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Jurors weighing both sides' arguments in Alaska militia trial

Jill Burke
Schaeffer Cox in a Fairbanks courtroom on April 5, 2011
Jill Burke photo
Schaeffer Cox, in an hidden camera photo released by the FBI.
FBI
Grenades confiscated in a raid on the Alaska Peacemakers Militia.
FBI
Weapons and other supplies, on their own not necessarily illegal, confiscated in a raid on the Alaska Peacemakers Militia.
FBI
Rachel Barney, wife of jailed militia member Coleman Barney, has unwaveringly stood by her husband during his 15-months in jail, and is a constant fixture in the courtroom during the trial. June 7, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Coleman Barney and his family. His fifth child was born since he has been in jail.
Courtesy Rachel Barney
Rachel and Coleman Barney at Chena lake, left, and a sketch Coleman made from jail, re-imagining the their reunion in Hawaii.
Courtesy Rachel Barney
Coleman Barney, accused in an alleged plot to kill a state judge and others, faces conspiracy and weapons charges in state and federal court. Photographed in Fairbanks on April 5, 2011.
Jill Burke photo
Weapons, on their own not necessarily illegal, confiscated in a raid on the Alaska Peacemakers Militia.
FBI
Weapons and other supplies confiscated in a raid on the Alaska Peacemakers Militia.
FBI
William Fulton is an FBI informant for the Schaeffer Cox militia trial. He made headlines in Oct 2010 for handcuffing Alaska Dispatch editor Tony Hopfinger. May 30, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Lonnie Vernon faces multiple conspiracy and weapons charges in connection with alleged plots to murder state and federal judges and others. Photographed in Fairbanks on April 5, 2011.
Jill Burke photo

The federal trial against three militia men from Fairbanks accused in a violent anti-government plot has brought into question the sanctity of the investigation.

Did the government play fair?

Did the informants set up and entrap the men?

Did the government overreach in its determination that a group of well-armed patriots and its outspoken leader were a threat to society?

Did the government wrongfully assume that the three men, with individual likes, dislikes and agenda, collaborated together?

Prosecutors maintain that the above is nothing more than a litany of excuses and blaming, the attempts of the guilty to exonerate themselves by pointing the finger at anyone but themselves. They believe the group was dangerous, prepared to kill, and had taken many steps over the course of more than a year to set themselves up for eventual success.

On a simplistic level, the case has pitted political activism against what prosecutors argue is an anti-government murder plot. Characterizing the case in only these terms, however, is a mistake. It is not a simple case. In his rebuttal argument Thursday morning, Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Skrocki described it as a mosaic, a big picture into which many smaller events and actions fall. Jurors are tasked with deciding whether in creating their version of the mosaic, prosecutors got it right. For every devious action prosecutors believe they chronicled, the defense teams offered explanations they hoped would strip away any perceived malicious intent.

What follows is how a paranoid radical, quiet major and angry sergeant from Fairbanks, all members of the same militia, fit into the case, and the evidence jurors will rely on to either acquit or convict them.

Commander Schaeffer Cox

Schaeffer Cox, a preacher's son and failed political candidate, is commander of the Alaska Peacemakers Militia; founder of the Second Amendment Task Force, a pro-gun rights group; founder of the Liberty Bell Network, a grassroots group that provides witnesses at crime scenes to ensure citizens’ rights aren't violated by police, and a member of the Alaska Assembly Post, a coalition of self-declared sovereign citizens who have organized their own government and court system. He is a self-made constitutional scholar, devout Christian, and champion of the ideals heralded by our nation's founding 

The Charges:  In the 16-count indictment, Cox is charged with 11 crimes, ranging from conspiracy to acquire illegal weapons, conspiracy to commit murder and solicitation of murder to several counts alleging he possessed illegal weapons, including a machine gun, homemade silencer, and hand grenades. Two final counts allege he carried otherwise legal hand guns during the murder and weapons conspiracies. (Carrying a firearm during a crime of violence -- in this case, the alleged conspiracies -- is a crime.)

