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Lead security man in Alaska militia takes stand to detail involvement

Jill Burke
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
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

For the more than 15 months that Coleman Barney has been jailed on suspicions he planned to kill federal officials in defense of Alaska Peacemakers Militia commander Schaeffer Cox, he's missed the birth of his fifth child and his 16th wedding anniversary. His tight-knit family hopes the weeks-long trial will finally end an ordeal that leaves them bewildered.

"He doesn't even know his baby. He wants to come home," said Rachel Barney, who has been an ever-present fixture in numerous courtroom hearings leading up to trial. "I still believe in my husband, and nothing will ever change that." 

Barney is accused of seven federal felonies stemming from his alleged involvement in a violent anti-government plot targeting federal agents. The most serious charge against him is conspiracy-to-murder, which carries a possible life sentence. The others are a handful of weapons violations. Some of the charges accuse Barney of possessing hand grenades and loaded grenade launchers that were never registered with the ATF. He’s also accused of carrying legal firearms, but doing so while planning or carrying out the murder conspiracy. Carrying a firearm during a crime of violence is itself a crime under federal law. The charges stem from two days in Barney's life:

• In November 2010 he allegedly ran an armed security detail for Cox at a Fairbanks television station;

• In March 2011 an informant supposedly arranged to sell him and Cox a pistol-silencer combo and grenades.

 A hard-working family man raised and still active in the Mormon faith, Barney first met Cox at a meeting of the Second Amendment Task Force, a pro-gun rights group Cox had established.

'Did you believe this stuff?'

Both men liked guns and shared concerns about America's wobbly financial health. A responsible provider, the electrical contractor had taken steps to assure his family's survival if the collapse of society arrived. Barney stored food and household supplies, and kept a few weapons on hand in order to keep the peace and protect his family should government break down, giving rise to lawlessness. He believed in the constitution and liberty. The fire-brand rhetoric Cox was peddling had caught his ear. Returning the nation to purer principles and better values was a movement he could get behind.

But as Cox's paranoia about an assassination plot deepened, escalating his ire at government, Barney began feeling increasingly uncomfortable. He'd felt statements Cox had made to judges and state troopers about firepower, killing and bloodshed were too bold, too jarring, and put the credibility of the militia and other like-minded, liberty-pursuing patriots at risk. 

Barney told jurors he cautioned Cox to tone things down, because the shocking speech "shines a bad light on all of us." It wasn't the behavior he'd expected from the "group of Christian men" he'd signed on with to "defend our family and homes in the event of economic collapse."

Friends and family alike describe Barney as law-abiding, honest and full of integrity. How he got in so deep with Cox is still unfolding. With a wife and young children to care for, why would a man agree to shelter a fugitive and risk getting into a shootout with law enforcement? The 2-4-1 plan that Barney, Cox and colleague Lonnie Vernon, are accused of concocting called for them to kidnap or kill twice as many members of law enforcement for every militia member arrested or harmed, hence the nomenclature. And more than once, Barney supposedly agreed to be a human buffer between Cox and the hit squad of federal agents Cox imagined was coming after him.

"Did you believe this stuff?" Barney's attorney, Tim Dooley, asked his client on the stand Thursday. 

"I didn't think it was very likely, but possible," Barney answered.

Fears of a 'Ruby Ridge'

A deadly 1992 shootout in northern Idaho between an anti-government fugitive and federal agents has become an iconic incident in both American history and the militia movement. The standoff at Ruby Ridge left a U.S. Marshal dead, as well as the wife and teenage son of Randy Weaver, a man wanted on charges he'd made an illegal weapon.

Barney cited Ruby Ridge as one reason he thought Cox's fantastical stories of agents out to get him might conceivably have a grain of truth.

