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By Myron Levin, Lilly Fowler and Stuart Silverstein

Robert J. Barnhart was a crew chief for a billboard company, and a soldier in a war on trees.

Trees were the enemy if they spoiled the view of a billboard. On days of an attack, Barnhart, 27, would arrive by dawn at Lamar Advertising Co. in Tallahassee, Fla. After removing the magnetic Lamar logo from a company truck, he would set forth with a machete, a hospital mask and a container of what he described as a "pretty gnarly" herbicide.

It was all about being fast: Hack into the roots or base of the tree, douse the wound with herbicide, and get out of there. The Lamar executive who gave the orders, said Barnhart, called it "a hit and run."

Barnhart’s account, detailed in court papers and in statements to investigators, is the focus of a criminal investigation. It also is the basis for a whistleblower suit in which Barnhart, who through his lawyer declined to be interviewed, maintains that he was fired because he would not keep poisoning trees. His claims are supported by sworn testimony from Barnhart’s former supervisor, Chris Oaks, who admitted that he, too, had illegally poisoned trees before Barnhart took over in 2009 as poisoner-in-chief.

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