This story is over 5 years old.


Arborcide in Brooklyn

Somewhere along the line, Steve Maynard lost control. He used to live a normal life. He was a husband and a father employed as a construction worker in New Jersey. Then tragedy struck--schizophrenia zeroed in on his mind like a shot out of the sky, and...
Κείμενο Vinnie Rotondaro

Steve Maynard at his court hearing in September, during which the judge ruled he was mentally unfit to stand trial because of his psychosis. Photo by Jesse Ward.

Somewhere along the line, Steve Maynard lost control. He used to live a normal life. He was a husband and a father employed as a construction worker in New Jersey. Then tragedy struck—schizophrenia zeroed in on his mind like a shot out of the sky, and everything fell apart.


Close to a decade ago, when he was in his late 20s, Maynard returned home to his mother, a Jamaican immigrant living in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Desiree Maynard tried to help, but in the end she could only watch as her son stopped taking his medication, went incommunicado, and began to drift into insanity.

It started with solitary walks to the corner of Franklin Avenue and Eastern Parkway, where Maynard would stand, hands in his pockets, shifting his weight from right foot to left, whispering to himself for hours. Over time, along these walks, he became fixated on the trees that lined his path. He would talk to them, holding entire conversations with their bark and leaves. Or rather, that’s what it looked like. Maynard wasn't actually speaking to the trees; in his mind he was addressing the demons he saw crouching in their branches.

Steve Maynard had entered a state of psychosis. He needed a psychological intervention, and he wasn’t going to volunteer himself for one any time soon. And so, left alone to wander and lose himself in a waking nightmare, he went on an unusual sort of rampage: Over the spring and summer months of 2010, Maynard ravaged scores of city-owned trees. Of course, he was arrested, but it took a while—about five months—and by then he had done almost a quarter million dollars of damage to trees, exposed gaping holes in our mental health care system, and posed a troubling societal question.


Maynard technically wasn’t a violent threat to himself or anyone else, so he couldn’t be forced to take medication, and refusing treatment was his constitutional right. Yet he was too far gone to help himself, and the few community mental health resources available did nothing to intervene. His insanity, left untreated, stretched beyond the confines of his mind and touched an entire community.

Not much is known about Maynard’s past. Depending on whom you ask, he’s been breaking trees in the neighborhood for two years, eight years, 15 years, or some other period of time.

Crown Heights resident Michael Kunitzky first heard about Maynard three years ago when he was planting a baby crab apple tree along Franklin Avenue, one of Crown Heights’ busiest streets. A white 36-year-old, Kunitzky had recently moved to the neighborhood, which has a storied history of complex race relations. For years its population was almost entirely African American, West Indians, and Hasidic Jews. In 1991, a three-day riot erupted between the Jews and the blacks. Today, gentrification (primarily in the black part of town) provides a new community narrative, a new form of racial and class tension.

As Kunitzky dug a hole for his tree, older residents started dropping by to chat. They thanked him for beautifying the block, but they also offered a warning. “Hate to give you the bad news,” they said, “but there’s this guy…”
About six of his new neighbors told him the same thing: There was a mentally ill man in the neighborhood who destroyed trees, and the crab apple might prove a tempting target. Kunitzky was worried, but his plant was left unharmed—at least for the time being.


It’s possible that in 2008 Maynard was still of sound mind. By 2009, however, branches began appearing along the sidewalks near his residence. By 2010, they’d become an increasingly common sight. Most figured it the doing of kids or trucks. Only a few knew it was largely attributable to one man.

Though his mother and lawyer declined to comment for this story, many had seen him. Maynard was a “that guy” kind of guy. He was husky, African American, close to six feet tall with matted stalks of hair and a bushy, unkempt beard. He used to walk around the neighborhood gesturing to himself, fiddling with his hands as if he were working on a complicated math problem or reeling an imaginary fishing rod. “He was a loner,” said Frank Esquilin, Maynard’s next-door neighbor. “He never said anything to nobody and nobody said anything to him, and that was it.”

But Maynard talked to trees of all kinds without discrimination: oaks, maples, zelkovas, lindens, and anything else with branches. When the discussions grew sour and it came time to destroy the source of his torment, he did so calmly and methodically, stripping off smaller branches with his hands and leaving smooth tracts of exposed wood. If a branch were on the larger side, he would use his full body weight. Some have said that Maynard could jump, grab hold of a limb, and tear it down in one fell swoop. He tended to work at night. When morning came, piles of tree branches lined the sidewalks like bags of trash on garbage day.


The strange sight particularly affected one Crown Heights resident. He won’t reveal his real name, but on internet community message board he goes by M.H.A., short for “My Heart Is African.”

