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Charges Against Tree Defender Dropped

May 20, 2000|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two months ago, Ojai tree-hugger John Christianson felt tired and scared as he stared down the trunk of a large aging oak and locked eyes with deputies breaking up a protest in Libbey Park.

As he left court Friday, Christianson felt nothing but the smile on his face.

"I'm very relieved," the 51-year-old activist said, standing in the courthouse hallway after prosecutors dropped criminal charges against him. "I was not looking forward to going to jail, or being on probation."

Or, he added dryly, "having my fingernails checked every month for bark."

Christianson was arrested March 15 after he climbed up a 150-year-old oak tree that was facing a chain-saw blade and refused to come down.

His protest was part of a larger demonstration against the city's plan to chop down three old oaks that city arborists had determined were dying and in danger of falling onto a children's playground.

After 15 hours tied to an upper branch, Christianson eventually surrendered to deputies with the Ventura County Sheriff's Department. He was later charged with resisting arrest and trespassing.

But prosecutors dropped those misdemeanor counts Friday, saying the case wasn't worth taking to trial.

"From our perspective, the Sheriff's Department acted appropriately and was fully warranted in taking the action it took," Chief Assistant Dist. Atty. Greg Totten said. "But this is not the type of case that we should clutter the criminal justice system with."

Two of the three trees were felled after authorities cleared dozens of protesters from the area. The city agreed to hold off on cutting down the third tree, and now plans to spend $27,000 to move the playground from under its canopy.

Christianson and three other Ojai residents were taken into custody during the protest. All of their cases have been resolved.

Alexandra Wolfe, 58, pleaded no contest to resisting arrest and served three days in jail. Lorraine Freeman, 51, was arrested for allegedly throwing an apple at a police horse, but prosecutors had the case dismissed.

Danny Miller, 37, was arrested for allegedly attempting to prevent a city truck from passing by. Last month he pleaded no contest to resisting arrest and was placed on probation for one year.

Barbara Carroll, Christianson's attorney, said she believes they had a strong case. Carroll told reporters there was no trespassing on her client's part because authorities closed off the area in response to the protest--not before.

"It would have been up to a jury to decide," Carroll said.

If convicted, Christianson could have faced up to 18 months in jail and three years' probation. He also could have been ordered to pay $8,000 to $12,000 in overtime costs for deputies who responded to the protest.

On Friday, Christianson said he was grateful the case was behind him, but added that he has no regrets about his actions.

"No, I think it was the right thing to do," he said.

He added that if there is a lesson to learn from the experience it is this:

"Trees count," he said. "And people are ready to make a stand with them."

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