HOW A BROKEN NEON PALM TREE RILED UP A DISPOSAL COMPANY AND THE U.S. ATTORNEY
By BERNADETTE WILSON, PRESIDENT-DENALI DISPOSAL
SPECIAL TO MUST READ ALASKA
‘Like a scene from Disney’s animated film Cinderella’, …that’s what I told my attorney.
Cinderella’s snobbish, stuck up stepsisters throw into piles, sashes, clothes, accessories, and – ‘these beads! I’m sick of looking at them! Trash!’ proclaims one step sister.
Later Cinderella will come down ready for the ball dressed in what her stepsisters called ‘trash’ and they will instantly rip apart Cinderella’s gown declaring ‘ You little thief! Those are my beads!’
I’m no Cinderella, but no doubt when it comes to a Palm Tree in Spenard, the federal government plays the role of the villainous stepsister very well.
The U.S. Marshals said the Palm Tree was trash.
It was Monday morning, November 6, 2017. For nearly an hour, we walked through the Paradise Inn, escorted and directed by a U.S Marshal who told us what we were to dispose of. Roughly 50 pictures taken within the same 1 hour window would serve as reference for what we were to haul away – washers, driers, refrigerators, TV’s, glassware, dressers – and a neon palm tree.
As we wrapped up our tour through the cold and dark Paradise Inn, we made our way outside. There, at the base of the palm tree, we were told to get rid of it. As we snapped pictures, I commented that I thought it was ‘kind of cool’ and asked of the US Marshal ‘ Do you care if we keep it?’
NO, he replied– we don’t care if you keep it. Unequivocally, positively he responded – we don’t care, just get it down. People were attempting to cut through the fence, it was a ‘liability’ we were told. Why would you want to keep it? The neon doesn’t work, it’s busted up and junk I was told. We talked and snapped pictures.
I was born and raised in Alaska. My dad grew up in Spenard when Spenard was still listed on birth certificates as a ‘place of birth’. My grandfather built the Hotel Captain Cook and several other prominent buildings. My great uncle was twice Alaska’s governor. I cherish my Aleut heritage. I have about as deep of roots in Alaska as you can get.
I thought the Palm Tree neat, ‘iconic’ as some would say. While most other commercial refuse companies wouldn’t have thought twice, I didn’t want to see the tree laid to rest in the landfill.
Because of the intent to keep it, we would need a little extra time to coordinate it’s safe handling and I was headed out of town for 2 weeks. We could start to remove everything else, but would have to wrap up the tree portion when I returned. The U.S. Marshal would agree and on a tally sheet of items to get rid of (which I still have ), he wrote down his contact info for me to coordinate with him upon my return. Two weeks later, I would call U.S. Marshal Chapman and coordinate the sign removal.
It was then that the U.S. Marshal informed me that Jim Barkeley from the U.S. Attorney’s office had spoken to the Anchorage Daily News about the sign possibly going up for auction. Not Barkeley’s decision I was told, the US Marshals are head of assets and forfeitures for the US Government and Berkley had spoken out of turn and unauthorized.
It made sense to me. After all, we had been given strict instructions that due to the nature of the illegal activity at the Inn, we weren’t to discuss the project with anyone that might come asking, especially reporters.
I hadn’t seen the article, but I’ve been around long enough to know that the local gossip newspaper has gotten quotes and context wrong almost as much as they get it right.
The ADN had called the Marshals – they had declined comment. How did they get ahold of Barkeley? Why did he comment? He was out of line I was told, perhaps too excited to make a name for himself and his ego got the best of him. Were we still suppose to remove the tree? Did they still care if we kept it?
Yes, remove the tree. No, we don’t care if you keep it. It’s a rusted, non- functioning neon sign and the government isn’t interested in ‘sentimental value’, I was told.
Great news. Rather than busting it up and throwing it into the back of a roll off dumpster we would ‘eat’ the cost ourselves and cover the expenses of taking the tree down with extra help, equipment and care. Time, energy, man power, equipment and storage – expensive? Yes.
Call me crazy, but with roots as deep as mine and the trees, we would cover the cost.
Sitting at the dinner table that same week with my mom and dad, who double as my business partners and most trusted advisors, we discussed the expense involved. And the big question – then what do we do with it? I found myself playing attorney in an end of life case for a Palm Tree. Maybe the museum would want it? Maybe we see about putting it up next to the windmill in Spenard? Let’s see who in the community is interested in helping us out with it and what other ideas are out there…The brain trust at the dining room table was on board.
The day before removal, I called again to confirm with the Marshals. We spoke and I would later follow up with an email confirming our conversation. I still have the email.
The next morning, November 30, 2017 we would arrive to remove the Palm Tree. It was cold. The crew arrived at 7 am knowing that my insistence that the tree be handled with care would take a chunk of the day. Everyone had their marching orders and any interruptions/questions by anyone that might show up (namely press) were to be directed to the Marshals.
I would text the Marshal periodically, giving updates on our progress. A friendly back and forth conversation, still on my phone that ended with a ‘Thank You’ from the Marshal. The Palm Tree had been removed. Not in the dead of the night, not a secret, but in broad daylight, middle of the lunch hour we worked, and in constant contact with the head of assets and forfeitures for the federal government.