One April morning in 2010, M.H.A., who had recently lost his job, was idling along Franklin Avenue with a coffee in hand, when Maynard appeared before him and maimed a tree. “What are you doing! Why are you doing that?” M.H.A. yelled. Maynard stopped and, as if in a trance, walked away. M.H.A. was shaken. Older residents told him that Maynard—known then only as Steve—was mentally unsound and they showed M.H.A. where he lived.
As M.H.A. told me, he felt for Maynard, just as he felt for the teenage drug dealers he saw operating on his block. But ultimately he was angry and resented him. “When you don’t have a job and money is scarce,” he said. “Everything becomes personalized.”

At the height of Maynard’s rampage, residents resorted to putting signs up on their favorite trees from the phony “Department of Exorcism” to convince Maynard the trees were 100 percent demon-free.

M.H.A. filed a complaint with 311, a non-emergency city hotline, and called the 77th police precinct, but there was no response. Next he called the Parks Department, which oversees city trees. They wanted to help but couldn’t—they can’t make arrests outside their jurisdiction of city parks. Eventually, he resorted to the internet, creating a thread on Brooklynian. He titled it “Tree Branch Breaker.”


“Tree Branch Breaker” erupted with activity. It read like a logbook of Maynard’s strikes and a diary of his community’s unrest. In time, two dominant characters emerged. The first was the thread’s creator, M.H.A. He voiced anger and then brought up questions of race. Would this be happening in wealthier, whiter neighborhoods like nearby Park Slope? M.H.A. waxed poetic on the meaning of Maynard. “Crazy Steve is our Boo Radley,” he once wrote.

The second character went by whynot_31. His real name is Mike Fagan. A 42-year-old social worker from northern Virginia, Fagan wasn’t interested in poetics. He thought in terms of the law and policy. “There are lots of Steves in the world,” he wrote on Brooklynian. As Fagan explained, the community was up against more than Maynard alone. It was up against a broken mental health system.

Back in the day, it’s likely that Maynard would have been thrown in an insane asylum without due process. Over the second half of the 20th century the US government began closing down public asylums and psychiatric wards as part of an initiative called deinstitutionalization. Experts assumed that something new—and better—would be created to tend to those with severe mental illness. Today most agree that this goal was never realized.

To live a productive life, people with severe mental illness need coordinated support: supervised housing, case managers, psychiatric clinics, loving families. Many need medicine, but according to the Constitution, they’re not required to take it unless they have agreed to through legal proceedings. Countless individuals just like Maynard wind up in jail, and today prisons house three times more Americans with serious mental illnesses than psychiatric hospitals. “As many as 40 percent of people with serious mental illness have been in jail or prison at one point in their lives,” said Jennifer Parish, director of criminal justice advocacy at the Urban Justice Center. “Imagine if that were 40 percent of people who’ve had cancer.”


By the summer of 2010, Maynard had fully enraged his community. A great deal of the anger was fueled by simple urban frustration, the hassles and headaches of city life. “We’re all living on top of each other,” said Julie Moon Reinken, a singer who witnessed Maynard destroy a set of trees along Eastern Parkway, a six-lane thoroughfare that roars past her apartment. “Those trees are my barrier. To see someone trashing them made me livid.
“People urinating in public and not cleaning up after their dog,” she said, “those are things we deal with every day. But you can’t blame every dog owner and you can’t blame every drunk on the corner. When you have someone taking down trees singlehandedly, though, everyone’s anger can be focused on that person. It made it very easy. It made it direct.”

Some residents became vengeful, collecting Maynard’s broken tree limbs and dumping them in his mother’s courtyard. A few left her nasty notes. They blamed her, perhaps out of desperation.

By March, Michael Kunitzky had become a leader in the neighborhood by founding LaunchPad, a non-profit community art space. He also discovered that his crab apple tree had been brutalized. A few months later, an angry Desiree Maynard contacted Kunitzky. She'd heard he was responsible for the broken branches in her courtyard. Kunitzky assured her that he wasn't, and expressed his sympathies. Maynard opened up to him. She told him that the local police had detained her son and brought him to the emergency room on numerous occasions. She said she had begged the doctors to hold her son, but that each time he was released because he had not met the criteria for involuntarily hospitalization.


One day Kunitzky saw Maynard destroying a tree and began following him. The two played cat and mouse for nearly an hour. When a police cruiser passed by, Kunitzky hailed it down. At first the officers were reluctant. “You’re stopping us for a guy who just broke a fucking tree branch?” Kunitzky recalled them saying. But Kunitzky explained that Maynard wasn’t well—that he’d been doing damage to trees for years, and that someone with power needed to intervene. The officers relented and took Maynard into custody. Later, when Kunitzky called the precinct, he learned that no arrest had been made. Soon after, Maynard was seen standing on a street corner, talking to himself. He’d been let go. A few weeks later, after a lieutenant had begun following the case, a similar incident occurred. This time Maynard was taken into custody, brought to a hospital, evaluated, and released again, back to the streets.

Part of the tragedy and the irony of Maynard’s story is that the damage he did coincided with an awakening to the benefits of city flora. In 2007, a program called MillionTreesNYC, which aims to plant a million trees in the city over a decade, was launched. In recent years in Prospect Heights and Crown Heights, community gardens have begun educating the public and working with block associations. Now residents regularly mulch and water their street tree beds. Some even plant daffodils.

