Tim DeChristopher defense to try to make its case Wednesday

Testimony: DeChristopher 'laughed' when told tally of his bids

Published: Tuesday, March 1 2011 8:00 a.m. MST

Tim DeChristopher looks at supporters across the street demonstrating as he enter Federal Court for trial for facetiously staking a claim to 13 parcels of land for nearly $1.8 million, which could send him to jail for 10 years, Monday, Feb. 28, 2011, in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

Tom Smart, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Tim DeChristopher's defense team will get a chance Wednesday to vindicate the activist with testimony jurors will hear for the first time to learn what happened the day he monkey-wrenched a Bureau of Land Management auction.

It will be a tough go, however, after federal Judge Dee Benson reiterated late Tuesday that he's not going to put federal land management policies on trial in his courtroom. He said such details are not relevant to the charges against DeChristopher and what happened the day of the botched auction in December of 2008.

"There are different points of view on this matter to this day," Benson said, referencing the government's handling of the oil and gas leases. "No one ever agrees when it is finally over. Even when it is over and not over."

DeChristopher, 29, has said he deliberately submitted phony bids in the oil and gas lease auction because he disagreed with flawed land management decisions that opened up too much public land for oil and gas exploration. He's charged with interfering with and making false representations at a government auction. He faces up to 10 years in prison and $750,000 in fines if he's convicted.

Defense attorney Ron Yengich said it was important for jurors to understand what was going on in the head of DeChristopher when he made choices that day and won 14 parcels of land valued at nearly $1.8 million.

But Benson said anything that fell outside the scope of what actually happened the day of the auction did not speak to the criminal allegations in the case, which rest on violating an onshore oil and gas leasing act and deliberately making false statement when he registered as a bidder.

"I don't see any basis that Mr. DeChristopher is not guilty because the auction may not have been a perfect auction," Benson said. "This trial is not a perfect trial, but it is still a trial."

The exchange between Benson and defense attorneys took place in an impromptu hearing convened after the second day of a trail that has captured national attention from  environmentalists sympathetic to DeChristopher's "civil disobedience." Dozens of DeChristopher's supporters demonstrated outside the courthouse.

In testimony before the jury, a BLM special agent testified that he watched DeChristopher through much of the controversial auction and said it soon became clear that DeChristopher "was in it to win it."

Dan Love said DeChristopher raised suspicions early on with his behavior at the Dec. 19, 2008, auction because of his casual dress and whispered conversations with a man later identified as his roommate.

But when DeChristopher raised the bidder placard No. 70, Love said he was caught off guard.

"He had me fooled for a period of time," he said. "I began to scan the crowd to look for other disruptions."

Love said DeChristopher's actions, however, soon raised suspicion again because the man appeared "shocked" when he won his first bid, and then began to aggressively bid on parcels after that.

In plain clothes and specifically assigned to watch for potential disruptions inside the auction Love said he purposely moved to the front of the room to keep an eye on DeChristopher.

The auction was eventually stopped and Love testified that he asked to speak to DeChristopher alone. He said DeChristopher "laughed" when told the results of his bidding that day.

He added that DeChristopher confirmed to him his "pattern" of bidding to artificially drive up the prices of the leases being offered.

While DeChristopher's original plan was to disrupt the auction with a speech or some other demonstration, Love said "he was looking for much greater impact with the 70 placard."

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