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Four days of trial ended late Friday with guilty verdicts against San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman and one of his three co-defendants in an illegal ATV ride through Utah's Recapture Canyon.
The 12 jurors deliberated for seven hours in their conviction of Lyman and Monte Wells a local blogger who used social media to help Lyman promote the ride, a protest of federal restrictions on motorized access on misdemeanor charges of conspiracy and driving on public lands closed to motorized vehicles. They acquitted Shane Marian and Trent Holliday. Wells, who declined to comment, and Lyman face up to one year in jail, $100,000 in fines and possibly large restitution awards for damage they and other ATV protesters caused to the archaeological resources in the canyon east of Blanding.
They are to return to U.S. District Court Judge Robert Shelby's Salt Lake City courtroom July 15 for sentencing.
"The BLM does a good job of trumping up," Lyman told reporters. "They have proven they can create a crime out of a non-crime. Of course I'm nervous about what the federal government can do."
Acting U.S. Attorney Carlie Christensen said her office was pleased with the guilty verdicts, but was surprised by Holliday and Marian's acquittal. These Monticello men were not central characters in the alleged conspiracy, but photographs presented at trial placed them on ATVs in the closed part of the canyon.
"We thought we had strong evidence against them," Christensen said. "Obviously the jury worked very hard. They were very careful and very thoughtful and we respect the jury's decision."
She was not prepared to say how much restitution her office would seek or if jail time would be sought.
The federal Bureau of Land Management closed the canyon in 2007 to motorized use after it concluded ATV use was damaging the remnants of archaeological sites on the canyon floor. Officials said Friday's verdict highlights the importance of protecting such "treasures."
"These ancient dwellings and artifacts are essential for understanding the story of the earliest inhabitants of the American Southwest," said BLM spokesman Tom Gorey. "As Congress has directed, the BLM will continue to protect these resources while managing the public lands for multiple-use and sustained yield on behalf of all Americans."
The verdict was hailed by environmental activists who have long sought to protect Recapture Canyon, which was inhabited by Ancestral Puebloans 1,000 years ago.
"This confirms that no one is above the law and that there are consequence for illegal activities," said Stephen Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
But Lyman argued "the media and all the hype" surrounding the ride distorted its purpose. He said he appealed to protesters to remain on the pipeline road that the water master said they could ride, which he contends is a county road.
"There was no attempt to break the law," Lyman said. "This is a shout-out to county officials that they do not have jurisdiction in their counties. It is a federal jurisdiction state, or a territory. I don't know if you can call it a state.
"I was disappointed the state didn't step up and offer to get involved in the jurisdiction issues," he continued. "They chose to wait on the sidelines. County commissioners that work on behalf of their constituents are in grave jeopardy of something like this."
Earlier in the day, defense attorneys argued that San Juan County's water master gave Lyman permission to use a right-of-way the water district had across public land that the Bureau of Land Management had closed to motorized use.
Ferd Johnson's go-ahead, given the week before the May 10 ride, shows Lyman and his three co-defendants had a good faith that their protest ride did not violate the law, their attorneys said in closing arguments.
And Johnson, attorneys argued, also "literally opened the gate" to Recapture Canyon for ATV-riding protesters.
"Ferd not only said 'yes,' he opened the gate and left it open," said Lyman's attorney, Jared Stubbs.
Lawyers for Wells, Holliday and Marian argued the government has failed to prove the men "knowingly and willfully" violated the law when they drove ATVs into Recapture Canyon last year in protest of the BLM's closure.
Federal prosecutors called Johnson's authorization of the ride a diversion.
"The gate is outside the closure area. It's a red herring," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Jared Bennett.
Federal prosecutors claimed Lyman used his Facebook account and other media to promote the illegal ride, which some 50 riders joined.
But defense attorneys said the conspiracy alleged by the government is based entirely on Lyman's legitimate work on behalf of his constituents as an elected county leader and the defendants' First Amendment right to express their views and assemble.
Lyman "set up a virtual, online town hall meeting [on Facebook]. It was where they go to complain about government inaction," Stubbs said. "That's what freedom of speech is for. You can complain about the government without fear of retribution."
The defense rested its case Thursday without any of the protesters taking the stand. Johnson was their sole witness.
Prosecutors maintain that Lyman had been warned by BLM officials that his well-publicized protest would violate federal law if people drove into the closed part of the canyon, which was still open to non-motorized access.
But Stubbs countered that BLM state director Juan Palma essentially gave an OK for the ride by promising Lyman that the agency would not arrest anyone.
Prosecutors ridiculed that reasoning, pointing to numerous warnings from officials promising those violating the closure would be subject to civil and criminal penalties.
"Mr. Palma said no one would be arrested and he was good to his word," Bennett said.
BLM maintained a limited law enforcement presence in the canyon that day. Officers made no effort to block riders from entering and issued no citations, but took pictures from a spot designated by the local sheriff.
The four men were charged last October for their roles in the protest.