Phil Silva, the co-founder of TreeKIT, an organization devoted to “managing urban forests,” is a “literal tree hugger” and one of the neighbors who helped gather evidence of Maynard’s anti-tree spree. Photo by Chelsea Muller.


Maynard, albeit unintentionally, proved the antithesis to this urban arboreal awareness. He destroyed trees, leaving them with open wounds and exposing their cores to fungal rot. Philip Silva, a young environmentalist living in Prospect Heights said, “The thing about the way he broke those branches is that he’d snap them in a way that they couldn’t be cut back, to a point where a callous would grow over the prune. At that point the tree is basically fucked.”

By July, Maynard had been tearing away at trees in two neighborhoods for at least five months. On July 12, I knocked on Desiree Maynard’s door. “My son is sick,” she told me, shielding herself behind her door, tears welling in her eyes. “I know what he does is wrong, but what can I do? I’m his mother.”

Two days later, Steve Maynard was arrested in the Long Meadow section of Prospect Park, where he had defaced 19 trees, a number of them magnolias. His reign of terror was over.

Many thought it odd that the Parks Department—and not the police—ended up arresting Maynard. But, according to Mike Fagan and one other key player who refused to be named, it was elaborately planned. Fagan told me that he and five others on the Brooklynian site formed a secret group with the aim of protecting trees, getting Maynard the help he had not received, and stemming the community’s growing (and potentially violent) anger. In essence, they wanted to prevent a witch-hunt from taking place. The group reached out to various city agencies, such as the NYPD, the Department of Health, and Adult Protective Services. Ultimately, they told me, the group formed an alliance with the Parks Department (which would neither confirm nor deny the following story). Group members offered to trail Maynard and make a call if he ever entered a city park, where the agency was authorized to make arrests. In return, they requested that the Parks Department stress Maynard's mental state when it came time to charge him. A deal was struck. After two failed attempts, the sting worked.


“At that point we backed off,” Fagan said. “We didn’t like what we had, but we were satisfied with it. It was the best we could do.”

Some of the damage done by Maynard is still apparent a year after his arrest. Open wounds like these can be a problem because fungus will eventually infect the inside of the tree. Photo by Chelsea Muller.

Maynard was brought up on charges of criminal mischief, specifically arborcide, the vandalism of public trees. He was sent to Riker’s Island, where he was evaluated and declared unfit to stand trial. Afterward he was transferred to a mental health institution and administered psychotropic drugs. It is said that when Maynard regained consciousness, he had no recollection of what had happened or what he had done. It was as if he had woken up from a dream.

The total cost of Maynard’s damage has been pegged at $235,000, but it’s far more difficult to measure the long-term effects. “In the next 15 years, the trees might start to suffer from structural disintegrity and fall over,” Silva said. “Or maybe not. It’s kind of hard to say.”

It’s even harder to say, because two months after Maynard was arrested his arboreal crime scene was swept over by something stronger his body and more forceful than his mind. On September 16, just as the evening rush hour commenced, a tornado touched down in Brooklyn. The sky turned a pallid green. Winds whipped. Rain pelted. Trees small and large writhed in the wind and then snapped, crashing down onto cars and into buildings. By the time it was over, one thousand trees in Brooklyn and Queens had been uprooted. The sent of freshly broken wood wafted through the air.

But the twister proved an unexpected blessing. Emergency funding provided comprehensive pruning to trees that may have otherwise waited years to receive it. One act of God, a storm, garnered immediate emergency relief. Another, the one that reached down and touched Steve Maynard’s mind, did not.
Earlier this year Steve Maynard was declared fit to stand trial. On June 7, 2011, he appeared before a judge at Brooklyn Mental Health Court. His eyes wide and sad, Maynard pled guilty to two counts of criminal mischief, one of which was felonious and carried a prison sentence. The court offered the option to enter a mental health treatment program in lieu of prison time, and Maynard took it.

He is now free to live in society, but only on the condition that he take his medication, stay away from drugs and alcohol, and meet regularly with a counselor. The treatment program is scheduled to last as long as 16 months. If he passes it, the felony will be dismissed and he’ll be sentenced on the remaining misdemeanor and given a conditional discharge, which requires that he stay out of trouble for one year. If he fails, if he relapses and falls back into trouble, the prison sentence will be applied and he’ll go to jail for up to six years.

Two weeks before the hearing, a community meeting was held at LaunchPad and Maynard’s possible return to the neighborhood gave way to a heated discussion. Some voiced frustration and disbelief. What if it starts all over again? Others said that it was different now. The courts were involved, and Maynard’s mother was willing to take him back. “We can’t ban people from the community just because we don’t like them,” one woman said. Mike Fagan, who led the discussion, nodded his head.

“We’ll always have a population that can’t be stabilized and live in the community,” Fagan told me. “It’s very small, but it’s there. And we need to find a way to deal with it humanely.”