The volunteer soldiers of the Alaska Peacemaker Militia were the good guys, co-founder Les Zerbe told jurors Thursday in federal court.
They were no more than three dozen "serious, concerned" men who feared the wounded U.S. economy would soon unravel, leaving government services in tatters and Fairbanks families unprotected. The group formed to be ready to restore order, Zerbe testified.
Prosecutors are seeking to prove that 28-year-old militia commander Schaeffer Cox had far darker goals. Cox and his lieutenants, including co-defendants Coleman Barney and Lonnie Vernon, planned a bloody clash with government figures, the charges say.
On Day 15 of the Anchorage trial, each side battled to define the motives of the Alaska militia to jurors. Defense attorneys turned to an unlikely source: surplus-store-owner-turned-FBI-informant William "Drop Zone Bill" Fulton.
Fulton told jurors he first met Cox at the 2008 state Republican convention. He and Cox were introduced by Fairbanks lawyer Joe Miller and Sarah Palin aide Frank Bailey. That year, Miller had tried unsuccessfully to oust party chairman Randy Ruedrich, saying the party was hobbled by corruption during his tenure. Palin also supported a change in party leadership.
"We were having a strategy meeting for the next day," Fulton said.
Fulton made headlines two years later when he and his security team, working on behalf of Miller's failed U.S. Senate campaign, handcuffed a reporter at a campaign event.
By that time Fulton was already working for the FBI as an undercover informant, feeding information about the Fairbanks militia to investigators.
Much of the testimony Thursday described a 2010 meeting or fundraiser at a Fairbanks military supply store attended by Fulton, militia leaders Cox and Zerbe and others.
Fulton's business included bounty hunter work, he said, which prompted Cox to ask him to serve "warrants" on certain judges and others working in the court system. Cox had clashed with the court over a misdemeanor weapons charge and with state child protective officials who sought to see his 2-year-old son after Cox pleaded guilty to a reckless endangerment charge involving his family.
The FBI asked Fulton to see what he could learn, he testified.
"I know that Schaeffer was planning on having us arrest and try judges and hang them," Fulton said in court. He wore a blue tie and his customary buzz cut. Several jurors dipped their heads, scribbling notes.
Before providing information to the FBI, Fulton testified that he also worked as an informant for the criminal investigations division of the U.S. Army. Still, the warrants scared him, he said.
"I was up there on my first assignment with my role that I had assumed with the FBI. I was in a room full of people that would kill me if they (had) known why I was there," Fulton said.
At some point at a gathering at the military supply store, Fulton said, he became locked in an angry encounter with Zerbe.
Zerbe testified that he suspected Fulton of somehow trying to set up the militiamen. Both men were armed, Zerbe with a handgun and Fulton with a knife, according the testimony. No one was hurt in the confrontation.
"When (Zerbe) questioned my integrity, I felt that I had moments to deal with it or bad things were about to happen to me," Fulton said.
Questioned by Cox's attorney, Nelson Traverso, Fulton said he was paid about $39,000 for his work for the FBI. He talked with the agency about Cox maybe 20 times between the Fairbanks meeting and a 2011 militia convention in Anchorage, Fulton said.
"I had set up a weapons deal for him and his boys at the (Millennium Hotel) and the militia conference, and was going to deliver weapons to Cox," Fulton said.
Fulton told jurors he was not working with the FBI to avoid facing any criminal charges of his own.
Cox, Barney, 37, and Vernon, 56, are charged with conspiracy to murder federal agents and with violating federal weapons laws for owning or attempting to purchase a machine gun, silencers, hand grenades and other arms.
Zerbe, who said his rank in the militia was lieutenant colonel, said the Peacemaker Militia was formed around 2008 after a time of "deep, deep trouble" for the U.S. economy. Members were physicians, ministers, book store owners, he said.
"It was strictly set up to be non-violent," Zerbe said. The group's patches read "defend all, aggress none."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Skrocki countered by playing a video clip of Cox, Zerbe and a young man talking at a Fairbanks diner.
In the undated video, Zerbe sits silently at a table as Cox talks about the need for principled people to rise up against governments that fail to protect the rights of their citizens. Then the militia leader threatens to kill police if necessary.
"I would fire on my own government. I would fire on police officers who were my own neighbors," Cox says in the clip.
Zerbe said he remembered nothing about the meeting.
U.S. District Judge Robert Bryan on Thursday rejected efforts by defense attorneys to dismiss the charges based on a lack of evidence.
As the defense attorneys prepared to call character witnesses to the stand, Bryan told Cox and his fellow defendants they must choose between two constitutional rights: the right to remain silent as the trial comes to a close, or the right to speak out on their own behalf.
Cox's attorney declined to talk about the case during a break in the hearings.
Read The Village, the ADN's blog about rural Alaska, at adn.com/thevillage. Twitter updates: twitter.com/adn_kylehopkins. Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.