The Accusation:  Prosecutors believe Cox was assembling a private army. They say Cox convinced members of that army, fellow militia members Coleman Barney and Lonnie Vernon, to shoot and kill federal agents who might try to apprehend Cox, a man who'd intentionally allowed himself to become a fugitive to up the ante.  

The Background:  Cox, a husband and father of two young children, has pieced together an elaborate conspiracy theory about who was out to get him and why. He said he thought children's services workers looking to interview his son after a domestic violence charge was lodged against Cox were actually instruments of the government looking to silence his thought-provoking speech. He later came to believe that a team of federal assassins was trying to kill him. As these fears intensified, he was becoming more deeply involved with the sovereign citizens movement and efforts by men like himself to remove tyranny and corruption from society. Somewhere along the line, rejecting the authority of state and federal governments became a part of his agenda.

• The Defense:  "It is dangerous to be right when the government is wrong," says Nelson Traverso, Cox's attorney.  Traverso argued that Cox's efforts to look at what the founding fathers really wanted got him crosswise with the government. "That visit on our roots has made him a target of the government, and not the other way around," Traverso said during closing arguments. Despite government claims that the case is not about free speech but weapons and conspiracies, Traverso says Cox is in trouble because he opened his mouth and let rude, often offensive language laced with violent imagery fly. He rejects claims that Cox ever ordered his men to kill on his behalf. He suggests that the government was unscrupulous in its pursuit of Cox and others, and that it used undercover informants to set the men up. 

• The Prosecution:  "He was doing it to form the sovereign republic of Schaeffer Cox," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Skrocki. Skrocki told jurors Cox may have had a lot of big ideas and a big mouth, but that’s not what has him behind bars. Instead, his long-running agenda of creating another government and taking steps to get there. He'd assembled a court system, a military arm, and a system of leadership, all to lay the foundation for a new society to be carried out under Cox's version of God's law. Cox had spent time assembling firepower to help the cause: He had a machine gun and an unregistered silenced pistol. He sought hand grenades, fuses and explosives. He had access to a grenade launcher and "sting" or "hornets nest" grenades that sprayed rubber bullets when detonated. He made sure he had a rising profile among Fairbanks residents. He created a militia. He assembled a personal security detail with orders to shoot to kill. Under these conditions, "the chances of something going really, really bad are really, really high," Skrocki told jurors during closing arguments. 

Key Events:  On Nov. 23, 2010, Cox had two public appearances that became touchstone issues  -- a state court appearance and, in the evening, an appearance at a small television station in North Pole, Alaska. He brought well-armed security details to both events. Prosecutors called these teams "citizen vigilantes," people prepared to fire weapons to keep Cox safe. That meant ensuring Cox was neither arrested nor shot at. The television appearance is the setting for the murder conspiracy charges and some of the weapons charges. Just before this event, prosecutors claim, Cox solicited his comrades to murder on his behalf, making it clear that anyone on his security detail must be prepared to shoot to kill. Prosecutors also allege talk about murder extended beyond this night, including when Cox and his group developed a retaliatory 2-4-1 plan in which two members of law enforcement or the court system would be kidnapped or killed for every militia member arrested or harmed. 

• Character Flaw: Cox's wife Marty continues to stand by her husband, as she has throughout the trial. In an interview Thursday, she said her husband made mistakes but none, she feels, that should have landed him in a  courtroom facing criminal charges. Of his mistakes, pride may have been the biggest. Not a pride that comes with placing ones self above others, she said. But that more akin to the Atlas Syndrome, a reference to the Greek titan burdened with carrying the world on his shoulders. Her husband worried about letting people down, she said. And when he gained celebrity pursuing the causes he believed in, it became difficult "to see (people) propping him up as their messiah and him taking it," she said. Cox felt like he couldn't stop fighting for the people who'd come to believe in him and his messages about impending societal collapse and how to align society with God's law. 

