State drops charges in militia plot; federal charges remain

Rachel D'Oro | Associated Press

The state dismissed charges Friday against an Alaska militia leader and others accused in a murder conspiracy plot targeting judges and state troopers.

But federal charges remain against four of the five Fairbanks-area residents, including Schaeffer Cox, who was accused in state charges of hatching the conspiracy. Cox, Coleman Barney, and Lonnie and Karen Vernon remain in custody.

The fifth defendant in the state case, Michael Anderson, was released from custody Friday, according to a booking officer at the Fairbanks Correctional Center. Anderson was not charged in the federal case.

Prosecutors said the decision to dismiss state murder conspiracy and other charges was prompted by a Superior Court judge's recent ruling to suppress all electronic evidence in the case.

Judge David Stewart said in his Oct. 17 ruling that audio and video recordings made during a six-month FBI investigation into Cox and his Peacemaker's Militia are not admissible because they were made without a search warrant, and therefore violate the Alaska Constitution. The FBI has wider authority to obtain warrants.

"We could have asked the Court of Appeals through a petition for review to look at whether or not the judge's decision in this case to suppress electronic recordings was the appropriate decision," said assistant Attorney General Dwayne McConnell. "Based on our review of the law, we thought it unlikely the court would accept the petition."

With the state charges dropped, only the Vernons are charged in federal court with murder conspiracy, including a charge of threatening to kill a federal judge and his family. Cox and Barney, along with Lonnie Vernon, are charged with weapons offenses, including possession of unregistered silencers, an unregistered machine gun and grenades.

The four, who have been in custody since their March 10 arrests, have pleaded not guilty. Trials are scheduled in February and March.

Cox is named in all six weapons charges, which each carry a maximum of 10 years imprisonment. If convicted, the Vernons face as much as life in prison on the murder conspiracy charges, Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Skrocki said.

The dismissal of the state case is not expected to have any bearing on the federal case.

"It's purely a matter of state law, with an interpretation by a state court based on the Alaska Constitution and has absolutely no impact on any evidence in the federal charges against the defendants in any way," Skrocki said.

Nelson Traverso, Cox's attorney in the federal case, will not be available for comment until after trial, said a paralegal in his office, who would not give her name.

Cox's attorney in the state case, Robert John, said he spoke with his client, who was "very happy" the state charges were dismissed.

"To me, it's a great victory for all, especially when one considers that the defendants were wrongfully accused," John said. "In addition to the innocence of the accused, it is a great vindication of the constitutional rights of all Alaskans, especially our rights to privacy and against unreasonable searches and seizures."

Authorities have said Cox was an advocate of the "241" retaliation plan, which stood for "two-for-one" -- killing or kidnapping two officials for every member of his group who was killed or arrested.

The alleged plan arose after Cox was charged with misdemeanor weapons misconduct. He represented himself at a pretrial hearing where he denied that the Alaska court system was a legitimate judiciary. Cox said he would not attend another hearing until the court system explained its authority over him.

A warrant was issued for his arrest when he failed to appear for trial in that case in February.

Associated Press