Militiamen found guilty, face long sentences

Anchorage Daily News / adn.comJune 18, 2012 

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 aloud Monday 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!" Cox 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 that Cox and his codefendants 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 charge in their indictment, conspiracy to murder federal employees including law enforcement officers. The jury deadlocked on whether the third defendant, Coleman Barney, 37, was also guilty of conspiracy to murder and the judge declared a mistrial on that count, which 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.

'SHUT UP, DON'T EXPRESS YOURSELF'

Bryan, a visiting judge from Tacoma, Wash., set sentencing for Sept. 14, around the time he will return to Alaska to conduct another 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.

Bryan, a veteran federal judge who was appointed by President Reagan, was effusive in his praise of the jury.

"I do not recall a jury in a very complicated case like this being as engaged, as involved in paying attention, making notes and trying to understand everything, an all the evidence, as it came in," Bryan said.

Though Bryan said they were now free to talk about the case with reporters or the attorneys, they declined. As they walked from the federal building together, some looked upset. Outside, they parted into groups, waved goodbye, and went their separate ways.

Back in the courtroom, Bryan declared, "The defendants are remanded to custody subject to further order," and left the courtroom. As marshals were putting the defendants in handcuffs, Marti Cox mouthed, "I love you" to her husband. 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.

Outside the courtroom, assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Skrocki said the verdicts were fair and that the jury had plenty of evidence to construct their pleas. He said prosecutors alone introduced 900 exhibits and called 70 witnesses.

But Tim Dooley, Barney's attorney, said the verdict represented a reversal for free speech. He said the lesson was, "Shut up, don't express yourself ... don't say anything you think will be opposed by the U.S. government."

DEADLOCKED ON ONE COUNT

It wasn't clear earlier in the day that there would be verdicts Monday. Shortly before 2 p.m., the jury sent word that it was deadlocked on one count. Bryan summoned the attorneys and defendants and called the jury back into the jury box.

Asking who was elected foreperson and telling the jury to not say anything about its divisions, Bryan asked if they had unanimous verdicts in the other counts. The forewoman said they had. Bryan sent them away and a few minutes later asked them to prepare the verdict forms. They returned at 3:07 p.m.

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.

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. 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 prosecutor 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.

FIVE ORGANIZATIONS

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 cell phone -- 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 promoted 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.

Cox's Second Amendment Task Force was popular in Fairbanks despite its declaration that members, if they served on a real jury, should never convict a person of gun charges unless the weapon was used in connection with another crime. There's a famous YouTube video of Rep. Don Young standing next to Cox at Denny's as Cox declared, "We have no obligation to submit to a government that refuses to submit to their governing document."

In the video, Young signed a public letter written by Cox that declares that if the government decides to "further tax, restrict or register firearms," citizens would have the duty to "alter or abolish" such a government and replace it with another.

Cox created the Alaska Peacemaker Militia as a uniformed and heavily armed force. At times he described it as a defensive organization, but also declared its members could open fire first on government agents who had drawn down on them. It was also the militia that would implement the "241" plan.

With those organizations, prosecutors said, Cox had created the foundation of an alternative government and the ability to use force to attempt to put in place.

The defense argued that Cox never posed an imminent threat to civil order and, with Barney and Vernon, operated within constitutional limits.

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