In closing arguments, lawyers debate militiamen's intentions

Richard Mauer

Thursday morning update: The jury is now deliberating the case. Members left the courtroom around 9:40 a.m.


Wednesday evening article:

Every lawyer, including his own, agreed in federal court Wednesday that Fairbanks militia leader Schaeffer Cox was obnoxious and mouthy.

But in closing arguments in the conspiracy and weapons case against Cox and two other defendants, the attorneys drew sharp distinctions over the meaning of Cox's words and deeds.

Prosecutor Steve Skrocki, an assistant U.S. attorney, said information gathered by the FBI proved the young leader of the Alaska Peacemaker Militia was only interested in establishing the "sovereign republic of Schaeffer Cox" and was willing to threaten violence and accumulate vast stores of weapons for the day he could reach his goal.

Nonsense, said Cox's attorney, Nelson Traverso. As troublesome as Cox's talk was, he was well within his First Amendment rights of free speech and free assembly in protesting the country's system of government. On top of that, his weapons were legal, or, like his stash of demilitarized, hollowed-out hand grenades, not weapons at all, Traverso said.

The two other defendants, militia "major" Coleman Barney and one of its "sergeants," Lonnie Vernon, were likewise not guilty, their lawyers argued.

Barney's attorney, Tim Dooley, also disputed the prosecution claims that the weapons Barney was charged with possessing were in fact illegal. He also criticized the conduct of the two FBI confidential informants in the case, including one who had committed fraud against a number of Alaskans.

As she has during most of the trial, Vernon's lawyer, M.J. Haden, portrayed her client as being on the periphery of most militia activities, and at times appeared on audio recordings made by the informants to not understand what Cox was saying. Haden also attacked Cox "as a legend in his own mind" who turned the militia into a force to solve his personal problems with government, not larger political issues.

The case is expected to go to the jury Thursday after Skrocki completes his rebuttal argument in the morning.

Because the prosecution's burden of proof is so high in a criminal case -- guilt beyond a reasonable doubt -- it gets to go first and last in making its arguments to the jury. Skrocki opened his argument about 10:30 a.m. after the jury heard more than an hour of instructions on the law, its application to the case, and how to conduct their deliberations, all read by U.S. District Judge Robert Bryan, a visiting judge from Tacoma, Wash.

Bryan is also the presiding judge in a separate case involving Vernon and his wife, who are charged with threatening the life of the chief federal district judge in Alaska, Ralph Beistline, and a family member of Beistline's. That case is scheduled for trial in September and will rely on some of the same evidence heard in the militia trial.

Karen and Lonnie Vernon were arrested together in Fairbanks on March 10, 2011, while buying a silenced pistol and dummy hand grenades from the lead informant, Gerald Olson. Cox and Barney were arrested the same day under similar circumstances, though their purchases of the weapons were left unconsummated because of the unexpected arrival of a bystander who pointed out the concealed FBI SWAT team surrounding Olson's truck.

In reviewing the evidence heard by the jury since the case opened May 8, Skrocki said Cox came to the attention of the FBI over a series of speeches he gave in Montana in 2009.

"We're not telling you Schaeffer Cox is guilty because of the speeches he made," Skrocki said. Rather, it was that Cox claimed he had 3,500 militia members "ready to go" and that they were armed with rockets, claymore mines and other controlled weapons. It was completely appropriate for the FBI "to take an interest" in Cox for that kind of talk, Skrocki said. By August 2009 Olson, a one-time confidence man and drug runner who himself flirted with the Montana militia as a teen, had inserted himself into Cox's militia as a paid FBI informant.

The claim of 3,500 members turned out to be an extreme exaggeration. Cox struggled to get more than a dozen serious members in the militia. Olson never found mines or rockets, but he did capture an admission in a recording that Cox owned an unregistered machine gun and that Cox knew how to restore his grenade bodies into fully functioning weapons, and had the materials to do it.

Everything Cox did -- from seeking new militia members to hunting for people with beefs against the state or federal governments, from claiming he was so important that the FBI had sent a hit team from Colorado to Alaska to assassinate him, to attracting attention to himself by loudly denouncing TSA agents as "Nazis" at the Fairbanks airport -- was designed to build an army of loyal followers for the day he could make his move, Skrocki said.

Cox had already created an alternative judiciary. It met at the Denny's in Fairbanks and his hand-picked jury acquitted him of state domestic violence charges he had already pleaded guilty to.

"People can joke about rendering a verdict over a Grand Slam," Skrocki said, citing the restaurant's famous breakfast. But Cox's danger was serious, he said. He had a hit list of state and federal law enforcement. He convinced the rag-tag, untrained security details that were set up by Barney that they should be prepared to shoot to kill.

"Why would you need your own court system, your own county rangers, why do you need handcuffs and a Taser?" said Skrocki. "At some point they're going to be strong enough. That's the motive behind it."

Yet there's nothing in any of the recordings of Cox saying "he was ready to attack the government and bring it down to its knees," Traverso said. "The bottom line is, this is really about the government trying to silence somebody whose speeches are provocative."

Actually, Traverso said, it was another informant, former Anchorage surplus store owner Bill Fulton, who was "revving people up" about Cox by telling people that "Schaeffer has a plan, Schaeffer's up to something."

Cox would sometimes talk in contradictions, allowing both prosecution and defense to cite the same sentence at times, each emphasizing a different part. To the top trooper in Fairbanks, Cox once levied a threat, then gave a hug.

Said Skrocki, quoting Cox: "We have you out manned, outgunned and can have you dead in one night. Here's a hug."

Said Traverso, quoting Cox: "We have you outmanned and outgunned, but we are men of peace."

Dooley criticized the prosecution for filling the courtroom in the first few days with the weapons that were seized from the defendants in the days after their arrests. The prosecutors seemed to be trying to scare the jury, he said.

"We saw a lot of bullets flowing in, a lot of guns flowing in," Dooley said. "Every one of them was legal. It was as if it was a case presented by Californians to other Californians."

Reach Richard Mauer at or 257-4345.

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