Thief steals tree from UNC Charlotte botanical garden, later returns it with emotional letter

Updated: Apr. 5, 2017 at 2:50 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - It's just not something you'd expect to be stolen, but staffers at the UNC Charlotte Botanical Gardens were shocked Monday to discover one of their precious trees was dug right out of the ground and hauled away by a thief.

"It had been pruned into a topiary and it took us about 3 years to get it to this size and shape, and we were very proud of it," said Jeff Gillman, director of the gardens.

When staffers discovered the missing Juniper tree, they posted a heartfelt plea on Facebook asking for its return.

The post read:

"It was a favorite of the staff, particularly one of our recently retired gardeners who spent hours shaping it. We are a free garden. We know that we will lose flowers here and there, and we know that some people will take advantage of us, but this one hurts. Our guess is that this plant was taken for installation in someone's yard -- It will probably go in this week. We're not interested in pressing charges, or in punishing anyone, we just want our topiary back. Please share this post and help us get our plant back."

More than 500 people shared the post.

It's not unheard of for businesses or agencies to make these types of pleas. Offering not to press charges, it's been done tons of times on the internet. What is unheard of, is for that plea to be answered.

On Tuesday morning, staffers found the tree had been returned, along with a note offering an apology.

"Dear Botanical Gardens gardeners," the note read, "I'd like to apologize for taking this topiary from the garden."

The note went on to say, "I now realize that every plant is special to those who take care of them. I couldn't possibly understand how my theft impacted the gardeners who had worked for years to attain such a beautiful tree, nor how it would affect the community, who would no longer be able to enjoy it in its rightful place."

Gillman, and the garden staff were floored by the letter.

"It was such a kind and thoughtful note and we were touched, and all was immediately forgiven," Gillman said.

It's not every day you hear the victim of a theft refer to person who committed it as 'kind' or 'thoughtful'. After the tree was returned, Gillman updated the garden's Facebook page with a 'thank you' note for the thief:

"Dear Person Who Returned Our Tree, Thank you. The topiary that you returned means more to us now because of your act of kindness. We hope that you will visit the Gardens again frequently. You are always welcome here.

With Sincere Thanks,

UNC Charlotte Botanical Gardens"

The tree has since been replanted in its original spot.

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