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Co-conspirators or paranoid agitators? Jury gets Alaska militia case.

Jill Burke
Jill Burke photos

After spending about 16 months in jail, only one thing now stands between three militiamen and their freedom: a federal jury. The 12-member jury that will decide the fates of Schaeffer Cox, Coleman Barney and Lonnie Vernon received the weapons and murder conspiracy case early Thursday morning. 

It took five weeks to present the evidence relevant to the 16 count indictment against the men, who are accused of seeking to obtain silencers and grenades as part of their commitment to use deadly force to resist government agents, real and imagined. Cox, the leader of the Alaska Peacemakers Militia, believed federal agents wanted him dead in order to silence his political activism. 

Once jurors had left the courtroom to begin deliberating, the attorneys began wheeling in the exhaustive piles of evidence presented during the case. Two carts were stacked with semiautomatic long guns. More evidence, stuffed into numerous banker boxes, continued to flow into the courtroom. Before long, the attorneys were wading through waist-deep stacks of evidence, cataloguing each item before making it available to the jury. 

Cash and ammunition seized during the case would not be set out in the open, the judge told them. If jurors wanted to see or handle those items, they'd have to ask. And he reminded the jurors, serious but lightly, not to point the weapons at each other.

Co-conspirators or paranoid agitators?

In an era when violent uprisings by U.S. citizens against cops and courts is on the rise, becoming a top priority for the FBI, the arrest last year of outspoken militia leader Schaeffer Cox and two men he commanded -- Lonnie Vernon and Coleman Barney -- made national headlines. Although the trio is not accused of domestic terrorism, their perceived threat as people ready to wage homegrown violence against state and federal officials in Alaska permeates the prosecution's case. 

Prosecutors are convinced Cox is more than the self-described, passionate patriot he makes himself out to be. In the first phase of their closing arguments Wednesday, they told jurors Cox is a dangerous extremist, a man who had radicalized his beliefs to the brink of bloodshed, and sucked others into the elaborate conspiracy theories he claimed were proof government was fraudulent, corrupt and trying to kill him. And within this self-made world, Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Skrocki suggested Cox was motivated by one thing and one thing only: himself.

"He was doing it to form the sovereign republic of Schaeffer Cox," Skrocki told jurors, just before holding up a silenced pistol in one hand and a grenade in the other, some of the illegal weapons Cox is accused of amassing in service to his plans to resist arrest at any cost.

"These three guys were handling these things like they were common, ordinary items," Skrocki continued, attempting to illustrate that what Cox was up to was far than a well intentioned series of quasi-military, politically motivated charades. The defendants had vowed to reject law and authority and were prepared to kill federal officials. Cox had talked about killing women and children, and beheading judges.

Schaeffer Cox: Violent extremist or persecuted politician?

Cox did have a right to free speech, to speak his mind and air his political beliefs, Skrocki told jurors. But, while Cox is not under arrest for what he said in speeches, his words are relevant to the case. At public talks and in private gatherings, Cox's words offer windows into his mindset, and the intent behind the actions for which he is charged: seeking and possessing illegal weapons, and conspiring to kill federal officials. 

Yet it is squarely on the coveted tradition of free speech in America that Cox has perched his main defense. Nelson Traverso, Cox's attorney, would later pose to jurors the question on which this tension hinges: "Isn't this case about the government trying to silence someone whose speeches are provocative?"

Cox's attorney wants jurors to see that Cox's suspicions about the Feds coming after him for payback were right. Yes, Cox was brazen in his take-back-the-nation speech making seeking a return to the values and principles of our nation's founding fathers. And in this he was liberal with his use of violent imagery. He talked about killing judges in their homes at night. About having state troopers outmanned and outgunned. He called TSA workers Nazis. And he spoke about stringing up court employees to dangle like the "wind chimes of liberty." 

"This message created fear in the federal government, and the federal government likewise created fear in Francis Schaeffer Cox," Traverso said during his closing arguments Wednesday. "That speech, offensive as it is, is protected under our Constitution. It is ugly, but not the stuff of government overthrow. [It is the stuff] of an agitator.

"Would we be here today if Schaeffer never spoke a peep? The answer is no. (The government) concentrated a huge, huge effort to go after someone who spoke his mind," Traverso said, who characterized his client not as a revolutionary, but as an activist.

Prosecutors warned jurors to not be fooled, and to keep their common sense with them during deliberations. Cox is, Skrocki said, a man who believed a better society would emerge once he and his men were in control. That society would be created to house Cox's own version of liberty under God's law. Codes and rules other people, the state and the nation live under would not apply. And the only thing standing between him and an attempt at societal upheaval was time and training, the wait and preparation needed to become strong enough to pull it off, Skrocki said. 

The group had obtained weapons and come up with tactical plans to defy law enforcement, Skrocki said. They'd acted as citizen vigilantes more than once in public, flanking their paranoid leader with armed security guards wearing body armor. They'd talked more than once about murderous retaliation plots, and compiled a list of names as intended targets. They'd spoken about obtaining more fire power, of explosives and hand grenades, and looked into who could get the material and how to make inert grenades live. They talked of killings, and Cox, prosecutors claimed, was constantly bringing the topics up to "test the mettle" of his troops. 

Defense: FBI informants were conspiracy masterminds

The defense teams attempted to discredit the government's undercover informants, and dismantle the evidence. There was no conspiracy, they said, only government snitches pushing plans and agendas one man at a time. A conspiracy cannot be an agreement only between a single defendant and an informant, they said. And they said it was the informants who shopped illegal ideas to men one at a time. They questioned federal laws governing how weapons are defined, and when there was no getting around the law they claimed their clients had been given bad advice about rules and regulations governing items like homemade machine guns and silencers. In another example, one attorney questioned why a grenade launcher, found located in the same storage area with an anti-personnel round of non-lethal ammunition, is considered a destructive device when the same two items can be for sold separately, legally, in the same store. 

Jurors are expected to begin deliberations Thursday, immediately following the prosecution's final, closing argument. 

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com