Alaskan militia leader, 2 of his confederates found guilty on most charges

Created: Tuesday, June 19, 2012 8:26 a.m. CST

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (MCT) — An Anchorage jury convicted Fairbanks militia leader Schaeffer Cox and two of his confederates on most of the charges they faced, leaving them looking at the possibility of long prison terms when they are sentenced in September.

As the verdicts were read by U.S. District Judge Robert Bryan, Cox’s eyes darted from juror to juror and then to the full courtroom, returning again to the jurors, and he grew more agitated as the guilty verdicts piled up. The jurors appeared to avert his gaze. When the 21 separate verdicts were in the books and each juror polled by the judge to ensure the record was correct, Cox erupted.

“The prosecutors withheld evidence from you guys!” he shouted to the jury.

“Mr. Cox, please,” said the judge.

Cox looked down and covered his face. The next time he looked up, his eyes were red.

Federal prosecutors charged Cox, 28, Coleman Barney, 37, and Lonnie Vernon, 56, with amassing illegal weapons and with threatening the lives of law enforcement officials and judges. Cox was leader of the Alaska Peacemaker Militia, but his ideology was much broader, combining evangelical Christianity, a sense of an impending national collapse and the assertion that the state and federal government held no authority over him.

The defense attorneys said Cox and his co-defendants were being prosecuted because of their ideas. They should have been protected by the First Amendment’s rights of free speech and assembly, they said.

Cox and Vernon were each convicted of the most serious of 16 counts in their indictment, conspiracy to murder federal employees including law enforcement officers. The jury deadlocked on whether Barney was also guilty of conspiracy to murder, and the judge declared a mistrial on that count. The charge carries a maximum penalty of life in prison.

Prosecutors said a decision would be made later on whether to retry Barney on that charge, but such a new trial seemed unlikely given the complexity of the case and that fact that he faces prison on his conviction on two weapons felonies.

All three men were convicted of conspiring to possess unregistered silencers and destructive devices. Cox was convicted of soliciting the murder of a U.S. officer.

The jury rejected all five counts in which prosecutors charged the defendants with carrying a firearm during a crime of violence. But Cox was found guilty on a total of nine counts and Barney and Vernon twice. Most of the charges carry 10-year prison sentences.

Bryan, a visiting judge from Tacoma, Wash., set sentencing for Sept. 14, around the time he will return to Alaska to conduct another federal trial in which Vernon and his wife are defendants. They’re accused of threatening to murder the federal judge who presided over their losing tax case.

The jury of seven women and five men began deliberating Thursday morning and worked through Friday before getting the weekend off. The jury resumed deliberations Monday.

Jurors declined to comment as they were leaving the federal courthouse.

Marti Cox, Schaeffer’s wife, mouthed, “I love you” to Cox as he was led from the courtroom in handcuffs. With tears in her eyes, she turned and hugged Barney’s mother, Mae Barney, who was also crying.

Marti Cox, Mae Barney and her husband, Bill Barney, said the verdicts were too fresh for them to comment.

Over 22 days of trial, the jury frequently came in contact with big legal and philosophical issues concerning the limits of free speech and the right to bear arms. The judge described the jury as among the hardest working he has seen given the complexity of the case.

Cox was a charismatic leader who almost won the Republican primary in Fairbanks for a state House seat in 2008, and he came to the attention of the FBI after a series of speeches to militia and conservative organizations in Montana.

The investigation had nothing to do with Cox’s radical doctrines, an FBI agent testified. Rather, it was Cox’s claim, proven to be grossly exaggerated, that he had 3,500 men in arms in Fairbanks who were willing to kill to protect liberty, and that his force had mines and automatic weapons.

The two other defendants were Barney, a major in the Alaska Peacemaker Militia and a successful electrical contractor from North Pole with a large family; and Vernon, a militia sergeant who, with his wife, Karen, was losing his home in Salcha in their fight with the IRS.

Prosecutors made much of the arsenal they seized following the “take down” arrests on March 10, 2011, of Cox, Barney and the Vernons. The four were arrested in the middle of a sting as they attempted to buy hand grenades and silenced pistols from an FBI informant.

