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A friend's quiet sadness at the sight of oil and gas companies bidding to drill in southeast Utah's redrock desert pushed environmental activist Tim DeChristopher from subtle price inflater to unflinching high bidder, he testified Wednesday in his trial for disrupting a federal auction and making phony bids.
The 29-year-old climate-change foe said he wrapped up a final exam at the University of Utah the morning of Dec. 19, 2008, and then headed late to a protest of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's auction of mineral rights on public lands. He testified that he knew of demonstrations surrounding the auction and arrived with no intention of bidding to either inflate the prices or win parcels to keep them from drillers.
Once at the BLM's Gateway headquarters, though, he said he decided to go in. Staff at the front desk asked him if he intended to bid an employee has testified that she asked him if he was a bidder, observer or media, but he claims bidder was his only known option for access and he signed a form acknowledging his responsibility to bid only in good faith.
According to DeChristopher and BLM Special Agent Dan Love, who interrogated him after the auction, the defendant at first intended to make a splash "raise a red flag" at the auction, in DeChristopher's words but soon realized he could have maximum effect by actually bidding. Initially he just drove up the prices, intending, he testified, to push them toward fair-market value. In an amateur video of the auction, which the defense showed Wednesday, he several times drove up the tab on bidder No. 29, a Questar representative.
Then DeChristopher accidentally won a bid on Moab-area lands at $2.25 per acre, or $500 total. Soon after, he testified, he noticed a friend from church standing at the back of the room crying.
"I was certainly moved by the fact that she was crying," DeChristopher said.
Asked by defense attorney Ron Yengich if it moved him to action, he said it changed his motive to one of winning lease after lease until he finally was removed on suspicion of disrupting the auction with a bill for $1.8 million on 14 lease parcels.
"At that moment I made the decision that I had to do more to take a stand in the way of the auction," DeChristopher said. "I started winning parcels."
The friend was Krista Bowers, who said in an interview after the day's court proceedings that she had started crying when she watched a price tag of just $77 fixed to a small chunk of redrock desert. The activist described her rushing emotion as "abject pain. It was probably the worst I've felt in my life."
"I wanted to see how cheaply my government would sell its soul," she said. "I found out how cheaply it would sell its soul. It was $2 an acre."
A couple of days later, at church, she learned from DeChristopher that her tears had moved him.
"It's kind of a heavy responsibility to know that your friend is facing all this [prison] time because of something you did," she said. But she also was proud that he felt such compassion and acted on it.
DeChristopher, charged with two felonies, faces up to 10 years behind bars if convicted. The case is expected to go to the jury of eight men and four women Thursday.
The defense argued that DeChristopher, despite acting on a whim with only $4,000 to his name, quickly raised the $45,000 down payment that Love had told him was due on that day,even if the BLM wouldn't accept it. That afternoon, he said, after realizing how much trouble he could face, he called his friend Michael Mielke and asked for help.
DeChristopher testified that he called because he was afraid.
"I told him [Mielke] that I needed help and that I needed to know what my options were and to know whether it was realistic that we could actually raise that amount of money."
Prosecutors attempted to bar Mielke as a witness because his report of the phone call would be hearsay, but U.S. District Judge Dee Benson sided with Yengich when he said Mielke's testimony would help frame DeChristopher's mind-set for the jury.
Mielke, a white-haired and bearded environmental activist, testified he had the funds to help DeChristopher that day.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott Romney later asked whether that phone call hadn't turned to a request for a legal defense fund. Yengich asked to block that questioning, and after a short conference with the judge, Romney withdrew it. But Yengich went on to inform the jury that he and co-counsel Pat Shea were working for free and that DeChristopher had paid a third attorney, Elizabeth Hunt, about $2,000.
On cross-examination, Romney got DeChristopher to acknowledge that he had signed a bidder form and ultimately knew he was committing a crime.
"I knew there would be consequences," he conceded.
Yengich asked his client whether he had thoroughly read and understood the form discussing possible criminal penalties. DeChristopher said he had skimmed it. Yengich repeatedly returned to moments in both DeChristopher's and Love's testimony that indicated his client had not yet formed an intent to bid on or win leases at the time that he signed the form. But Romney cited press accounts quoting DeChristopher as saying he intended to disrupt the auction.
At one point Yengich probed DeChristopher's motive more than the judge previously had allowed. The defense has been barred from discussing the battle against climate change as a reason for DeChristopher's actions, but the prosecution's questioning about the defendant's statements to Love provided an opening for Yengich to read one of them from the agent's report.
"There is very little time left to make changes for a livable planet," Yengich quoted his client from that day.
On the trial's third day, a couple dozen demonstrators remained by the court's Main Street entrance, cheering DeChristopher when he left on breaks.
Tribune reporters Aaron Falk and Erin Alberty contributed to this report.