• 'In Mourning': It has been difficult for Marty Cox to listen to the prosecution "pigeon hole" and "villanize" her husband, whose demeanor in the last week has become noticeably grave. "He's in mourning," Marty Cox said, explaining that her husband misses his children terribly and realizes they are innocent victims. It's one thing for adults to deal with the prospect of a life behind bars. But the children are too young to comprehend the larger issues, she said. Cox barely knows their baby, and his son, Seth, turns 4 on Saturday. His arrest has basically created "widows and orphans," she said, expressing a longing to have prosecutors recognize how the case impacts her family.

Major Coleman Barney

Coleman Barney joined Cox's militia in early 2010. He said the group was largely inactive until August of that same year, when there was a renewed effort to increase the ranks in time for a CNN profile of the group. A husband and father of five, the North Pole resident and electrical contractor is a well-regarded business man, family member and community leader. In keeping with the survivalist tradition and his Mormon-centered beliefs that end times may be near, he has worked to be a good provider for his family and prepare for a time when food may be difficult to come by or lawlessness will be more of a threat. He'd become intrigued with Cox's common law court system, and describes himself as a loyal friend who probably should have spoken up more than he did in the months leading up to his arrest. Because he is heard less often than the other defendants in the secret recordings made during the investigation, prosecutors called Barney "the quiet major."

 • The Charges:  Barney faces 11 counts. He is accused of conspiracy to possess silencers, hand grenades and a grenade launcher equipped with anti-personnel rounds known as "hornets’ nests." He is accused of conspiring with Cox and others to kill federal officials. He is also accused of several weapons crimes. 

The Accusation:  Barney is accused of being a loyal soldier to Cox, someone willing to put his own life at risk to stand by a friend he may not always have agreed with but chose not to defy. He helped organize the common-law jury that acquitted Cox of criminal charges, organized security for Cox, and put militia up and drove him around when Cox was on the run from the law and planning to flee the state. Barney was "joined at the hip" with Cox and led a double life, a man who was in much deeper with Cox and Cox's agenda than he let on, according to prosecutors. 

• Background:  Barney is a hard-working man worried about the direction of the country and had taken an interest in learning more about the constitution, the founding fathers, and battling government corruption. A deeply committed family man, Barney was curious to know whether any of the conspiracies Cox had woven had merit. He has said he didn't really believe that Cox's life was in danger from some shadowy band of mysterious federal agents. But he was passive with his friend, and chose to indulge instead of confront him. 

Defense:   "Killing in self defense is not unlawful. That's the plan they had," according to Tim Dooley, Barney's attorney. Dooley suggested that prosecutors organized a parade of seized weapons -- many of which were legal -- purely as a fear-mongering ploy. "It's as though it's a case presented by Californians for Californians," he said. More important, he rejected the prosecution's theory that there ever was a conspiracy. If the only people his client ever heard having illicit discussions were government informants, then a conspiracy cannot, by definition, exist. He urged jurors to not believe government informants, who had a variety of reasons to lie. He challenged the law that allows a launcher and hornet's nest to be defined as a regulated destructive device, when both items can be legally sold. He suggested the government's grouping of common items stored near each other as the ingredients for bombs was disingenuous, and that average citizens might need to worry if they had common household products stored in the garage: brake fluid and glycerin, bleach and ammonia.

Dooley also touched on the free- speech argument, offering a quote from Thomas Jefferson: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants." Dooley pointed out that Cox had admitted items found in a trailer -- including weapons -- belonged to Cox, not Barney. He spoke about a person's right to use lethal force in self defense. And he said Cox was up to a lot more than Barney ever knew. 

Prosecution: Prosecutors asked jurors to use common sense and reject the veil of ignorance Barney offered. Here was a man who'd attended meetings, organized a common-law court, spoke with Cox in confidence and had lived with Cox for three weeks leading up to the arrests, they said.  Claims that Barney didn't know things don't add up, prosecutor Steven Skrocki said. And Barney's unwillingness to tell Cox that suggestions of violent uprisings or defiance were unacceptable weren’t because he didn't want to hurt his friend’s feelings, Skrocki said, but because Barney was on board with the plan. Barney said that a lot of his off-color statements, including references to using hand grenades against judges or district attorneys, were merely jokes. Skrocki asked jurors not to believe this, contending there were too many instances when Barney said such things to overlook them. Barney, they said, had also sought to purchase a silencer, and knew the silencer, though coming from a licensed weapon's dealer, was an off-the-books, under-the-table deal meant to keep it secret. 

