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Alaska militiamen convicted on murder conspiracy charges

Ben Anderson
Jill Burke photos

A long trial came to an end Monday in Anchorage, when the jury in the Alaska Peacemakers Militia case against defendants Schaeffer Cox, Coleman Barney and Lonnie Vernon, reached verdicts on all but one of the 16 counts in the indictment against the men.

Both Cox and Vernon were found guilty of the most serious charge against them, conspiracy to murder federal officials, and could now face life in prison. The jury was hung on the conspiracy-to-murder charge against Barney, the only count on which they couldn’t find consensus.

The courtroom was subdued as federal judge Robert Bryan read the laundry list of counts and verdicts, 11 against Cox, seven against Barney, and three against Vernon. Cox looked stunned when the conspiracy to murder verdict was read, glancing alternately at the jury and then out to where his wife was sitting in the audience. Vernon leaned back in his chair and folded his arms in front of him. At least one juror began to weep.

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Cox, 28, who frequently offered defiant rhetoric in his speeches, made one last gesture after the reading of the verdicts, pulling the microphone toward him at the table and telling the jury, “The prosecution withheld evidence from you guys.”

“Mr. Cox, please,” Judge Bryan said calmly before continuing.

The verdicts were a mixed bag for each defendant. In the end, the jury determined that Cox, the so-called “commander” of the Alaska Peacemakers Militia, was guilty of nine of the 11 charges against him. In addition to the conspiracy to murder charge, he was also convicted of solicitation to murder -- based on his involvement of Barney and Vernon in that murder conspiracy -- and seven weapons charges. He was found not guilty of carrying a handgun while conspiring to purchase destructive devices, and possession of a handgun while conspiring to murder.

Lonnie Vernon, 56, charged with the fewest crimes with three, was found guilty of two of those counts, including the conspiracy to murder. He was also found guilty of conspiracy to possess silencers and unregistered destructive devices. He too was found not guilty of carrying a weapon while conspiring to murder.

Barney, 37, had a split decision, guilty on just two counts, one the conspiracy to possess silencers and destructive devices, and the other for possession of an unregistered destructive device, a 37mm launcher with “hornets nest,” anti-personnel rounds. Barney’s attorney, Tim Dooley, said after the verdict that they intended to appeal that conviction. Both of the weapons charges carry a possible five- to 10-year sentence. Barney was found not guilty of four other weapons charges.

Barney perhaps was the luckiest of the three, since the jury wasn’t able to agree on the conspiracy to murder charge that he was faced with.

Jurors declined to comment outside of the courthouse on what led to their verdicts. Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Skrocki said prosecutors would determine later if they would pursue the charge again in a new trial.

While dismissing them, Judge Bryan said that the jury was “one of the most engaged in a complex trial that I’ve seen. They appear to have taken their job seriously and worked very hard during the trial.” He noted the jury members made a strong effort to understand all the evidence and charges they were confronted with over the course of the six-week trial. Deliberations took about two days.

The verdicts bring to an end a judicial process that has lasted longer than a year, and an even-longer investigation. Cox found his way onto investigators’ radar all the way back in 2009, following a provocative speaking tour in Montana. In summer 2010, FBI informant Gerald “JR” Olson infiltrated the militia, entering the inner circle and recording more than 100 hours of audio and video, some of which came out at trial.

Fulton confrontation

A portion of those recordings emerged during proceedings, including video of the day that Cox, Barney, and Lonnie and Karen Vernon were shown silencers and inactive grenades that Olson had been provided with by investigators. Lonnie and Karen purchased the armaments from Olson, but the meeting with Barney and Cox was broken up by an unlucky passer-by on the day of the arrest.

The trial featured plenty of back and forth between attorneys about whether the militiamen were acting of their own volition, or if their rhetoric was spurred by the actions of government informants.

One incident that repeatedly came up at trial happened two years ago when Bill Fulton, an Anchorage surplus-store owner and another informant in the case, confronted Cox about a “plan” in a room full of other militiamen and friends of Cox. Several people present at that meeting testified during the trial that Fulton became agitated when Cox wouldn’t commit to any plan and pulled a knife on the militia’s second-in-command, Les Zerbe.

