SALT LAKE CITY — An eight-man four woman jury will decide the case of Timothy DeChristopher Thursday and weigh whether the man is an environmental activist so extreme he deliberately violated federal laws or his passionate beliefs lured him to unwittingly and compulsively get in over his head at a public land auction.
While DeChristopher, 29, has always publicly maintained he made fraudulent bids on oil and gas leases because he opposed the practices of the Bureau of Land Management, a different story emerged from his criminal case on Wednesday.
Defense attorney Ron Yengich said DeChristopher believed he could only get into the Dec. 19, 2008, auction in downtown Salt Lake City by registering as a bidder.
Although DeChristopher filled out the bidder registration form, Yengich stressed, "at no time did he knowingly, willingly and fraudulently make a false representation because he had not formed the intent at that time."
Taking the stand in his own defense, DeChristopher said he planned to join protesters outside that morning and then decided at the last minute to go inside.
"I realized my participation deserved more than just waving a sign," he said.
A BLM employee earlier this week testified she asked DeChristopher if he was there as a bidder, observer or member of the media. But DeChristopher insisted he was only asked if he there as a bidder, leading him to believe that was his only entry into the auction.
Yengich said DeChristopher, up until that point, had never attended an auction in his life and "did not have a complete understanding of how this complicated process works."
When DeChristopher won his first bid with bidder paddle No. 70, he testified that he was surprised. While he planned to "take a stand" by disrupting the auction in some way, he said at first he only intended to drive up the prices of land "to fair market value."
It was only after he saw the tears of a friend in the auction room that he said he "made the decision to do more to make a stand in the way of the auction."
Yengich said it was DeChristopher's way of exercising free speech over a process he felt was flawed.
"It was his means of standing on his hind legs and making a statement," Yengich said. "And as young people do, he got caught up in the moment."
While DeChristopher admitted on the stand he knew there would be consequences to winning the parcels, he said he skimmed over the legal, technical language contained in the bidder registration form that warned it was a violation of federal law.
Much of that testimony, however, was in stark contrast to the picture painted earlier in the week by the prosecution, which tapped the testimony of BLM special agent Dan Love to stress that DeChristopher was fully aware of what he was doing, knew that he was violating federal law and told the officer it was his "stand" against the federal government.
Love testified that DeChristopher told him he read the bidder registration form in "its entirety and understood it."
When told how many parcels he won — 14 — and their value — nearly $1.8 million — DeChristopher "laughed," Love testified.
At some point he asked how much trouble he was in, Love said.
At two junctures Wednesday, Yengich asked U.S. District Judge Dee Benson to acquit DeChristopher of both charges — interfering with an onshore oil and gas leasing act and making a false representation. Both times, Yengich's request was denied, as was an attempt to once again introduce the "necessity" defense on DeChristopher's behalf. That legal strategy rests on the premise that DeChristopher was forced to commit an illegal act to right a wrong — the so-called "lesser of two evils defense."
Benson, in a hearing last year, ruled that DeChristopher's case failed to meet the legal threshold to bring in that defense because other multiple and lawful options were available to him.
Much of DeChristopher's defense also hinged on the steps the BLM took, or did not take, the day of the auction in terms of allowing the then-University of Utah student the option of paying the required deposit before the close of the business day.
The defense has insisted that DeChristopher was never afforded that opportunity and that he went so far as to call a friend with financial means to secure payment. That friend, Michael Mielke, testified Wednesday that DeChristopher telephoned him the day of the auction, requesting help.
"He needed help with the money," Mielke said. "He said he made bids on leases, there was money involved. ... I indicated I would help him pay for those leases."
Mielke added, "I would say he sounded very afraid."
DeChristopher later testified that he intended to pay for the leases, but said he was never told by Love that he'd have to have the money in that day by 4:30 p.m.
Although a certified letter was sent to DeChristopher's home to collect on the money, the letter was never received, Yengich said.
DeChristopher faces up to 10 years in prison and $750,000 in fines if he is convicted.
While his actions that day earned the ire of the federal government, they have also forged a faithful following for the young West Virginia native who has become a poster-boy for environmental activism.
On Monday, actress Daryl Hannah flew into Salt Lake City to attend the proceedings and lent her voice to a rally across the street attended by an estimated 500 people. The throng kept a day-long presence in front of the courthouse, singing songs of solidarity such as Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land," and Anne Feeney's "Have You Been to Jail for Justice?"
By Wednesday, the day-long presence of supporters had dwindled to a determined couple of dozen, but each time DeChristopher left the courthouse he's been greeted with songs and cheers.
Ashley Anderson, who is director of the group DeChristopher founded — Peaceful Uprising — said he was encouraged by Wednesday's testimony and predicts a victory regardless of the outcome.
"If the government prevails in its prosecution, it will be up to the people to put the government on trial."
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