Key Events: Barney's appearance at the Fairbanks television station on Nov. 23, 2010 may be the most problematic for him. He admitted to carrying a grenade launcher loaded with a hornet's nest round, which under the law is a destructive device that must be registered with the ATF. He recalls that someone brought the weapon to him, which he mounted to an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle he carried while defending the perimeter of the location. This is also the same night that prosecutors believe Cox, Barney and Vernon were unquestionably locked into a murder conspiracy. The men knew that to be on Cox's security detail, they must be prepared to shoot to kill, and they left their homes that day understanding the risk. Planning to shoot to kill someone does not fit with any definition of self defense, Skrocki said.

Sgt. Lonnie Vernon

Lonnie Vernon, a resident of Salcha, Alaska, is a disgruntled tax protestor who sought to get out from under the onerous oppression of the IRS and other government rules. He had numerous weapons in his home, including firearms stationed at nearly exit and beneath windows. Unlike other militia members, Vernon never rose in rank and was not a member of the inner circle. He did not take the stand.

The Charges: Vernon faces three charges. He is accused of conspiring to obtain illegal weapons (silencers and hand grenades), conspiring to murder federal officials, and carrying a semi-automatic rifle while engaged in an aspect of the murder conspiracy.

The Accusations: Vernon is accused of making statements about wanting to kill judges, and a willingness to blow up communications towers. He housed Cox for a brief period before Cox moved in with Barney. In November 2010, he's accused of having a role in a deadly force policy Cox enacted to prevent federal agents from arresting or killing him.

• Defense: "This case is mainly about Francis Schaeffer Cox and his inability to distinguish between reality and his own fiction," M.J. Haden, Vernon's defense attorney, told jurors. Vernon was mentioned infrequently during the case because he didn't have much to do with a lot of it. Cox was the one who was cornering federal officials like TSA agents and giving then earfuls, not Vernon. Cox was spouting off, claiming to speak for his men and his militia, when in reality, he "was speaking on behalf of people without their knowledge and without their authority," Haden said. She pointed out that Vernon's handwritten notes related to a security plan for (the Fairbanks television station) KJNP differed from notes generated by Cox and others. Without total alignment, how could there be an agreement? She also asked jurors to recognize that "Lonnie is Lonnie," a reference to his penchant for ranting and raving, often out of context and frequently not making a lot of sense. Vernon's ire, Haden said, was personal and not part of a larger agenda involving Cox or the militia. When he sought a silencer, it was on his own, not as a part of a group. Many of the weapons that are a part of Cox's supposed militia arsenal were never found in Vernon's home. 

• Prosecution:  "He shows up looking like he's ready to go to war in Afghanistan. Lonnie showing up in his battle gear is irrefutable evidence,"  said Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Skrocki. Skrocki argued that because Vernon showed up at the Fairbanks television station wearing body armor, a battle helmet and carrying an automatic rifle that’s proof he knew about the intentions of the security detail and was prepared to carry out the mission. He also pointed out that Vernon talked about knowing how to make grenades usable, that he wanted to grind numbers off firearms parts, claimed to know where judges lived, and talked about crawling into people's homes through windows, dragging them out and putting them somewhere where they'd never be found. "Nothing funny. Nothing flippant. Nothing conspiratorial.  Nothing crazy. Deadly serious," Skrocki said, summing up Vernon's actions. 

• Key Events:   In addition to being a part of Cox’s security detail on Nov. 23, 2010, Vernon was one of the men Cox tasked with traveling to Anchorage to purchase hand grenades and fuses. On March 10, 2011, the day of the arrests, he paid for grenades and a unregistered pistol-silencer combo.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com