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Militia: State drops charges against Alaska Peacemakers, but what about the federal case?

Ben Anderson,Jill Burke
Schaeffer Cox in a Fairbanks courtroom on April 5, 2011
Jill Burke photo
Michael Anderson is accused as a conspirator in an alleged plot to kill a state judge and others. Photographed in Fairbanks on April 5, 2011.
Jill Burke 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
Karen Vernon faces state and federal 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
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
Rachel Barney, charged in state court with helping hide a fugitive, in a Fairbanks courtroom April 5, 2011
Jill Burke photo
Judge David Stewart.
Jill Burke photo
Schaeffer Cox, founder of the Alaska Peacemakers Militia, is accused in an alleged conspiracy to kill a state judge and others. He faces conspiracy and weapons charges in state and federal court.
Jill Burke photo

A recent ruling by an Alaska Superior Court judge to nix more than 100 hours of surveillance recordings sounded the death knell for the state case against the five members of the "241" murder conspiracy plot.

On Friday, state prosecutors dropped all charges, which included the more serious charges of conspiracy to kidnap and murder. It’s a huge win for those caught up in the probe, but one that only means freedom for one of the co-defendants, Michael Anderson.

"With the suppression of the recordings, the state prosecution of these individuals is no longer possible," the Alaska Department of Law explained in a prepared statement.

Alaska Peacemakers Militia leader Schaeffer Cox and associates Coleman Barney, Lonnie Vernon and Karen Vernon still face federal weapons charges and will remain in jail.

For reasons unclear, state charges were also dropped against Ken Thesing, a sixth Cox associate. Thesing was not charged in the murder conspiracy and faced only minor state charges for serving the court with false legal documents.

The state's decision to drop case came in the wake of an Oct. 17 ruling by Alaska Superior Court Judge David Stewart, who ruled that more than 100 hours of audio and video surveillance could not be used as evidence in the state's case. Under state law, which offers greater privacy protections than the U.S. Constitution, the judge ruled the warrantless recordings unconstitutional.

The secret surveillance began as part of a federal investigation into militia activities in Alaska's Interior, and relied mostly on two confidential informants, later revealed to be military surplus store owner William Fulton -- who vanished five days after the initial arrests in the militia case -- and Gerald "J.R." Olson, a shady contractor who agreed to assist in the investigation in exchange for getting out of convictions and prison time in a string of separate crimes.

Robert John, a defense attorney representing Schaeffer Cox, said he had anticipated the judge's decision to not allow the audio and video evidence might eventually lead to the case's dismissal. He just didn't think it would be so quick.

"I saw this coming," said John, adding he thought the defense would have to go through a few more motions, "but I did anticipate that this is where it would go."

Tim Dooley, who represents Coleman Barney in both the state and federal cases, called Stewart's decision to suppress the tapes "very courageous," but added that, in his opinion, the tapes would have been more help than harm for his client's case had they been entered into evidence, rather than resulting in the dismissal of the state's case. 

"Actually, it's really ironic that they got suppressed. We could have used them," Dooley said.

Cox, Barney, and Lonnie and Vernon each still face federal weapons charges. And in a separate federal case, the Vernons are accused of plotting to kill a federal judge and IRS agent.

Where does the case go from here? What does it mean for other militia members around the state, and the country? And what about Mike Anderson, who went free after Friday's dismissal?

Schaeffer Cox: Martyr or thwarted menace?

Cox apparently made plenty of friends in the militia world. In March 2009, Cox spoke at a "Freedom Festival" gathering in Post Falls, a town in northern Idaho where militias have strong roots. There, he electrified the crowd where he spoke of taking the word militia "back from the people who villainize it."

At the time, Cox was speaking as a member of a growing movement, one intensely dissatisfied with the federal government, and its growing reach. Members of the movement, known as "sovereign citizens" (a moniker Cox embraced), do not recognize state or federal authority over them.

Cox and his group of co-defendants aren't the only militia members and sovereign citizens to run afoul of the law. In June, David Bergert -- the former leader of a militia group dubbed Project 7 that faced allegations similar to those just dropped against Cox and company -- fired on sheriff's deputies near Missoula, Mont., then fled into the woods and hasn't been seen since.

