Militia leader Cox contrite as he gets 26-year prison term

Richard Mauer
Sam Harrel

Fairbanks militia leader Schaeffer Cox pleaded for a light sentence in federal court Tuesday, acknowledging for the first time that he was "paranoid" and insisting he was all bark and no bite.

"I was terrified -- I was in a nightmare I couldn't awake from," Cox said of his time as commander of a rag-tag force in Fairbanks, insisting he was a law unto himself. "One thing I really, really, really want you to know: I had no intentions of hurting anybody. I don't think I could hurt anybody."

But his 13-minute monologue, at times so tearful it elicited sniffles in the clusters of his supporters around the jammed federal courtroom, did not appear to move the judge much.

U.S. District Judge Robert Bryan gave Cox got 25 years and 10 months in federal prison for his convictions last year on nine federal weapons and conspiracy charges, including plotting to murder federal judges and law enforcement personnel and buying grenades and a pistol with a silencer.

Under federal sentencing guidelines, he could have gotten life, but Bryan said the term, with an additional five years of probation, was tough enough.

There's no parole in the federal system. "Good time" could knock off about 15 percent of his sentence. He'll get credit for nearly two years he's already been jailed.

But Cox, now 28, will be middle aged when he gets out. His preschool-age children will have lives of their own by then.

"We know from the convictions and the events of the trial that he was a danger to the public in the past," Bryan said before pronouncing sentence. "We also know, in spite of his statements, that we can have no confidence that he would not be a danger to the public in the future. It's obviously very difficult to anticipate, but Mr. Cox's personality and mental status ... indicate to me that the public needs to be protected from him."

Bryan is a visiting judge from Tacoma, Wash. He took the case after one of Cox's co-defendants, Lonnie Vernon, threatened the life of the chief federal judge in Alaska, Ralph Beistline. Cox's woeful plea to the court was in contrast to Vernon's indignant and expletive-laden tirade Monday, just before he got the same sentence.

Bryan said he was concerned about not treating one defendant harsher than the other. Theoretically, Vernon's crimes weren't as serious as Cox's. Vernon was found guilty of only two crimes in the case with Cox, along with an additional conspiracy charge in a related case, compared to nine counts for Cox. Cox was the leader of the Alaska Peacekeeper Militia, Vernon only a soldier.

But Vernon "was perhaps much closer" to murdering a federal judge than Cox, Bryan said, and Vernon and his wife had written suicide notes in anticipation of being killed in a shootout with authorities.

Then again, Vernon was a follower of Cox, Bryan said. "I can't help but wonder how much Mr. Cox's influence over Mr. Vernon may have lent some impetus to Mr. Vernon's desire to kill a federal judge."

Courtroom 2 in the Federal Courthouse in downtown Anchorage was filled to overflowing for Cox's 2 1/2-hour sentencing, with standing spectators lining the back walls. Cox's family and friends were there, as were many of the witnesses in his six-week trial, FBI agents, curious prosecutors, public defenders and other lawyers, and at least two of the jurors who voted June 18 to convict him -- more than 100 people in all. They were silent except for the scattered sounds of crying or holding back of tears during Cox's statement to the judge.

Aside from one outburst during his trial, when he apologized to a family friend who testified about showing up on his hit list, Cox had not acknowledged doing anything wrong. Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Skrocki, in his sentencing memorandum, said that after the trial Cox mailed a letter from jail to supporters claiming the FBI "manufactured" the case against him and that "criminal charges that were brought by man are lies." Skrocki said the presentence report investigator properly concluded that Cox shouldn't get the standard reduction in sentence for accepting responsibility for his crimes.

Letters sent to the judge in support of Cox also claimed he had been framed or was otherwise innocent, Bryan said.

"You know folks, he did do it -- he did commit those crimes," Bryan said. "I don't blame people for not believing Mr. Cox was guilty, but that information came from Mr. Cox, and Mr. Cox was not a reliable person when it comes to telling the truth about this -- or for that matter, about nearly anything else."

Bryan said he wanted to underline the fact that the case didn't involve Cox's freedom of speech, but of criminal behavior. The FBI properly began investigating Cox after a speech he gave in Montana, not because of his anti-government rhetoric, but because he claimed -- falsely, it turned out -- that he thousands of militiamen at his command and a cache of mines and other illegal weapons.

But on Tuesday, Cox changed his tune from in-your-face militia leader to contrite defendant.

Cox's attorney, Peter Camiel of Seattle, said Cox began that transformation when he agreed to undergo a psychological evaluation. Camiel became Cox's attorney after the trial. He said he studied the trial transcripts, listened to secretly recorded conversations, and read Cox's speeches, including those to the militia gatherings in Montana where Cox first came to the attention of the FBI.

"It struck me that something's not right," Camiel said. Cox had no perception of the effect of his words, he said.

The psychologist concluded that Cox had for years suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, delusional personality disorder and paranoid personality disorder.

Skrocki dismissed the evaluation as another attempt by Cox to lay the blame for his behavior elsewhere. Cox was a master manipulator, he said.

But Camiel said he discussed the report with Cox's parents, and they said it explained a lot about Cox's behavior.

"He was being controlled by his paranoia," Camiel said. "But it's something that can be dealt with, we know what it is now."

By the time Cox started speaking from his seat at the defense table, the hearing had already been under way for more than 90 minutes.

"Well, I, uh, I put myself here. With my words," he said, in a high, thin voice. "This is devastating to my wife, and she is in a position of pain and uncertainty, and I feel that that is my fault. And my children who I love with all my heart, they lost their family."

"I sounded horrible," he said, referring to his threats to kill officials. "I couldn't have sounded any worse if I tried. The more scared I got, the crazier the things I started saying. I wasn't thinking, I was panicking. I lost all of my composure and created a horrible mess and you know, if I was the FBI, I would've investigated me too -- I don't blame them for that. I don't blame anybody but myself for starting this."

He apologized to an Alaska State Trooper in the courtroom for the time he made an implied threat to the Trooper's home, and to others whom he named.

"I will do whatever I need to get better because life has been a horrifying nightmare for the last few years," Cox said. "That's all I have to say, but think how I put myself here."

"I could've prevented this from happening, and it's my fault."

Reach Richard Mauer at or 257-4345.



Contact Richard Mauer at or on