Michael Carey: Militia prosecution portrays an exalted ego of the fringe right

Michael Carey

About 8:15 every morning of the Alaska Militiamen trial at the federal courthouse in downtown Anchorage, the three defendants are brought into the courtroom under guard. The men enter through a door in the back of the room. This is same door Judge Robert Bryan uses minutes later on his way to assuming the bench.

Schaeffer Cox, 26, Coleman Barney, 37, and Lonnie Vernon, 56, are each under the control of an individual escort, each in a set of handcuffs. The three, accused of conspiring to murder federal officials and various weapons violations, are walked to chairs next to their lawyers and released.

The lawyers and the defendants quietly exchange greetings and then either begin to prepare for the day's proceedings or fall silent. The defendants don't talk to one another. The defendants don't talk to the courtroom staff. The defendants don't talk to the reporters and others watching the trial seated 15 to 50 feet away in theater-style chairs, although on the Monday after Mother's Day Coleman Barney did silently mouth to members of his family "I love you mom."

At this stage of the trial, prosecutors are putting on their case, so we only hear the government's version of events.

Cox, by all accounts not just the prosecutors, was the leader of the men on trial as well as other self-styled Fairbanks militiamen who shared his belief the federal government poses a threat to Americans' liberty, especially their freedom to own firearms.

According to KTVA Channel 11, Francis August Schaeffer Cox, whose father is a Baptist minister, is named for Francis August Schaeffer, a conservative Presbyterian theologian and pastor influential in shaping the religious right of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Cox has little formal education beyond a high school diploma obtained through correspondence school, but testimony during the trial suggests he is a reader -- the Bible, the Constitution, American history, right-wing pamphlets and perhaps millenarian tracts.

The reading Cox and his followers have done seems to have convinced them they are the heirs of Old Testament prophets and American revolutionary patriots. This kind of identification is not unusual on the fringe right nor is the condemnation of Abraham Lincoln, described by one witness as "wicked." Honest Abe, after all, introduced martial law during the Civil War, and some on the right are ever fearful of impending martial law.

At times, the government's witnesses provoke a member of the audience who is a reader himself to wonder if Cox is a character who escaped from literature. Playwright John Millington Synge's young braggart Christy Mahon in "Playboy of the Western World." Or Henrik Ibsen's fantasist Peer Gynt in the play of the same name. Or delusional Don Quixote in Miguel Cervantes' 17th century novel.

Invoking Don Quixote seems like a cliché. How many times have we heard "tilting at windmills"? Nevertheless, like Quixote, Cox had a head full of powerful ideas and a love for words, especially abstractions, with which, like the Don, he developed the power to transform ordinary daily experience into something extraordinary -- and on occasion menacing.

On the evening of November 23, 2010, Victoria Thompson, a 72 year-old employee of KJNP, the Christian radio and television station in North Pole, arrived at the station to participate in the production of KJNP's public-service TV show "Closing Comments." For years, Thompson testified, local people have appeared on "Closing Comments" to discuss community events and community issues. The production of the show is routine and predictable. Except this night when Thompson drove up to the station, the building and much of the parking lot was lit up by a portable spotlight and a man with a rifle stopped Thompson's car. The man identified himself as a member of the security team accompanying Cox to his appearance on "Closing Comments" Thompson told the court. Thompson said she was terrified and especially fearful for her sister who was in the station.

The armed man allowed Thompson to enter the building and "Closing Comments" proceeded as scheduled, with Cox talking at one point on television about federal agents endangering his life. Thompson went home terrified and had difficulty sleeping. "I knew Schaeffer Cox, liked him, knew good things he had done in the community" she said in an interview after her testimony, "and I liked him until he went off into insanity." It made her angry to talk about him. She was not mollified to learn Cox had permission to bring his protectors to the station.

Two other witnesses who followed Thompson also told tales of the ordinary becoming the extraordinary through Cox's intervention.

In one, a border patrol agent who stopped at a store with her daughter to pick up medicine for her daughter was approached by Cox, who noticed she was in uniform. While she stood in the pharmacy line, Cox quizzed her about her activities and federal policy, adding disparaging remarks about the government, including his assertion Homeland Security is unconstitutional. The experience was unusual enough the agent reported it to her supervisor.

In the other, a trooper testified about a traffic stop on the Parks Highway between Fairbanks and Nenana. The trooper was about to hand the driver a ticket for speeding and a summons for using a license plate belonging to another vehicle when the driver handed him a cell phone and said "Here's my lawyer." This was no lawyer; it was Schaeffer Cox who asked the officer about the basis of his authority. When the trooper broke off the call, the driver, on the advice of Cox, demanded an immediate appearance before a magistrate. The officer explained the driver could only get an appearance if arrested and given the late evening hour, the magistrate in Nenana was not available. The driver said "Take me to Fairbanks." The trooper made the arrest, and the rest of his evening was altered by one Schaeffer Cox phone call. Instead of patrolling the highway, the trooper drove a prisoner demanding his rights to the Fairbanks Correctional Center.

By now, a reasonable observer is entitled to conclude Cox has a gigantic ego. Apparently he also has poor radar. By radar, I mean the capacity to detect the impression he is creating. Whatever his intent in the incidents the witnesses described, Schaeffer Cox actually was calling unfavorable attention to himself.

Michael Carey is the former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News. He can be reached at mcarey@adn.com.