Vernons change pleas, admit conspiring to murder judge

Mary Pemberton

An Alaska couple admitted to buying a gun, silencer and hand grenades, and having a map to a federal judge's homes, in what prosecutors said was a murder plot that developed from a dispute over paying taxes.

Lonnie and Karen Vernon, of Salcha, appeared in U.S. District Court on Monday to change their pleas and admit to conspiring to murder federal officials.

Under his signed plea agreement, Lonnie Vernon will spend from 21 to more than 27 years in prison. Sentencing guidelines call for Karen Vernon to receive a sentence of more than 15 years, said her attorney, Darrel Gardner, but he can argue that she should receive a shorter sentence.

The judge set sentencing for Nov. 14.

Lonnie Vernon, 56, at times defiant during the court proceeding, repeatedly asked the judge who has jurisdiction over him and his wife. Vernon was a foot soldier in a Fairbanks militia group and was convicted earlier this year in a separate murder conspiracy plot involving its charismatic leader, Schaeffer Cox.

Vernon's sentence will take care of both convictions. Karen Vernon, 66, was not charged in the previous murder conspiracy case.

"How can we be thrown away as trash?" Lonnie Vernon asked U.S. District Judge Robert Bryant. "We have not bothered no one in our lives."

He also asked if he had a contract with the United States.

U.S. District Judge Robert Bryant responded that no one has a contract, "it is just part of being a citizen." The judge accepted the guilty pleas.

The couple admitted to intending to kill U.S. District Court Judge Ralph Beistline and Internal Revenue Service officer Janice Stowell in 2011 in retaliation for a decision that they owed more than $165,000 in back taxes. Beistline presided over the tax case.

According to the plea agreements, the tax case began in 2008 because the couple had failed to pay taxes for several years. They were slapped with tax liens and the government moved to sell their home.

In 2009, the couple filed a counterclaim asserting that they are not citizens of the United States and therefore not obligated to pay taxes.

Beistline dismissed the lawsuit, calling the Vernons' arguments "frivolous." The couple lost several more legal challenges the following year.

According to Lonnie Vernon's plea agreement, in February 2011, he traveled from Fairbanks to Anchorage with an undercover informant to buy a silencer. He told the informant, who was working undercover for the government, that he was going to kill the judge and the IRS officer, as well as the judge's wife and children.

The following month, the couple met again with the undercover informant. This time, according to their plea agreements, they told him they wanted to buy hand grenades and offered to trade for Karen Vernon's jewelry. The Vernons showed the informant a map with addresses and highlighted routes to the judges' residences.

The couple purchased a pistol with silencer and two hand grenades, not knowing they were inert and provided by the FBI. Karen Vernon put the hand grenades in her purse.

They also had body armor, two assault rifles, more handguns and several rounds of ammunition at the time, the plea agreement says.

The couple also left a letter to friends and family in case they died.

The letter said, "We will not FREELY GIVE our home, land and personal property to this tyrant, nor will we die cowards, licking their jack-boots."

Associated Press