In the most recent episode of Law & Order: Organized Crime, Det. Elliot Stabler visited the grounds outside the apartment building where he grew up — specifically, a tree on those grounds. He was there as part of his ongoing investigation into whether his deceased father, who’d also been a police officer, was a good cop or a crooked one.
Stabler approached a tree he’d used for target practice as a kid; flashbacks cut into the scene showed young Elliot shooting a gun with which his father might’ve helped staged a crime later on. (Yeah, the plot’s a little complicated, but that’s less important for our purposes than what happened next, so stick with me.)
Grown-up Stabler took out a pocket knife and dug into the tree’s trunk, looking for two bullets. Within a minute, and with a modicum of poking around, he’d located both of them. Now, if you’re looking for an in-depth discussion of the episode, check out a recap. But if you’re obsessed with the plausibility of whether or not Stabler would so easily find these old bits of evidence, you’ve come to the right place.
“I can talk about how trees grow. Of course, I’m not a ballistics expert,” New York City Parks Chief of Forestry and Horticulture Ben Osborne said with a chuckle when TVLine got him on the phone. Assuming the bullets didn’t travel too far into the tree, “As trees grow in height, they grow in height from the top, not anywhere else,” he said, kindly not pointing out that the fact is covered in basic, elementary school-level science. “So if something were embedded in a tree at 4 feet off the ground, and that tree was still there 100 years later, it would still be 4 feet off the ground.”
So that accounts for Stabler being in the relatively correct location of the projectiles. But would they really be that easy to loosen from the wood? “As far as how trees grow in width or diameter, most people are familiar with the concept of growth rings — every year trees get thicker — and their growing tissue is just beneath the bark, so it pushes the bark out, and they put on diameter.” But how thick that diameter would get each year “varies tremendously” depending on things like the tree’s species, the availability of light and the soil in which the tree grew, Osborne said.
“In 40 years, for a piece of metal to be embedded an inch or two below the bark? That’s plausible,” he added, noting that Parks Department workers pruning or cutting down trees sometimes run into nails or bits of chainlink fence that have insinuated themselves into trunks or branches.
“I’m not aware of any of our crews ever finding a bullet,” he said, “although it certainly could’ve happened.”
So the verdict of this TVLine Fact Check? Stabler’s tree experience is actually be-leafable.