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Defendant gets 9 years, $1,000 fine in Treaty Oak poisoning

By MARK LANGFORD

AUSTIN, Texas -- A man convicted of poisoning the historic Treaty Oak in an alleged cult ritual was sentenced Thursday night to nine years in prison and fined $1,000.

Paul Stedman Cullen, 46, of Stubenville, Ohio, was convicted of the second-degree criminal mischief charge after about 3 hours of deliberations Wednesday night for pouring the herbicide Velpar around the base of Treaty Oak in West Austin.

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The jury deliberated Cullen's sentence for about five hours Thursday.

The Treaty Oak, one of the few survivors of a stand of trees called the Council Oaks, was considered a spiritual tree by theIndians, who gathered beneath its sprawling limbs 100 years ago. It has been an Austin landmark since the days of state founder Stephen F. Austin.

The tree, once called the most perfect live oak specimen in North America, is believed to be up to 400 years old.

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Prosecutors alleged that Cullen poisoned the tree as part of an occult ritual to impress a woman. A taped-recording was played for jurors in which Cullen is heard discussing poisoning the tree, and traces of the potent Velpar were found in his pickup truck.

Cullen was living in the back of a truck in nearby Elroy when he was arrested June 29, 1989. He has been in custody since that time on a $20,000 bond.

The poisoning has left most of the tree dead, but part of the giant oak is still alive and experts are hopeful it will survive.

Defense lawyer Terry Kirk of Austin urged that Cullen be sentenced to no more than 10 years in prison. 'We don't punish people because it feels good to punish,' he said. 'We don't give in to sadistic instincts.'

Kirk told the jury that 'as we want the Treaty Oak to survive, we should try to rehabilitate this person.'

Another defense lawyer, Richard Jenkins, said, 'It would seem to me far worse for a person to be convicted of burning a corn field or a wheat field: That's food for man. This tree was beautiful ... but there are a lot more trees in th forest.'

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He said that in Cullen's crime, 'not one person was denied a grain of wheat or corn, not one drop of blood was shed.'

Prosecutors did not seek a specific sentence, but suggested that Cullen needed a 'long period of incarceration in a structured environment to reflect on his actions.'

'What he has done, he has robbed all of us and he has robbed future generations,' Assistant Travis County District Attorney Kent Anschutz said after showing the jury pictures of the Treaty Oak a year ago and now.

He called what Cullen did a 'senseless and selfish act,' not against just any tree but by Cullen's own design a state symbol.

Assistant District Attorney LaRu Woody reminded the jury of Cullen's past convictions, including a burglary conviction in 1964 in Virginia, a 1969 marijuana possession conviction in California, a 1983 DWI in Palo Pinto County and a 1983 burglary conviction in Austin.

'The harm occured not to one individual, but to the entire community,' Woody said. 'We're not claiming this was an act of normal violence, yet it was a very strange act, a very bizarre act. The strangeness and bizareness perhaps make it even more frightening ... because it was so senseless and wasteful.'

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The defense had called three witnesses, including Cullen's sister, Elizabeth Love of Plano, who urged the jury to be lenient.

'I know how much pain and anguish he has gone through in the last 10 months,' Love said. 'I've never known him to harm a living thing except himself.'

Cullen's father, retired Air Force Col. Paul Cullen of Lawton, Okla., also requested leniency, saying his son was not harmful to other people.

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