Prosecutors recommend 35-year sentence for Fairbanks militia leader

Casey Grove

Federal prosecutors are asking a judge to put Fairbanks militia leader Schaeffer Cox behind bars until he's in his mid-60s, and to sentence two militia members, Lonnie and Karen Vernon, to what is effectively life imprisonment.

In June, an Anchorage jury convicted Cox, the 28-year-old founder of the Alaska Peacemaker Militia, and 57-year-old militia soldier Lonnie Vernon of plotting to kill law enforcement officials and conspiring to obtain gun silencers and grenades with which to carry out attacks. In a separate case, Lonnie and his 66-year-old wife, Karen, pleaded guilty in August, admitting they had planned to kill a federal judge and an Internal Revenue Service Officer while the couple was embroiled in a legal dispute over property taxes.

Prosecutors are recommending sentences of 26 1/2 years for Lonnie Vernon for both convictions and 15 1/2 years for Karen Vernon. Lonnie Vernon is asking for a sentence of 21 years, 10 months. Karen Vernon is asking for five years. The couple's sentencing hearing is set for Monday.

According to a sentencing memorandum filed in court this week, prosecutors recommend that Cox spend 35 years in prison. A judge is scheduled to sentence Cox at a hearing Tuesday. Cox's Seattle-based attorney, Peter Camiel, says he will ask the judge for a sentence of 10 years.

Camiel and Cox's attorney at trial, Nelson Traverso, have said the militia members merely made plans to react with violence in the event of a collapse of the federal government and that no attacks were imminent. Prosecutors say the militia, at Cox's direction, took clear steps toward committing murder, including compiling a "hit list," conducting surveillance on possible targets and amassing a huge cache of weapons, some of them illegal to own.

Two government informants infiltrated the militia, one as a member of its inner circle in Fairbanks and the other as a would-be weapons supplier in Anchorage. Both made extensive recordings of the militia's planning and the men's attempts to buy illegal grenades and pistols equipped with noise-dampening barrel attachments known as silencers.

Much of the plot centered on Cox's "241" plan, in which he or other militia members would kill or kidnap two law enforcement officers for each militia member killed or arrested. According to the sentencing memorandum, Cox's potential targets also included the family members of law enforcement officials.

"Well, I'm not going to target women and children, but I'm not opposed to killing them either, you know," Cox said in one recording, according to the memorandum. "I'm not against some, like, drastic, shocking things either, like, you know, mailing heads to people. I don't want to gloat. Just make people suffer."

In the sentencing memorandum, the prosecutors called Cox a sociopath and a narcissist who did not understand the risk of innocent bystanders getting wounded or killed during a shootout with law enforcement officers.

Camiel, Cox's attorney, said his client was only someone "who talks and blusters about things like that" and the prosecutors' recommended sentence of 35 years was "out of line."

"Schaeffer Cox said a lot of very disturbing things. There's no question about it. But at the end of the day, he didn't do anything to harm anyone," Camiel said. "There certainly wasn't anything imminent about the conspiracy he was convicted of. This wasn't a group of guys driving a truck full of explosives to the federal building and they get stopped just in the nick of time. This was people sitting around and talking about doing admittedly terrible things."

In the June trial with Cox and Lonnie Vernon, the jury also convicted 38-year-old Coleman Barney, on the weapons charges in the case with Cox but acquitted Barney of the more serious charge of conspiracy to commit murder. A judge sentenced Barney in September to five years in prison.

Reach Casey Grove at or 257-4589.