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Another defendant takes center stage in trial of militiamen

Kyle Hopkins

Jurors, meet 37-year-old Coleman Barney, a trusted lieutenant in the Alaska Peacemakers Militia.

In a conspiracy trial overshadowed by the group's charismatic young leader, Schaeffer Cox, Barney took the stand Thursday portraying a mild-mannered deputy who harbored deep concerns about taking up arms against the government.

A member of the Mormon Church, Barney told the jury he believed in advancing the militia's freedom-minded aims but worried for his soul. He told fellow militia members that enacting the notorious "241" plan to kill two government officials for each fallen militia member was more likely to make them the objects of ridicule rather than martyrs, Barney testified.

"I don't know that this would accomplish anything in God's plan other than we'd be dead and we'd be labeled as loonies," Barney told jurors, summarizing statements he made to other members of the volunteer force.

Barney, Cox and Lonnie Vernon face federal murder conspiracy and weapons charges. Thursday marked Day 19 of the trial as jurors heard from Barney and witnesses testifying on his behalf.

The portrait of Barney emerging from the testimony was that of a gun-toting but peace-loving North Pole electrician -- an image prosecutors aimed to dent by asking witnesses how much time they really spent with Barney and why they didn't join the militia or attend militia events themselves when invited.

Jeremy O'Neil, a Valdez lawyer and CPA, said he taught Barney to fly and did his taxes in 2010. Barney once invited him to attend a militia "pow-wow" on Chena Hot Springs Road outside of Fairbanks, O'Neil testified.

"Much the same way you would invite somebody to a Tupperware party. It was very non-confrontational and polite," he said.

Defense lawyer Tim Dooley asked each character witness a string of simple questions. Was Barney honest? "Yes." Was he a murderer? "No."

"He's probably the man with the most integrity I know," said Richard Matteson, a battalion chief for the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson fire department. Matteson made the remark outside the courtroom during a trial break. Barney has looked after the airman's family when he is away from home, he said.

On the witness stand, prosecutors asked Matteson about Barney's political views. He believes people are losing liberties and has said that he became a "sovereign citizen," Matteson said.

Among the government's claims against Cox is that the militia leader used his group to live outside the law.

Jurors also heard from Barney himself. Asked if he believed Cox's claims that a six-man team of federal assassins was out to kill him, Barney said he thought it was unlikely. But it was possible, Barney said, "because of things that have happened in our country in the past."

Just before the trial stopped for a lunch break, lawyers argued over how much Barney should be able to say about Ruby Ridge -- the bloody 1992 siege conducted by federal agents in northern Idaho -- and how that event influenced his concern Cox might be attacked.

"We're not going to retry Ruby Ridge in this case," U.S. District Court Judge Robert Bryan said while the jury was out of the room.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Skrocki told Bryan the defense was trying to "bootstrap" the facts of the widely criticized Idaho confrontation into the militia trial. The Fairbanks militia members did not cite Ruby Ridge as a reason to surround Cox with armed security, he argued.

Dooley, the defense lawyer, said it was the FBI's own informant who can be heard talking about Ruby Ridge on evidence tapes.

In front of the jury, Barney was only allowed to say that his understanding of the event, which he learned about through talk shows and conversations at a Second Amendment Task Force meeting, caused him concern.

Rachel Barney, Coleman's wife, said Ruby Ridge certainly appeared to be on the minds of federal authorities when they searched her North Pole home the day of the militiamen's 2011 arrest.

In an interview outside the courtroom, Rachel Barney said she looked out her window that day to see men with guns at her door. She told them to stop trying to knock it down, she said, and sat by the fireplace during the raid.

One of the authorities told her "that I needed to cooperate because they didn't want a Ruby Ridge," she said.

Rachel, who is originally from Utah and has attended every day of the trial, first met Coleman while on a church mission to Tennessee, she said.

He would never hurt anyone and belongs at home with his kids, she said. "The person being portrayed in there is not Coleman Barney."

The couple have five children, including an 11-month-old daughter, Sawyer, who was born while Coleman was in jail awaiting this trial. The girl is named for the "Lost" character, not the Mark Twain novel, Rachel said.

Anchorage Daily News
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