When the 3,500-year-old bald cypress tree known as "The Senator" burned to the ground in January, initial reports from investigators theorized that the fire might have been caused by a lightning strike.
But this week, a Florida woman was arrested on a charge of arson for burning down the tree. Sara Barnes, 26, told authorities that she and an unidentified friend were doing drugs inside the hollow tree and she lit a fire to see what she was doing.
Barnes took cellphone photos of the fire as it started and bragged about it to friends. According to officials, who said the arrest followed tips from witnesses, Barnes showed people the photos and told them "I can't believe I burned down a tree older then Jesus." She also told police that she regularly hid out in Big Tree Park, home of "The Senator," to get high.
Deputies from the Seminole County Sheriffs' Office arrested Barnes and another woman, 41-year-old Jodi Hill, at Barnes' apartment on Feb. 18. Both women were charged with possession of methamphetamine, intent to sell the drugs, and possession of drug paraphernalia. Police also confiscated Barnes' phone and laptop, where the photos of the fire were stored.
Beyond of the drug charges, there were tree-related charges filed by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which arrested Barnes on charges of intentional burning of land, a third-degree felony.
According to The Orlando Sentinel, people angry about the fire have started posting "profanity-laced comments" on Barnes' Facebook page.
"The Senator" was believed to be one of the 10 oldest trees in the world and probably the oldest in the United States. It measured 17.5 feet in diameter and 425 inches in circumference, according to the Tampa Bay Times. It got its name from Florida state Sen. Moses Overstreet, who donated the acreage that formed Big Tree Park to Seminole County. The tree and the park received hundreds of thousands of visitors a year.
Last week, Seminole County officials announced plans to install fencing and security cameras in Big Tree Park near the site of the historic tree to protect the remains of the tree and another 2,000-year-old tree nearby. The fences will cost nearly $30,000, while the security system is estimated to cost an additional $34,000.
Barnes is currently being held in Seminole County Jail.