Time, energy and money – all on our own dime – and well worth it. We would later deal with pigeons in the tree – some dead, some alive refusing to leave the rafters of the shop.
A front page, big picture of the Palm Tree would appear on the front of ADN the following morning. No one would call me to say it was a mistake, no one would ask for it back.
ENTER JIM BARKLEY, U.S. ATTORNEY
What we didn’t know is that much later we would deal with Jim Barkeley from the U.S. Attorney’s office…Two week later actually. Apparently, that’s the government’s definition of ‘immediately’ according to court documents.
Just past noon our office phone would ring. Everyone else out to lunch, I answered the phone. It was the most rude and demanding conversation I have ever been approached with and definitely the most unprofessional we have ever received on our business line. I didn’t know who I was talking to – ‘who is this and who are you?’ I asked.
Jim Barkeley – US Attorney’s office he informed me. Do you still have the Palm Tree? Did you end up keeping it or did it go in the landfill after all? He proceeded to holler that we ‘weren’t authorized’ and that we had ‘stolen government property’ and that he wanted it back.
I politely informed him I had no idea if he was who he claimed to be and that we had been strictly informed we weren’t to discuss the Paradise Inn with anyone. Quite disturbed, I ended up asking several times for a phone number that I could call back. Barkeley would end up telling me he was going to ‘cut to the chase’ and I could work with him ‘quickly and quietly’ and give him the sign or there would be problems for us. He would end up talking over the top of me and progressively getting more aggressive before I could finally get him off the phone.
Roughly 20 minutes later as I went to call the Marshals, my phone rang – Barkeley had called them.
I was told Barkeley was out of line. That he was about to retire. It was suspected that Berkeley had promised something to someone on his way out the door. And that Barkeley had mentioned that he was concerned for his reputation – after all remember, he had misspoken and told a reporter that the Palm Tree would be auctioned. I was told to ignore him. Don’t return his phone call(s) and I was assured we had done nothing wrong. Again I was told the government doesn’t get involved in sentimental value and the Marshals would deal with Barkeley.
At the Marshal’s request, I sent an email recounting Barkeley’s shocking behavior.
That email I still have. The apologizing voicemail Barkeley left on my phone the next day – I still have that too. And once I hired an attorney, the US Attorney’s office would offer an apology as well.
Harassing phone calls from Barkeley would continue for days. Sometimes he left a voicemail, sometimes he didn’t. Sometimes he left his name, sometimes he didn’t. One voicemail he notes it’s after hours and asks me to call his cell phone. He left a message telling me the FBI wanted an update (*you are free to laugh at this point). He left another message looking for me on a phone that wasn’t even mine.
I have all the voicemails. I have the call log screen captures. They never made it to court.
I remained in contact with the Marshals during these times letting them know he wouldn’t stop.
After nearly a week of this, three weeks after the Palm Tree had come down, the Marshals called saying Barkeley was now getting so frustrated and causing such a ruckus – could they get the sign back long enough to sort through this? The Marshals never disputed we could keep it – even at this point.
I requested something in writing. The next day federal agents would come into our office flashing badges attempting to intimidate – and that afternoon I would spend with my attorney.
I had witnesses, pictures, email and phone records – and we were headed to court.
Because of a Palm Tree, yes. But also because of principle, ironically enough at a time when the federal government is severely lacking in principles. We went to court because the federal government shouldn’t be able to bully a small business and no federal agent should ever be able to talk to any woman the way Barkeley talked to me. The feds shouldn’t be allowed to steal back any item after a private company has willingly incurred the expenses because they did see the value in removing it and storing it with care. Federal overreach should always be fought.
DAVID AND GOLIATH
And the government shouldn’t be wasting tax payer money fighting over a Palm Tree they said was trash. Don’t they have bigger issues at stake? If not – we just found a place to cut the budget.
I’ve been asked why we ‘picked a fight with the federal government?’ We didn’t. Three weeks after we followed orders they picked a fight with us. It was asked by a federal agent ‘Do they realize they will never get another federal contract if they fight us on this?’
Maybe they haven’t studied history much. Alaskans – lifelong Alaskans especially – we stand up for principles. My great uncle spent his life fighting the federal government. My Alaska Native ancestors fought the feds long before any of us were around and for far more admirable causes and issues than a sentimental Palm Tree. I guess you could say it’s in my blood.
I had kept a list of people and businesses that had called offering to help with the Palm Tree. While we had discussed the Museum or the windmill in Spenard while at the dining room table, we knew our Anchorage neighbors may have other, better ideas. And when the court decision was done, we would have a public discussion for any ‘long timers’ or anyone else interested.
The court decision has come. Give it to the Feds. Behind the scenes, everyone involved has referred to the whole ordeal as ‘Barkeley’s parting shot’.
We would have liked an evidentiary hearing. For now, the emails, texts and phone records will never be discussed in front of a judge and the witness stand will remain empty. And the question remains ‘ Why does the federal government, prompted by one man, want a Palm Tree? What will they do with it? Will it stay in Anchorage?
And the biggest question yet… Should we appeal…? – Watch the video, read the documents below, and give us your thoughts.
As the saying goes… ‘One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.’