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Rough year for Christmas tree icon

Man who's been in the business in Burbank since the '30s is fighting health issues, theft.

December 18, 2010|By Gretchen Meier, gretchen.meier@latimes.com
(Raul Roa )

Gary Casella has sold Christmas trees in Burbank since 1937. He supplies Burbank's official holiday tree in front of City Hall. For Casella, it's all about Christmas.

But this year, his holiday cheer's been hard to keep up.

Just days before the Christmas trees arrived at Casella's tree lot in the 400 block of North Front Street on Dec. 1, he suffered a blood clot in his leg, putting him in the hospital for 11 days.

And on the evening of Nov. 27, thieves broke into the lot, ransacked the supply trailers and escaped with thousands of dollars worth of equipment and uncashed checks in Casella's truck.

In his 47 years in Burbank, Casella — who's also donated $500,000 to the school over 24 years — said he has never experienced such a loss.

"It just doesn't put you in a good frame of mind to sell Christmas trees," Casella said. "This time of year is supposed to be about fun and laughter and Santa Claus."

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Due to medical problems, Casella can be at the tree lot for only a few hours at a time since he has to rest his leg.

The items stolen included drills, cash registers, blowers, credit card machines and even holiday presents Casella stored in the trailers.

Casella was forced to close both his business and personal bank accounts after briefcases with checks were found missing. He predicts his total loss around $16,000, including his truck.

Burbank Police say they have no leads on the whereabouts of Casella's 1995 Ford truck with a 12-foot bed and "pinkish-red paint along both sides." The four-door truck has a Washington state license plate — number A39857X — and has a hydraulic lift on the back.

The impact of the stolen truck will hit hard at the season's close when crews pack up the lot and return to the tree farm in Washington.

"We're still checking on forensic evidence," said Burbank Police Det. Wally Schilling.

Although there is no word on the truck's location, its recovery would yield additional clues about the perpetrators, Schilling said.

Even with no official leads, Casella believes it might have been former disgruntled employees based on the items that were stolen and how easily the thieves located the keys and equipment.

"They took everything they could get their hands on," he said. "They even locked the gate when they left and threw the keys back on the ground."

Casella is unsure whether the lot will operate at a loss this year.

Despite difficulties with his insurance, Casella will still sell all of his trees before Christmas. Less than 100 remained this week.

"It's going to be really tough because we lost so much," he said. "But the city has been very gracious to the Casellas, and we're happy we can keep coming back here."

Anyone with information on the theft is asked to call Schilling at (818) 238-3275, or wschilling@ci.burbank.ca.us.

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