Federal jury convicts Northwest activist - The Explorer: Import

Federal jury convicts Northwest activist

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Posted: Wednesday, August 20, 2003 11:00 pm | Updated: 7:47 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

Northwest resident Tim Blowers is a walking contradiction - a land speculator and developer with strong beliefs about private property rights who is also an ardent environmentalist and founding member of the conservation group Desert Watch.

Blowers' seemingly conflicted ambitions became more incongruous last week as he and a Las Vegas land speculator defended themselves in federal court against 25 criminal counts for allegedly destroying desert plants and cultural artifacts located on federal land near Green Valley.

A jury convicted Blowers Aug. 19 of 15 of the counts and found him not guilty of 10 others. His co-defendant, Lane Holmes, was found guilty of six counts and not guilty of 19.

Blowers and Holmes were indicted in 2000 on 37 criminal counts. The trial judge dismissed 12 counts after a prosecution witness died.

In the trial that began July 28 before U.S. District Court Judge John Roll in Tucson, Blowers, 51, and Holmes, 41, were accused of illegally blading eight miles of road through federal Bureau of Land Management property in 1997 and 1998.

The men graded the roadways and portions of untrammeled desert to provide access to lots in wildcat subdivisions they were selling, prosecutors say.

The two were also charged with grading and digging a barbecue pit for a party at a centuries-old Hohokam archaeological site in an area known as Indian Kitchen on the BLM land.

The jury began deliberating over the men's fate Aug. 18 and returned a verdict the next day.

Blowers was found guilty of one count of conspiracy; four counts of willful injury or depredation against government property or contracts; four counts of cutting, injury or destruction of trees growing, standing and being upon the lands of the United States; one count of destruction of archaeological resources; and five counts of trespass and unauthorized use, occupancy and development of public lands.

Blowers was found not guilty of two counts of willful injury or depredation against government property; two counts of cutting or destroying trees; five counts of destruction of archaeological resources and one count of trespass and unauthorized use of public lands.

Holmes was found guilty of one count of conspiracy; two counts of willful injury or depredation against government property or contracts; two counts of cutting, injury or destruction of trees growing, standing or being upon the lands of the United States and one count of trespass and unauthorized use, occupancy and development of public lands.

Holmes was found not guilty of four counts of willful injury or depredation against government property; four counts of cutting or destroying trees; all six counts of destruction of archaeological resources that he was charged with, and five counts of trespass and unauthorized uses of public lands.

Blowers and Holmes could be sentenced to federal prison and face substantial fines. The most serious crime the men were convicted of, conspiracy, carries a sentence of up to five years in prison.

Blowers and Holmes are scheduled to be sentenced Nov. 13.

As an environmentalist, Blowers was most recently involved in the fight against the proposed Saguaro Ranch development. The project would place luxury homes and a "mini-resort" in the Tortolita foothills adjacent to Blowers' home near Tangerine and Thornydale roads.

Blowers also held a seat on the steering committee of Pima County's Sonoran Desert Protection Plan.

Prominent leaders of the local environmental movement, including Carolyn Campbell of the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, offered character references for Blowers in court.

Christina McVie, executive director of Desert Watch, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

In the course of 15 days of testimony in the trial, Assistant U.S. Attorney Wallace Kleindienst portrayed Blowers and Holmes as developers more interested in making money than respecting the "land and resources owned by the nation's citizens."

He repeatedly characterized the two as "arrogant" land speculators who bladed roads to improve the value of properties they owned separately in the area.

"They got the land cheap because they knew the access wasn't very good then illegally bladed the roads to increase the value," Kleindienst said in his closing arguments Aug. 15.

Blowers and his attorney, Bill Risner, have argued repeatedly - and unsuccessfully - that the trial is more about governmental retribution and politics than it is about justice and protection of federal lands.

"This is a police state," Risner growled to a reporter during a trial recess Aug. 13. "The government's employees never get busted for perjury."

Blowers claims he and Holmes are targets of the federal government because they successfully fought to keep a politically-sensitive gun range from being built by Pima County on the BLM land.

In the three years the case has been winding its way through the legal system, Blowers and Holmes, who was represented separately by Tucson attorney Peter Keller, have filed a slew of motions to have the case dismissed based on their claims of governmental retribution.

