The Situation: Cutting Trees to get a Better View
The perpetrator in this case was Dennis Rainey, the 75-year-old founder of the marriage-counseling Family Life publishing and broadcasting empire based in Little Rock, AK. He is a Christian lifestyle influencer, an author, counselor and broadcaster. At the time of this trial, he had retired from FamilyLife, but has a continuing exemplary reputation.
This story begins in May 2021 and ends with a trial that concluded on Friday, June 2, 2023, when a 12-person jury found Dennis Rainey guilty of criminal mischief in the second degree, the lesser of the two criminal charges on the table.
The facts about the violation in the case were not in dispute. In May 2021, a sheriff’s office probe concluded that the Rainey-directed work crew had vandalized the trees found on public property owned by Central Arkansas Water. Rainey acknowledged he had cut the trees, topping some, and cutting down others and apologized, saying that he was given permission in the 1990’s to reshape the tree line if it blocked his view. The grove was located behind Rainey’s home, and he cut them to improve the view of Lake Maumelle from the family’s 40-year, Roland hilltop property.
The three-day trial included testimony from 11 witnesses, including Rainey himself, and his wife, Barbara. Rainey was charged with first-degree criminal mischief, a Class B felony that carries up to 20 years in prison because of the value placed on the trees by the water utility. The prosecution claimed the 111-tree grove was worth $109,000.
The property owners argue that the lake is the drinking water source for more than 500,000 Arkansas residents. The water utility maintains the forests that surround the 8,900-acre lake play an important role in purifying stormwater runoff that contributes to the lake and works to keep the watershed pristine. They further argued that Central Arkansas Water had not given permission for Rainey to trespass or in any way harm the trees growing there.
Rainey testified that he had asked for and received permission to cut the trees from a former executive at the water utility in 1996. After that meeting, he understood that he was allowed to scale back the trees any time as long as he only cut down the pine trees and deal with the oak trees by taking their tops off, at most. He claimed that he had followed that agreement in both 1996 and 2021. There was no proof of such an agreement beyond the initial cutting in 1996.
Apparently, the original owners of their home also had an agreement with the utility to cut the trees when they blocked the view. When the Rainey’s bought the property the trees were cleared to allow the view.
Rainey told jurors he had hoped to resolve the conflict with Central Arkansas Water in a neighborly way, but the utility never gave him a chance. He held a meeting with the executives that both sides described as cordial. Rainey claimed to be surprised that the company took their case to the sheriff’s office, leading to the probe and his arrest.
Furthermore, the defense attorneys for Rainey disputed the valuation placed on the trees that were cut. The defense conducted its own appraisals and countered the evidence that the trees were worth, at most, about $1,100, but could be valued as low as $65. Ultimately, the defense appraisals were worthless next to the review of the damages conducted by the water utility because they tried to measure the value of the trees by the standards of real estate and property that did not take into consideration of their function, to serve as a means of filtering rainwater runoff naturally so that Central Arkansas Water does not have to use more chemical purification.
Coming to a verdict took the jury about two hours, but a note to the judge after only 30 minutes indicated that they were moving in the direction of a misdemeanor. Ultimately, the jury reduced the felony to a misdemeanor second-degree criminal mischief, which showed the jurors concluded that Rainey had acted “recklessly” by having the grove cut back but that he had not committed the offense deliberately as authorities had maintained.
In the end, Rainey was assigned a $1000 fine and no jail time. However, he also received a few years of worry over a much worse potential outcome.