The defense also pointed to an incident in which JR Olson repeatedly needled Cox about the “2-4-1” plot -- in which the militia would kidnap or kill two federal officials for every one of the militia’s members that was arrested or killed -- as goading by government informants, pushing the militiamen into a realm they weren’t entirely comfortable with.

At the heart of the case was whether the militia conspirators were simply talking a big game or actually planned to carry out their attacks.

Prosecutors pointed to their stockpiling of weapons, Cox’s anti-government rhetoric, and a “hit list” compiled by former Cox associate turned government witness Michael Anderson as proof that the group was doing more than idly chattering.

Free speech or threat?

Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Skrocki on Friday said that at some point the talk crossed the line from discussion to threat, particularly a speech shown multiple times during the trial where Cox said that he was willing to kill for liberty.

“When you say those things, coupled with the things he's been convicted of -- possessing hand grenades, wanting hand grenades, silencers, things like that -- it takes it out of the realm of protected speech and it becomes evidence,” Skrocki said. “So we submitted that as evidence to the jury as evidence of intent of why he possessed the things he possessed.”

Cox’s attorney said that his client was simply preparing in the event that the government attacked first so he could protect family and friends. Coleman Barney, a father of five, professed to have a similar goal in mind. Both said that they were preparing to defend, not attack.

In the end, the jury decided that Cox and his associates had gone too far in their obtaining of weapons, and in the case of Cox and Vernon, in their discussions about killing federal officials.

Tears and quiet

The courtroom was subdued after the verdicts were read. Cox, Barney, and Vernon were cuffed and taken back into custody.

Cox looked teary-eyed and mouthed something to his wife, Marti, with whom he has two children. Barney mouthed “I love you” to his parents, a regular fixture in the courtoom during the course of the trial. Marti Cox and Barney’s parents embraced, breaking down into tears.

Both Marti Cox and Barney’s parents declined to comment following the verdicts. Barney’s wife, who had also been in the courtroom for much of the trial, had returned to Fairbanks to care for the couple’s five children, according to Barney’s attorney Tim Dooley.

Cox’s attorney, Neil Traverso, and M.J. Haden, public defender for Lonnie Vernon, similarly declined comment.

Asked if he would have done anything differently during the trial, Dooley responded affably.

“There’s the trial you plan to do, the one you actually did, and several months later, the one you wish you did,” he said. He said he was happy that he had put Barney on the stand in his own defense, but was surprised that the jury came back with guilty verdicts for the other two defendants on the charge of conspiracy to murder.

Skrocki said he wouldn’t consider himself pleased or displeased with the verdict. “Better’s not something that’s in my vernacular in this kind of situation,” he said.

“(The jury) returned a verdict that, to them, fit the evidence,” Skrocki said. “Of course, any case going to this level, you believe in the evidence, in the case that you’ve got.”

He said that due to the complexities of sentencing, he couldn’t speak to what kind of jail time or fines the defendants might be looking at.

As for Cox’s allegation that prosecutors had withheld evidence in the case? “That was the first and only time anyone in the case has mentioned concealing of evidence,” Skrocki said.

Much of the trial has revolved around whether the speech used by Cox and associates should have been protected under the First Amendment, but Skrocki noted that the ideas espoused by Cox and associates weren’t necessarily original. He said that a person can say a lot of things under the First Amendment -- up to a point. And this most recent trial joins a long list of other militia or sovereign citizen organizations over the years that have seen federal or state scrutiny and prosecution.

Sovereign citizen 'uptick'

“I don’t think strong anti-government beliefs are novel or new,” Skrocki said. “But right now there seems to be an uptick in that movement -- the sovereign citizens movement.”

This case, and others before it, have implications for the ongoing sovereign citizens movement, where people believe that the government has grown too large and bloated to stand on its own. In preparation for that collapse, sovereign citizens often arm themselves in order to defend their families and properties. They occasionally attempt to create their own governments.

In arming themselves, these organizations can draw the attention of the federal government, the very entity they seek to protect themselves from. Sometimes -- as has now happened in Alaska -- such a standoff escalates into arrests, trials and convictions.

The Alaska Peacemakers Militia trial didn’t answer all these broader questions, but drew a line -- blurry as it may still be -- where speech moves from protected to dangerous, in the eyes of both the government and a jury.

Cox, Vernon and Barney are scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 14.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com. Suzanna Caldwell contributed to this report.