Cox was reportedly acquainted with Bergert in some capacity. Likewise with a pair of sovereign citizens indicted earlier this month in Washington state.

His wide range of contacts within the Pacific Northwest may have resulted from his 2009 speaking tour, which may also have been what put him on the Feds' radar.

On Friday, Cox, who has referred to the court system as a for-profit corporation, won a big victory when the state proclaimed it was dismissing its case against him, Barney, Anderson and the Vernons.

Norm Olson, who has himself commanded militias in both Michigan and Alaska, agreed the state's dismissal was a victory - not only for militia members, but for the state of Alaska as a whole.

"It's tremendous," Olson said of Friday's decision. "What I think is happening, behind the scenes, is that Alaska is getting pretty well fed up with this federal monkey business."

And while Olson believes the federal case could end up going the same way, he also expressed concern for Cox and what might happen next.

"The feds may, in a way, kidnap Schaeffer and get him out of Alaska and into that federal lockup in Colorado," said Olson, adding that the endgame for the government may be to neutralize Cox's influence.

"What they want to do," Olson said, "is chop the head off the snake."

Olson also expressed that the people of Alaska would react unfavorably to such a move, and theorized that maybe the government's case was being built around testing the waters for the prosecution of sovereign citizens in Alaska.

"Was this whole thing an exercise to see how the people of Alaska would react to having one of their own sons arrested and persecuted by the federals?" Olson asked. "Maybe they were testing the pulse beat of Alaska. If that was the case, then I would say bravo for Alaskans."

But the victory isn't just for Alaskans, Olson added. "I think this bolsters the whole militia movement across the country," he said. "Of course, this means the Feds are going to ratchet up their surveillance, they’re going to be a little more careful."

The recent court decision may just bolster, in the eyes of Cox and his supporters, Cox's claim that as a sovereign citizen, the Alaska court system has no jurisdiction over him. "I am a sovereign," Cox said in that court appearance, "a man of peace, but capable of war."

"The court system, as far as I can tell, doesn't want any part of Schaeffer," Olson said.

The 'lone wolf' goes free

Friday's decision by the state to drop the case against Cox and his associates led directly to the swift release from jail of Michael Anderson, a co-defendant supporters have maintained never did anything wrong.

By 1:30 p.m. Friday, Anderson was on his way to a warm, homemade meal -- fried moose back strap -- cooked up by his friend Josh Bennett.

"I drove up, they kicked him out, and he was standing on the corner with all of his stuff, personal belongings he had with him when he was arrested and some paperwork from the jail," Bennett said later Friday afternoon. "He was pretty darn happy."

Anderson's alleged role was intelligence gatherer of the bunch, someone who had researched people and where they lived, purportedly at Cox's behest. Grand Jury testimony suggested Anderson was also a self-described "lone wolf," someone who had openly mused about a desire to kill cops.

Dubbed a computer guru who researched the home addresses of Cox's supposed "enemies," Anderson was accused of being a part of Cox's alleged kidnapping and murder conspiracy -- a claim Anderson’s defense attorney this summer said stretched reality. There's no proof Anderson had joined the militia or that he was in on the so-called murder plot, Lori Bodwell had said. 

Dooley, Barney's attorney, said he was glad to hear Anderson would be going home. "I was just flummoxed by why he was charged with anything," Dooley said.

Court records show Anderson never gave the list of addresses to Cox or any other militia member and that he had grown increasingly leery of Cox. Anderson also wasn't found with illegal weapons, and faces none of the weapons charges that other defendants, including Cox, were accused of.

In Bodwell's view, the case against her client amounted to guilt by association.

"You can sit around and talk about a lot of things and until you come to an agreement to do something illegal it's not a crime...There's no proof it amounted to anything more than "people expressing their views, which in this country they are allowed to do," she had said.

Until Friday, Anderson has for eight months been unable to hold his young children or hug his wife, Bennett said. Security glass separated him from family and friends during jailhouse visits.