On any given day in the trial, the evidence was piled by the rail behind the prosecution table, ready to be identified or explained by witnesses: semi-automatic assault rifles, pistols, grenade launchers, demilitarized hand grenades and bullet-proof vests. Thousands of rounds live ammo, including grenades containing tear gas, pepper gas and rubber BBs, didn’t make it into the courtroom for obvious reasons, but photographs of the materiel were shown to the jury on a regular basis.

As much as prosecutors made of the weapons, the defense attorneys pointed out that most were legal and that at least some Alaskans wouldn’t think that owning thousands of bullets wasn’t weird, unlike a jury, say, in California.

“We saw a lot of bullets flowing in, a lot of guns flowing in,” Barney’s attorney, Tim Dooley, said in his closing argument. “Every one of them was legal. It was as if it was a case presented by Californians to other Californians.”

The weapons that the informant was selling to the militia members came from an FBI warehouse in Quantico, Va., and appeared to have been around for some time: One of the pistols had a tiny piece of tape covering up a rust spot. The grenades looked real but were dummies.

The sting was set up by Gerald “J.R.” Olson, a government informant now in the witness protection program. From his infiltration of the militia in August 2010 to the moment he rolled out of his truck as the FBI moved in on March 10, he and his FBI case agent, Richard Sutherland, recorded about 100 hours of conversations, some of it on video. About five hours ended up as exhibits played to the jury, including the moment Cox came up with his “241” plan to kill or capture two officials for every militia member killed or arrested.

The initial federal indictment, handed up by a grand jury in Anchorage March 17, 2011, contained only six counts, all of them related to weapons. At the time, the most serious charges against the militia defendants were contained in a state complaint, accusing them of conspiring to kill and kidnap judges and law enforcement officers.

The state charges relied on the audio recordings made by Olson and another informant, former Anchorage surplus store owner and bounty hunter Bill Fulton. Since the FBI was managing the informants, the agents followed federal law in making the recordings. If one party consents to a recording — in this case, the informant — no search warrant is necessary under U.S. law.

But the defendants challenged the charges in state court and a judge ruled that an Alaska warrant was required for the recordings. The state charges were dismissed in October 2011.

Three months later, in January, Cox, Coleman and Lonnie Vernon were re-indicted by a federal grand jury. The new indictment contained 16 counts. The most serious — conspiracy to murder judges and law enforcement officers — carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. Most of the other counts have 10-year maximums.

Cox was charged in 11 of the counts, Barney in seven and Vernon in three. Throughout the trial, Vernon’s attorney tried to separate Vernon from the others, at least in the minds of the jury. He never testified.

Barney, a loyal follower of Cox, said when he took the stand that he would still follow Cox’s orders if he walked out of the courtroom a free man.

Vernon and Cox had a strained relationship toward the end. Cox was a fugitive from a state weapons charge for the last month before his arrest. At first, he hid out at the Vernons’ place in Salcha, but Lonnie Vernon became furious with Cox, partly for not being low-key and drawing attention to himself. Vernon demanded Cox leave. Cox spent his last days of freedom with his wife and two kids at the Barney residence.

Of course, the FBI knew exactly where Cox was because its informant, Olson, was meeting regularly with him.

Cox was home-schooled and grew up in a religious home. His father was a Baptist preacher who named Cox after an evangelical pastor credited with creating the ideological basis for the modern religious-right movement, Francis August Schaffer.

Cox created or played a leadership role in at least five separate activist organizations in Fairbanks. The Interior Alaska Conservative Coalition kicked him out in 2010 when Cox began advocating “bloody revolution” and the overthrow the government, a board member testified at the trial.

His Liberty Bell Network provided a phone number — Cox’s cellphone — for anyone who believed the police were overstepping their bounds. Cox and other volunteers would race to the scene to capture the event on video. It was at such a situation where Cox failed to declare to the police that he was carrying a concealed weapon, leading to the charge he eventually failed to answer.

His Alaska Assembly Post provided a structure for promoting the “sovereign citizen” movement in Fairbanks, the notion that the individual is the only source of governmental authority. Under the auspices of the Assembly Post, Cox arranged for a “judge” and a jury of his pals to hear his weapons case and a prior domestic violence case to which he had already pleaded guilty. The proceedings were held at the Denny’s restaurant in Fairbanks and he was acquitted of all charges.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Skrocki ridiculed the tribunal as a “kangaroo court” in which no prosecution evidence was presented and not guilty verdicts were pre-ordained.