can lead to major problems.

Coral Gables is not only the City Beautiful, as its motto immodestly proclaims. It is also a "Tree City USA" -- meaning it has been recognized by the National Arbor Day Foundation for meticulously tending the poincianas, oaks, black olives, ficus, and banyans that arc over its streets and shade its million-dollar homes.

In fact, among the first ten ordinances enacted when the city incorporated in 1925 was one that protected every tree, bush, and flower on public property. Anyone who damaged such vegetation faced a fine or jail time. To this day city employees zealously monitor the foliage. How zealously? Ask landscape architect Arnold Wiseman.

Last month Wiseman was working on a tree along Caligula Avenue in front of a house owned by David and Joan Kasner, Wiseman's long-time landscaping clients. The tree stands on land owned and maintained by the city, land which also happens to be part of the Kasners' front yard. Inadvertently Wiseman incurred the wrath of a city worker and, as could happen only in Coral Gables, he now stands charged with a felony.

Like Tehran under Khomeini, Coral Gables has rules for just about everything. You're not allowed to park a pickup truck in front of your house overnight. If you want to paint the outside of your house, the city must approve the color. To paint the inside of your house, you need a permit. Homeowners face fines if their hedges grow too tall, if their lawns aren't mowed, or if boats and trailers are visible from the street. Restaurants have been fined for displaying menus in glass cases. An amphetamine-crazed Martha Stewart couldn't dictate a more rigid aesthetic code.

The tree in question, a black olive, was damaged in a storm a couple of months ago. In preparation for its removal, city employees trimmed the tree until all that remained was a barrel-straight trunk roughly ten feet high. But where city workers saw mere scrap wood, Wiseman, who is also an accomplished wood-carver, saw a potential sculpture. He discussed his vision with the Kasners and they agreed the tree trunk might be carved into something visuallly pleasing -- in this case, a statue of a fisherman in honor of David, an avid sportsman. "Here was a tree we knew they were going to remove, and it's in our front yard," Joan Kasner says. "We had no idea a permit would be involved. That's how innocently this all started."

For three days the 45-year-old Wiseman, a small, lean man with a precisely trimmed gray beard, attacked the trunk with a chain saw and a wood-carving tool called a cutter-mattock. Another tool Wiseman carries when working outdoors is a .380 semiautomatic pistol, holstered under his work shirt. "This is Miami," he says with a shrug, quickly adding that he has the proper concealed-weapons permit.

Friday, April 17, after Wiseman had been sculpting for several hours, city worker Troy Springmyer, along with two other city employees, drove by and stopped to ask Wiseman what he was doing. "He came up to me saying, 'You can't do that. You need a permit. It's against the law. You should have called me.' He was very aggressive," Wiseman recalls. "I'm thinking, 'Who are you?'"

The two men exchanged words. Tempers flared. Wiseman says he became angry when Springmyer, a superintendent in the city's Public Service Department, allegedly threatened to destroy the emerging statue.

Springmyer claims Wiseman brandished his "ax" and said he "was going to chop [my] head off," according to a police account of the incident. Springmyer's two colleagues corroborated his version of events.

Wiseman concedes he became angry but denies he threatened to commit violence. "I never threatened that gentleman," Wiseman says. "I had the tool in my hand because I had been working on the tree, but I never raised my hand."

Nonetheless one of the city workers summoned police. Three officers responded and interviewed everyone at the scene. Springmyer insisted on filing charges. So the police handcuffed Wiseman, placed him in a patrol car, and drove him to the Coral Gables Police Department, where he was fingerprinted and photographed. Then he was transferred to a holding cell (where he was fed a turkey-and-cheese sandwich) and finally to the Miami-Dade Pretrial Detention Center. Wiseman, who has no criminal history ("Not even a speeding ticket," he says) is now accused of aggravated assault, a felony.

Springmyer didn't return a telephone call seeking comment for this story. His boss, Public Service director Daniel Keys, says trees and ordinances aren't the issue: "Springmyer was afraid for his life. Basically the gentleman had a gun on him and an ax in his hand. I'd be nervous too." Wiseman counters that he never displayed the gun or even mentioned it to Springmyer. He voluntarily mentioned it to police after they arrived.

"I happen to know Arnold very well," says David Kasner's 30-year-old daughter Beth, who was in the house at the time. "I find it very hard to believe he would have threatened anybody. But I didn't witness it." She did, however, look through a window in time to see Wiseman being loaded into the police car. Immediately she ran outside and quizzed Springmyer, whose comments she wrote down after returning to the house. According to those notes, Springmyer said Wiseman had waved a chain saw at him, not an ax.

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