From the start the allegations against his friend didn't seem to make sense. The Michael Anderson Bennett could be called a lone wolf, but only in the sense that he didn't like to follow others. If anything, Anderson would find distasteful carrying out the wishes of a young, charismatic militia leader, like Cox, who was looking for followers.

Friday's developments reinforced Bennett's nagging suspicion that the investigation had been nothing more than "a made up farce."

"I know Michael personally. I know he didn't have anything whatsoever to do with this his. He's a pacifist. He doesn't believe in violence," Bennett added.

On the advice of Anderson's attorney, neither man would talk about Anderson's jail stay or details of the case. 

In March, Anderson, an engineer, had just landed a new job. But he soon lost it after the arrest, leaving friends and family to look out for his wife and kids. He's thinner now, something Bennett attributes to the stress of an ordeal he calls "absolutely horrible."

If the goverment really thought they had something against the militia, wouldn't they have fought for it a little bit more, Bennett questioned, even if faced with the recent decision invalidating the secret audio and video recordings?

State prosecutors said because the rules regarding state-federal investigations are murky, there was little likelihood they'd win a petition challenging the judge's findings.

"The distinction between which investigative techniques are permissible and which are not is a confusing and unsettled area of Alaska law when there is a joint federal and state investigation," Fairbanks District Attorney Mike Gray said in a prepared statement.

For Bennett, it's little consolation.

"If it can happen to Michael (Anderson), it can happen to any citizen of the United states that they want it to happen to. If it can happen to him it, can happen to anyone. It's eight months of his life that he will never get back."

Anderson, unlike Cox, the Vernons and Barney, has not been charged with any federal crimes.

State case disintegrates. What's next?

Where the state case has fallen apart, the constitutional violations that sunk it are moot in the federal proceedings. The audio and video recordings made by a militia infiltrator and under the vigilance of the FBI are fair game.

State law requires investigators to get a search warrant before listening in on conversations, a step Alaska State Troopers did take in order to listen to the recordings created by the FBI'sinformants. Yet, for the state judge overseeing the case, it wasn't enough; the surreptitious eavesdropping would have to have been approved by a state judge prior to the recordings being made for the surveillance to be admissible in state court.

"That in no way impacts the federal case in terms if the charges or the evidence. It is a state ruling on state law," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Skrocki, one of the federal prosecutors working the militia case.

If a federal bail hearing for Coleman held this summer in Fairbanks could signal a tough battle ahead for the defendants. What prosecutors had to say at the hearing about the group's actions had clearly disturbed the judge.

They told of a strange incident late one night last November outside a Fairbanks television studio. Cox had a scheduled appearance at the building and felt he needed security, with Barney in charge. It involved about a half dozen, armed militia members patrolling the block, blocking access and turning citizens away.

Some of the guards, including Barney -- who also had with him an anti-personnel riot control device, a burst of rubber bullets that could be deployed via grenade launcher -- stood watch along the perimeter in the shadows. 

"The defendant's activities in regard to a 'security detail' for co-defendant Francis Schaeffer Cox indicated a very substantial danger to the safety of other persons and the community and, in particular, a willingness to use assaultive behavior illegally to prevent the lawful arrest of another," wrote U.S. District Court Judge Robert Bryan in denying the bail request.

With the state charges now dismissed, Tim Dooley, Barney's attorney, is in the process of tweaking several motions he had intended to use in the state case for use in the federal case, including one seeking to dismiss the indictment.

Combined, Cox and Barney still face numerous weapons charges, including conspiracy to possess and possession of machine guns, silencers and grenades. Each count carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.

The Vernons' position is more serious. They not only face similar weapons charges but are also charged with conspiracy to kidnap and murder a federal judge, an IRS agent and their family members.

At Barney's federal bail hearing this summer, prosecutors -- prompted by a question from the judge -- told the court it was possible Barney and others could still face additional charges, a turn of events Dooley said he wouldn't rule out.

"I imagine they’ll be trying to tack on some form of these state charges" to the federal case, he said.

Skrocki declined to discuss whether there will be additional charges. The federal trials are scheduled to begin early next year.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com and Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com