'Bonsai Bandit' caught in Fort Myers

11:42 AM, Oct 5, 2011   |    comments
  • Police claim stole this $5,000 bonsai tree Sunday from the entrance of the Lee County Election Center
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Fort Myers, Florida (News-Press) -- Tips from witnesses led to the arrest of the man suspected of stealing a $5,000 bonsai display from the Lee County Election Center.

Raymond Shepard, 50, of Fort Myers was arrested Tuesday at his home, where Lee County sheriff's deputies recovered the stolen bonsai arrangement.

The display, an arrangement of nine Brazilian rain trees created by Cape Coral resident Tony Stewart, was swiped near the building's entrance at the end of the Bonsai Society of Southwest Florida's annual two-day show.

The suspect brazenly picked up the tree, carried it out of the building and loaded it into either a white Jeep or silver car.

Gregory Lignelli, the president of the 85-member bonsai club, said this was the first year the annual show was held at the election center. He doesn't want the theft to tarnish what he called a "very successful" show that drew more than 850 spectators.

"It happens at shows all the time," Lignelli said. "It's the end of the show, people are taking things down, and he blended in ... walked away in broad daylight in front of everyone."

Lignelli said that Stewart, one of the show's master demonstrators, had been working on the miniature forest three or four years, although the Brazilian rain trees in the arrangement that's mounted on a slab are older than that.

Bonsai trees date back 1,500 years to China and became popular in the U.S. after World War II, when soldiers brought them home from Japan.

"This isn't just a crime against our club," Lignelli said. "This is a crime against society, all of us who are now deprived of enjoying a thing of beauty."

The sheriff's office says widespread coverage of surveillance video showing the suspect picking up the tree led to several leads from witnesses on the identity of the suspect.

Shepard faces a felony grand theft charge. He was released on bond Wednesday morning.

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