FBI Special Agent Richard Sutherland is done with his tour of duty on the witness stand in the case against three militia men from Fairbanks. Their leader, Schaeffer Cox, and two of his followers, Coleman Barney and Lonnie Vernon, are facing numerous weapons charges and also stand accused of plotting to kill federal employees, including judges, members of law enforcement and their families.
Sutherland, who is based in Fairbanks and oversaw the case, chronicled everything from how he handled human sources to how Cox ended up in the FBI's sights and why he believed the glib militia leader was an increasing threat.
Cox has long been outspoken about the ills of government and has shown he is willing to defy its authority, but he does not face terrorism charges. However, Sutherland said Cox “was suspected or alleged to have been involved in activities that could have been construed as potential terrorism.” Even so, Sutherland told jurors the FBI was acutely aware that much of Cox’s actions were protected by the first and second amendments to the U.S. Constitution – free speech and the right to bear arms. Investigators walked the line carefully between Cox's constitutionally protected rights and his alleged criminal activity, he said. Philosophical and moral positions didn't concern them. Plans to carry out violence did.
He detailed how Cox's words during speeches made in Montana, Illinois and Colorado got the FBI's attention. In them, Cox bragged about having “3,500 well trained men” under his command and that his militia was “on the edge of having bloodshed in the streets of Fairbanks.” Cox called himself and his wife the “king and queen of dissidence,” said that revolutions are provoked by government, and boasted his militia could “have everybody that has anything to do with tyranny dead in one night.”
Sutherland also talked about the iPhone he'd recovered that belonged to Cox and had become a treasure trove of information for the FBI. Text messages extracted from the phone showed exchanges about how “we are trying to win our independence,” of wanting to buy threaded gun barrels, of needing armor and handcuffs, of looking to acquire machine guns, police-like equipment, and an Israeli UZI he referred to as a “Jew toy.” The text messages also detailed some of the armed-security actions Cox had set in motion for a court hearing and an appearance at a television studio.
The investigation into Cox and his associates escalated in February of 2011, according to Sutherland. An informant who'd been promoted within the militia suddenly had more access to information about plans, including a list Cox put together of people he was dissatisfied with, a murderous retaliation plan, and an interest in acquiring grenades with particularly long fuses.
Cox's, Barney's and Vernon's defense lawyers took turns grilling Sutherland on some of those points.
• Had Sutherland ever received information about Cox or the militia actually detonating grenades? No. He inferred Cox had experience doing so, but only because of statements Cox had made suggesting as much.
• Weren’t the informants, not the defendants, the ones pushing so-called murder plots and illegal weapons buys? No, Sutherland said while admitting he had to remind one of the informants not to “get caught up” or “push too hard” in the heat of some conversations.
• Hadn't Cox renounced the alleged 2-4-1 murder plan (two federal agents or members of law enforcement kidnapped or killed for every militia member arrested or harmed)? Not quite, said Sutherland. Cox said the group wasn't yet equipped and ready to pull it off. But he never said he was morally or philosophically opposed to it, even though women and children might be killed while pulling off such a plan.
Sutherland did not view Cox as an immediate threat, but thought he had the capacity to become one.
The defense teams also wanted to know if Sutherland had ever directed his informants to place illegal weapons in the defendants' hands prior to the arrest. Not specifically, Sutherland said, although he did encourage one informant to see if the men were interested in and would examine grenades and suppressed pistols the men had said they'd like to buy.
The defense begins presenting its case Wednesday.
Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com