Federal judge rejects effort to have militia case thrown out

Lisa Demer

A judge Monday rejected an attempt to derail a federal weapons case against three leaders of a right-wing Fairbanks militia over claims that the government trampled on their rights. The men are accused of trying to secure weapons to overthrow the government in a case that remains set for what's expected to be a month-long trial in February.

Francis Schaeffer Cox, 27, Coleman Barney, 37, and Lonnie Vernon, 56, face a charge of conspiring to possess illegal gun silencers and hand grenades, as well as other weapons charges.

"I am a critic, not a criminal," Cox told U.S. District Judge Robert J. Bryan in Anchorage.

But prosecutors say he's a dangerous man who was biding his time as he tried to marshal weapons and manpower.

In a separate case, Vernon and his wife, Karen, are charged with federal murder conspiracy and weapons charges in an alleged plot targeted at a federal judge and his family. That case is rooted in a dispute over back taxes.

Cox is the central figure in the Alaska Peacemaker Militia, prosecutors say.

His Fairbanks attorney, Nelson Traverso, told the judge that the whole case seems to have sprung out of "very provocative" speeches and statements made by Cox.

Cox was "trafficking in ideas," not firearms, not drugs, not sex, Traverso said. His speeches are protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the lawyer said.

In one speech, in Montana in November 2009, Cox claimed his militia had 3,500 members and its own common-law court.

"We've got a medical unit that's got surgeons and doctors and medical trucks and mobile surgery units and stuff like that. We've got engineers that make GPS jammers, cellphone jammers, bombs, and all sorts of nifty stuff. We've got guys with, we've got airplanes with laser acquisition stuff and we've got rocket launchers and grenade launchers and claymores and machine guns and calvary and we've got boats. It's all set," Cox told the Montana group.

Traverso insisted that his client never took any steps toward violent overthrow of the government even when a government agent pushed him.

William Fulton, who owned the Drop Zone surplus and security business, worked the case undercover as an informant for the government, according to a filing last week by Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Skrocki.

Fulton told Cox he had spent more than $100,000 to get ready for war, Traverso told the judge. But Cox told him no -- his plan was to "defend all, aggress none."

Prosecutors say the case is about illegal weapons and the actions of individuals, not free speech. The government had every right to investigate, Skrocki said. According to prosecutors, Cox talked about a two-for-one plan in which for every militia member killed or captured, the group would retaliate by killing or capturing two judges, law enforcement officers or prosecutors.

Cox and his militia members didn't act because they were first trying to strengthen their numbers, Skrocki said.

Cox's interest in illegal weapons predates the time Fulton and another informant, Gerald Olson, began working the case, according to recent filings by the prosecution. In 2008, for example, Cox acquired a DVD on eBay about how to make a silencer, according to a government exhibit. He's now accused of making his own illegal silencer, among other charges.

When Vernon talked about killing the judge, Cox didn't report it -- something a man of peace would have done, Skrocki said.

On Monday, Bryan sided with the prosecution. "Protected speech does not mean protection from an investigation" if there's suspicion of a crime, the judge said.

Bryan, who is based in Tacoma, is hearing the militia cases since the reports of threats involved U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline of Anchorage, the chief federal judge for Alaska.

Also on Monday, Cox, Barney and Vernon all pleaded not guilty to a new weapons indictment handed up earlier this month.

While the other defendants simply said "not guilty" as Bryan read off the charges, Cox elaborated.

He said he wasn't just making the plea as a procedural move but as a "general assertion of actual innocence on all counts."

As for the Vernons, their murder conspiracy case also remains headed for trial next year, after the weapons case.

A state murder conspiracy case against the Vernons, Cox, Barney and a fifth defendant was dismissed last month after a state judge ruled that secret audio and video recordings made without a search warrant couldn't be used. But in the federal case, investigators don't need search warrants for such surveillance recordings, prosecutors maintain.

Reach Lisa Demer at ldemer@adn.com or 257-4390. Information from The Associated Press was used in this story.

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