Action News Rewind: Virgin Mary Tree controversy

FRESNO COUNTY, Calif. -- This week on Action News Rewind, we take a look back at the Virgin Mary Tree controversy. The images and interviews shown in this episode have not been previously available online - until now.

"I don't remember initially how we were alerted to it," recalls Action News photographer Richard Harmelink.

The story began in late 2002, when lightning struck a large tree near Avocado Lake along the Kings River. Not long after, many flocked to view what they believed to be an image of Virgin Mary at the top of the burnt stump.

"I mean, I saw what people were looking at - it looked like the Virgin Mary, the way she is in a lot of the statues," said Harmelink.

What used to be an unremarkable plot of private land rapidly became a place of prayer for hundreds. Without the approval of the private landowner, park benches and walkways were installed to allow easy access to the Virgin Mary Tree. Photographs, statues, candles and personal items were attached to the tree.

Days later, a rumor emerged of locals planning to cut down the tree, citing an undesired increase in traffic, illegal parking and litter.

"Why do these people want to do that? If they don't like her, if they don't believe in her, leave her alone," one concerned visitor said to Action News.

Overnight, a local man cut down the tree. The following morning, he spoke to ABC30 Action News and proudly claimed responsibility for his action.

"They got to be doing drugs. I mean, anybody would see that is just a stump. Give me a break," said Bill Gaede, the local who chopped down what many believed to be a supernatural gift.

Action News photographer Richard Harmelink recalls the reaction from visitors, "The reaction ... I mean, people were crying. People were sad."

Alta Irrigation, the owner of the property on which the stump laid, moved the fallen tree and planned to post "No Trespassing" signs on the land.

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