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Militia trial focus: 'blowhard' talk versus violent intent

Richard Mauer

The final witnesses closed out testimony in the Fairbanks militia trial on Tuesday by describing how Schaeffer Cox, the young militia leader, alienated mainstream conservatives with increasingly outlandish views.

"I thought it was unwise to use the 'R' word, revolution," said Aaron Brakefield, an Army veteran and military hardware collector who joined the Second Amendment Task Force, one of at least four ideological organizations led or begun by Cox in Fairbanks.

The main focus of the trial has been his Alaska Peacemaker Militia, though the Alaska Assembly Post, the Liberty Bell Network and the Second Amendment Task Force, each with a different but related agenda, have come up frequently in testimony.

Brakefield said he tolerated Cox's message at first, "thinking it was blowhard rhetoric to get us riled up for a cause." But after attending several meetings, Brakefield said, "I thought I should separate myself from it."

In cross-examination by Cox's attorney, Nelson Traverso, Brakefield said that despite the rhetoric, he never heard Cox threaten immediate revolution, a key point in Cox's First Amendment claim that his speech posed no imminent risk of violence.

With the testimony of Brakefield and similar testimony from a leader of the Interior Alaska Conservative Coalition, the prosecution and defense rested on the trial's 21st day. U.S. District Judge Robert Bryan sent the jury home early in advance of closing arguments expected to begin Wednesday at the federal courthouse in downtown Anchorage.

In anticipation of the closing phases of the trial, Bryan, a visiting judge from Tacoma, Wash., began reviewing the complex jury instructions for the case's 16 felony counts, including two separate conspiracy charges.

The three defendants, Cox, Coleman Barney and Lonnie Vernon, are charged with possessing restricted weapons and with conspiring to murder Alaska judges and law enforcement officers. A second conspiracy count charges them with possessing unregistered silencers, hand grenades, and anti-personnel rounds that blast hard-rubber BBs, along with the launchers to fire the rounds. The most serious charge, conspiracy to murder, carries a potential life sentence.

Among the arguments Tuesday over the jury instructions were whether the defendants should be allowed to claim self-defense for believing Cox's claim that a "soulless" government assassination squad had been sent from Colorado to Alaska to kill him. The term "delusional" has come up during the trial to describe Cox's state of mind.

Nevertheless, defense attorneys argued that the militia members were within their rights to arm themselves and to surround Cox and his family with security details.

"For the crime of conspiracy to exist, there has to be an agreement to do something unlawful," said M.J. Haden, a federal public defender representing Vernon. "The right to return fire to defend yourself would be a lawful act. If the agreement was, 'If we get in a position where our lives are in danger, we can certainly respond,' if that's the agreement, then there's no conspiracy."

Bryan said that in addition to self-defense, he expected the defendants to argue that their clients were entrapped by government informants into attempting to purchase the weapons.

The testimony portion of the trial closed with only one of the defendants, Vernon, declining to testify on his own behalf. His defense all along consisted of Haden, his attorney, trying to show he played only a minor role in the militia and that he didn't belong on trial with Cox, the militia commander, and Barney, assigned the rank of major.

Vernon, a tax protester, faces another trial in the fall, this time with his wife, Karen. Both are accused of conspiracy to murder federal officials and threatening to murder a family member of the federal judge in Alaska who presided over a tax case that they lost.

One of the other witnesses who testified Tuesday, John Watts, a board member of the Interior Alaska Conservative Coalition, said Cox was also once a board member of the group. But when Cox began advocating a "bloody revolution" and "overthrowing the government" around 2010, he was told to stay away from the group, Watts said.

"I believe that knowledge is the tool that people can use to solve problems for themselves, political or otherwise," Watts said. "When you suggest force to make people stop what their doing, as an individual and supporter of the Constitution, I have to disassociate myself with that, and so did other members of the IACC."

A 25-year Army veteran, Watts said he thought that Cox's "playing army in the woods" seemed "idiotic."

Reach Richard Mauer at or 257-4345.

Anchorage Daily News