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Alaska couple admits plot to kill federal judge, IRS agent

Jill Burke

Lonnie and Karen Vernon of Salcha, Alaska, north of Fairbanks in the state's Interior, are giving up their fight against the feds. No jury of their peers will decide whether the couple really planned to kill a federal judge and an IRS worker, crimes they are accused of. Instead, they will go straight to sentencing. On Monday, the Vernons, Lonnie, 56, and his wife, Karen, 66, told the judge overseeing their case they are guilty as charged. 

The plea agreements bring to an end the high-profile cases generated from an investigation into an anti-government, Fairbanks-based militia with sovereign-citizen leanings. Lonnie Vernon was a member of the Alaska Peacemakers Militia, lead by Schaeffer Cox, during a time the group was becoming increasingly brazen, talking about violent government overthrow, running heavily armed security details in public, and looking to buy illegal weapons, including silencers and grenades.

In June, Cox, Vernon and another man, Coleman Barney, were convicted of various roles in a weapons and murder conspiracy case stemming from the group's activities. But as the Peacemakers were formulating how to return society to God's law and the law of natural man, the Vernons were also getting increasingly irate over their tax woes and the government's attempt to collect the $165,000 it claimed the couple owed.

On Monday, the Vernons pleaded guilty to conspiracy to murder U.S. District Court Judge Ralph Beistline, an IRS officer, and members of the two men’s families. They allegedly planned to use firearms, a silencer and hand grenades.

The Vernons, who lived in a remote, wooded home in Salcha, not far from the highway, were known to be quirky. During their civil tax case, they had tried to stop the proceedings by claiming they were not citizens or taxpayers of the United States, typical of members of the sovereign citizen movement. Collections of sovereign citizens are among the groups -- including some militias -- that the FBI has said are becoming increasingly radicalized and are being more closely monitored in the wake of lethal encounters of recent years. 

When the FBI raided the Vernons' home, loaded weapons were found at nearly every entrance and window, and hostile signs hung nailed to tree trunks and on stakes at the entrance of their graded driveway. The signs warned that trespassers would be shot before any questions were asked. Long rants against the government and the IRS were part of some of those signs. According to a local shopkeeper, the Vernons refused to buy anything with a bar code, fearing they could somehow be tracked by the government if they did. And yet, neighbors say the couple was also kind and inviting to children who would come to trick or treat at Halloween.

Investigators made their case against the Vernons when the couple purchased two hand grenades and a pistol equipped with a silencer, a transaction that was monitored and recorded by law enforcement. They had also researched home addresses of their targets and given those addresses and directions to the locations to a confidential informant.

Had the Vernons not taken plea deals, they could have faced up to life in prison, the maximum penalty for conspiracy to commit murder against a U.S. official. Avoiding trial will allow Lonnie Vernon to face up to 27 years in prison, and Karen Vernon no more than 16 years.

Sentencing of the various sovereign citizen defendants, including the Vernons, will take place this fall.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com