The motions have included allegations that the government was retaliating against the two for "exercise of their constitutional rights" and claimed federal prosecutors were conducting selective prosecution, vindictive prosecution and bad faith prosecution.

The defense also claimed the government is "overcharging" in its sweeping list of criminal counts stacked against Blowers and Holmes.

"These roads have been in existence for more than 100 years," Blowers said in an interview. "Nobody in the entire history of the state of Arizona has ever been prosecuted for grading roads. Yet, for some reason, they threw the book at us."

Roll denied all defense motions to dismiss the case.

Blower's gun range argument has a history dating back to 1997 when the U.S. Forrest Service shut down the Tucson Rod and Gun Club's gun range at Sabino Canyon because it had become a noise nuisance and hazard to visitors of the popular recreation site.

The closure ignited a furor among members of the National Rifle Association and other gun lobbies. U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe and several other powerful politicians picked up the banner to either reopen the gun range or find it a new home.

As part of a the solution to the loss of the Sabino range, Pima County proposed using $600,000 approved by voters in a 1997 bond election to build a "state of the art" shooting facility on Tangerine Road east of Interstate 10.

The Tangerine Road location was lost when the area was declared habitat for the endangered and federally protected cactus ferruginous pygmy owl. Pima County then entered negotiations with the BLM to place the range in the area of Indian Kitchen.

"I passed out 400 color-coded maps to people living in the area and told them about the plans for the gun range," Blowers said during an interview. "We got the gun range killed and angered a lot of important people in the process."

Blowers says the party at the archaeological site was to promote the idea of a county park in the area rather than a gun range, and that he and others picked up beer cans and debris that had accumulated for years and left the area in better condition than when they found it.

The original indictment handed up by prosecutors claims the party was intended to promote the developers' land sales. Kleindienst argued it was a "beer party with a band" and the grading did irreparable harm to an archaeological treasure.

Six years after its conception, the gun range may have finally found a home near the Pima County Fair Grounds on Houghton Road, said Rafael Payan, the county's natural resources, parks and recreation director. He confirmed the Indian Kitchen location was abandoned after "resident complaints."

Blowers said the government is also inflating the amount of vegetation destroyed. He said most of the "improvements" occurred on a trail known as Indian Kitchen Road, which has existed since wagons traversed it in the 1880s. He claims maybe "one, or at most, two trees" were destroyed during the road improvement.

Susan Bernal, a real estate specialist with the BLM, became a crucial witness for the prosecution after she inventoried the damage to the desert at Indian Kitchen and assigned a price tag to it.

In her testimony before the grand jury in February 2000, Bernal said "we came up with the aggregate of over $2 million of destroyed vegetation," according to a transcript of the grand jury proceedings.

When the indictment was unsealed later that same month, prosecutors claimed the damage was "in excess of $1 million."

During the trial testimony last week, Bernal had revised her figures to $265,000 in damage from the grading. She said earlier estimates were based on cursory views of the area and the most recent cost was based on a more exacting plot-by-plot inventory of vegetation believed to be missing or destroyed.

Prosecutors were unable to produce photos of any significant damage to vegetation, but Kleindienst said some of the debris may have been removed to cover up the crime or been buried in the "snow bank-size" berms created by the grading.

Both sides relied on aerial photos to bolster their respective cases, although they reached wildly different conclusions.

Kleindienst argued that a series of "before and after" photos shot by an aerial photography company between 1996 and 2000 clearly showed the new road and swaths of missing vegetation.

Risner countered with Gary Waters, an employee of Cooper Aerial Survey Co. who processed the aerial photos. Waters testified he could not detect any missing vegetation except "there might be a tree missing" in the 2000 photo.

Kleindienst also presented witnesses who said they had been offered land and money by Blowers to blade portions of the area, and detailed a lengthy list of land sales by Blowers and Holmes.

"Tucson is in a unique habitat and Arizonans wear the outdoors on their shirtsleeves," Kleindienst told the jury. "There's a struggle in Tucson for public resources against those who would use the public trust for monetary development … these are serious charges and the damage they caused warrants a serious penalty."

In an interview shortly before the jury began deliberating his future, Blowers said he planned to appeal if he was convicted.

"This is a trumped up case," Blowers said. "I don't have any choice but to fight it until my last breath. I'm being railroaded."

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