Prosecutors didn't want much said about Ruby Ridge in front of jurors on Thursday, and asked the judge to curtail what Barney could say about it. Ruby Ridge was an ugly chapter in the history of agencies charged with protecting the public. The ATF, U.S. Marshals and the FBI were all involved, and prosecutors wanted talk about the toxic topic kept to a minimum. The judge agreed that a brief reference from Barney, without elaboration, was sufficient. He had no intention of replaying the Ruby Ridge siege.

Still, it keeps surfacing. The government informant who had infiltrated Cox's militia brought it up more than once with other members of the group. And according to Rachel Barney, the FBI referred to it on the day of her husband's arrest. Pregnant, with her two youngest children at her side, she took it as a threat.

'Bad guys' in the house

Rachel Barney soothes herself with her faith, believing that despite her husband's arrest and the serious charges he faces, God's will is being done. But she can't help but feel anger rise up within her. The stilted, awkward style of courtroom question-and-answer sessions seems to thwart truth rather than expose it, she said. And she thinks prosecutors are unnecessarily rude. While polite to their own witnesses, they bring out the "fangs" for defendants. But what really got her blood boiling was listening to an FBI agent talk about how well treated her family was the day of the arrests. 

"It was a horrific day," Barney said during an interview Thursday. "My 4-year-old still wakes up screaming that the bad guys are in the house."

The March 2011 day had begun like any other Thursday. Cox and his wife had been staying with the Barneys. What was supposed to be a few days of couch surfing until Cox and his family could flee country had become a few weeks. What follows is her account:

Rachel, six months pregnant, woke up around 7 a.m. and got her 9- and 10-year-olds off to school. The men also left. At 11 a.m., she took her 4-year-old to preschool and headed off to a haircut. A few hours later, she returned home. With hungry kids to feed, she put a pot of water on the stove to boil to make macaroni and cheese when the phone rang. Just as the voice on other end said, "Hello this is the FBI," Rachel saw a line of gun-toting agents swooping across her front yard headed for her door. She screamed and begged the agents to not to kick in her door. With guns raised at her and her kids, they asked her if anyone else was in the home. Soon after, they told her she'd better cooperate because "we don't want a Ruby Ridge."

Unknown to Rachel, investigators had been watching Cox for nearly 10 months, and had grown concerned he and some of his militia members were poised to kill. They believed the group was heavily armed and may have access to grenades and other explosives. They knew a confrontation could be volatile.

At the house, agents hawked over Rachel. She listened in disbelief as they told her Coleman had tried to buy grenades. They monitored her calls as she tried to find someone who could watch her kids. They followed her into the restroom. They wrenched her arm when she hesitated to forfeit her cell phone. When she said she wanted to speak to an attorney, they told her there was "no time." They shadowed her as she went to pick up her eldest children from school, one agent riding with her in her car, and another following in separate vehicle. As the kids climbed in, she explained who the stranger was and that the FBI "had arrested Dad." Coleman and Rachel were cut off from each other for hours.

'He never saw any of this coming'

A few months earlier Barney had confided in his wife, who he met on a church mission, that some "very crazy" things had come up at a recent militia meeting. Late one evening, as the couple lay in bed talking into the wee hours, Barney said Cox and Gerald Olson, a government's informant, had entertained retaliating against the government, possibly killing people if Cox were apprehended or shot at. That worried Barney, but he told his wife he and another militia member had talked Cox out of it.

"In Coleman's mind, it was done," Rachel said.

Yes, the common law court and other notions Cox had begun pushing seemed whacky. But Coleman didn't see the harm in them and was curious enough about some of Cox's philosophies to keep an open mind. 

When he later learned in jail that Cox was accused of being up to a lot more than the young man revealed to him,  Barney was caught off guard. 

"He never saw any of this coming," Rachel said. 

A close family friend testified Thursday that Barney had told him that, like Cox, he had become a sovereign citizen. But even though prosecutors produced an official-looking document saying as much and signed by the defendant, Barney denies it. And Barney's family believes him. They believe he is being portrayed as caught up in Cox's activities merely by association. If Cox believed in renouncing U.S. citizenship and had a larger political agenda, Barney hadn't been clued in. 

On Thursday, he was heard in an audio recording expressing hesitation about Cox's plans of violence. Barney wasn't willing do anything that would cause him to "lose my soul," and wouldn't endorse something that might run counter to what God wants. What Cox and Olson were talking about wasn't the path of martyrs, but of people who risked only being remembered as crazy. "I didn't believe people were going to see this as a good cause," Barney told jurors from the witness stand.

Why a peaceful arrest?

At the end of the day Thursday, after an afternoon spent distancing his client from many of the events prosecutors say prove that Barney was more involved than he claims, defense attorney Tim Dooley offered jurors a striking image.

Here was a man the government had jailed on suspicion of being ready to wage a violent plot against law enforcement should his friend and commander, Cox, have an encounter. Yet on the day of the arrests, when the men were armed and had access to what they thought were live grenades, and with the FBI moving in on them, they surrendered.

"You had a great opportunity to shoot these federal agents," Dooley asked Barney, to the objection of prosecutors. "Why didn't you?"

"That's not me. That's not what we were about," Barney said.

Family and faith

Last month, the Barneys marked their 16th wedding anniversary, celebrated by a picture Coleman drew for Rachel from prison. It shows the couple kissing on a sunny beach, she -- a mere five feet tall -- standing on her tip toes to reach the lips of her husband, who at nearly six feet tall is leaning over to meet her. The drawing is a rendition of a favorite photograph Rachel took a few years back at a Fairbanks lake. Only in the drawing, Coleman is free and they are reunited in Hawaii.

The stress of being a jailbird shows on Barney, who is thinner, paler and balder. He has missed a lot of milestones in his family's life during his detention. The birth of his youngest daughter, the baptism of his son, another child's kindergarten graduation, birthdays, and the thrill of an older daughter getting to see her artwork picked for the mayor's art show in her hometown of North Pole. 

Visits have been limited: an hour a week mingling together when Coleman was held in Fairbanks. Now that he's located in Anchorage, they are always separated by glass. He and the baby, who's almost a year old, paw at each other at play together through the security window. At home, when Rachel's phone rings, the baby coos "Dada! Dada!" Calls are how he stays in touch, and the family spends time together with Dad on the speaker. 

How it is Coleman, a man with so much to lose, would let himself get roped into playing security guard for Cox, indulging Cox's challenges to legal system and letting Cox hide out at the Barney home while Cox envisioned a shootout with police?  Rachel Barney hinted that things might have been different if Cox had been more forthright with his friend.

"It would have been nice for Coleman to know the bigger picture so he could make more-educated decisions," she said. Even so, the family believes all of the men -- Barney, Cox and Vernon -- were set up, and that Cox, despite his harebrained and ill-conceived words, was "all talk." 

If Coleman Barney's learned one thing in all of this, it's to "say how you feel and say it up front," Rachel said, a sentiment Barney himself echoed on the witness stand. Yes, he'd engaged in some talk with Cox about the 2-4-1 plan, and explored what might happen if it was carried out. But he only did so, he said, to be polite to a friend he wanted to gently steer into a different mindset. 

Asked how it is having her husband ripped away from her family could be a part of God's plan, Rachel said she's comfortable knowing "there is a purpose to life, and we don't always understand." She's gotten through it by relying on her faith, and on her faith in her husband.

Early on people suggested to Rachel that maybe Coleman Barney had been leading a double life, plotting extreme things with Cox but keeping those things to himself, hiding them from family and friends. Prosecutors suggested as much during a bail hearing last year, and continue to hint at it in their cross examinations of  witnesses called to testify on Barney's behalf. But Rachel is adamant, there's no way there's a side to Barney she doesn't know.

No matter what happens I will always stand by him. He is a good, honest man," she said.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com