There’s a self-fulfilling prophecy inherent in the sovereign citizen movement in America. Looking to the U.S. Constitution for governance, sovereign citizens occasionally form militias -- well-armed and not infrequently well-manned -- as a way to protect themselves from perceived overreaches of the federal government.
But in forming those organizations, they often draw the attention of law enforcement officials and federal agencies -- the very organizations they claim are abusing the powers provided to the government by the Constitution. Often, this culminates in members of the various militias sitting in a courtroom, being adjudicated by entities that they believe have no control over them as sovereign citizens of the United States.
Such has been the case this past month in Anchorage, where Alaska Peacemakers Militia commander Schaeffer Cox and two fellow militia members face federal weapons conspiracy charges and additional charges of conspiring to kill federal employees. Cox, Coleman Barney and Lonnie Vernon were arrested in March 2011 following a lengthy FBI operation involving about 100 hours of recordings provided by informant Gerald "J.R." Olson.
At the core of the trial is a question of intent: Were the militiamen simply talking a big game, or were they passing into the realm of actual, real-life threats? The Alaska militia trial is but one of several currently playing out or recently wrapped up around the country.
Modern-day militia movements are spurred by increasing discontent among the American populace, especially in midst of a lengthy recession that some believe indicates an America in decline. The movement has waxed and waned in the last two decades, spiking in the 1990s following botched government operations at Ruby Ridge and Waco -- both of which resulted in the deaths of women and children -- before declining in the early 21st century.
Recent years have seen another spike in militia activity, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups and militia activity around the country. Economic uncertainty has been one trigger. Another has been the election of President Barack Obama, the first black man to hold the nation’s highest office. This has led to what the center has dubbed “the second wave” of the American militia ideology.
But the Alaska case is hardly unique -- every year, militia members from all corners of the U.S. are put on trial for either violent or financial conspiracies and crimes. So do other militia cases over the years offer insight? Or is the Alaska Peacemakers Militia case unique in its own right?
Here are four other militia trials from recent history, and how they turned out.
Among the most recent militia cases decided in the courtroom was the Michigan “Hutaree” militia trial.
In that case, militia leader David Stone and other militia members were accused of similar charges to Alaska’s ongoing trial, including conspiracy to murder law enforcement officials and weapons charges. Prosecutors alleged that the militia intended to kill a law enforcement officer, and then attack the funeral procession for the fallen officer.
Though nine members of the Hutaree militia were initially arrested in 2010, only seven would eventually stand trial. The Hutaree based their ideology on the impending apocalypse, with the BBC reporting that the group was preparing for biblical end times, according to a statement on the Hutaree’s website -- which has since either been taken down or abandoned.
In March, about two years after the initial arrests, a federal judge dismissed the most serious charges of conspiring to use weapons of mass destruction and seditious conspiracy -- essentially plotting to overthrow or go to war against the government -- against the defendants. That left only two defendants, Hutaree leader David Stone and his son Joshua, to plead guilty to a much less serious charge of possessing a machine gun.
In that case, federal judge Victoria Roberts determined that the evidence against the militia members was largely circumstantial and that the talk of attacking officials never strayed into “a specific plot.”
“This ‘plan’ is utterly short on specifics,” Roberts wrote in her decision throwing out the charges. “Further, it is a stretch to infer that other members of the Hutaree knew of this plan, and agreed to further it. More importantly, though, is that the alleged plan makes no reference to a widespread uprising against the United States Government.”
Proving when the members of Hutaree crossed from simply voicing strong, even dangerous, opinions to an active government threat was at the core of the case. It’s a line that prosecutors in the Alaska militia case are also trying to clearly establish as having been crossed.
Waffle House Gang (Georgia)
What’s more American than the greasy-spoon diner? And perhaps sovereign citizens are drawn to the star-spangled fare of the American breakfast diner. In Alaska, when Peacemakers Militia leader Schaeffer Cox was facing state domestic violence charges, members of Cox’s posse convened at a Fairbanks Denny’s restaurant to hold a common law trial and clear Cox of all charges.
But in the American South, Waffle House reigns supreme when it comes to cheap, homestyle meals consumed under too-bright fluorescent bulbs. And another recent case saw a group of four elderly men gathering at a Waffle House in Georgia to discuss, the government alleges, the viability of killing members of the government with biological weapons like the highly toxic ricin.
That’s the gist of the story of the “Waffle House Gang,” as the group has been dubbed, though it certainly gets stranger. The group’s plan was allegedly based in part on the online (fictional) book “Absolved” by former Alabama militia leader-turned-author Mike Vanderboegh, in which a militia wages war against the U.S. government.
None of the four men implicated in the case are under 65 years old. The arrests came after they were recorded by an FBI informant discussing their plans, including making a list of possible targets and the necessity of murder to further their agenda to “save” the U.S. Constitution and by extension, the entire country.
““There is no way for us, as militiamen, to save this country, to save Georgia, without doing something that’s highly, highly illegal: murder,” 73-year-old defendant Frederick Thomas reportedly told the informant.
The men were arrested in November of last year. Thomas and 67-year-old co-conspirator Emory Dan Roberts pleaded guilty in April to conspiracy charges. The two other defendants, 65-year-old Ray Adams and 68-year-old Samuel Crump, appear to be headed for trial.
Alabama Free Militia
While many militia groups are organized against the U.S. government, some target other, outside forces. One such group was the Alabama Free Militia, who prosecutors alleged were planning to attack Mexicans in an Alabama town before the plotters were arrested in 2007.
Neighbors said that Raymond Kirk Dillard, leader of the group, was often outspoken about illegal immigration in addition to the U.S. government. Dillard told at least one neighbor that there would eventually be a war between white and Mexican Americans.
Dillard and five other associates were arrested for various charges, nearly all related to illegal weapons possession. Among the munitions that investigators found following the arrests were 130 homemade grenades and an improvised grenade launcher.
Dillard’s home -- which had no running water or electricity -- was reportedly also booby-trapped, with tripwires attached to hand grenades. Dillard, contrary to his purported anti-government sentiments, pointed the wires out to investigators searching the property. Investigators also recovered nearly 100 marijuana plants in the raid.
An informant in the case met Dillard at a flea market before eventually infiltrating the militia and rising to the rank of “sergeant major” in the group. Dillard was the so-called “commander” of the group. That title is the same that Schaeffer Cox was dubbed in the ranks of the Alaska Peacemakers Militia. Cox’s two co-defendants, Coleman Barney and Lonnie Vernon, held the ranks of “major” and “sergeant,” respectively.
The owner of the Alabama property where Dillard lived said that he would frequently try to recruit new militia members.
Despite the ranking system and the audio and video surveillance conducted during the investigation, Dillard and his associates denied being part of a militia, including ever naming their group the Alabama Free Militia. When four of the men implicated in the plot appeared in court, they claimed that they were simply arming themselves in the event of a terrorist attack.
Dillard pleaded guilty to the most severe charges, including criminal conspiracy and illegally making and possessing destructive devices. Three other defendants pleaded guilty to helping create the hand grenades, constructed in part with commercial fireworks.
Dillard was released from prison on May 25 -- last Friday.
Project 7 (Montana)
Project 7 may sound like a plot point in an action film, but Project 7 was a very real group in Montana in the early 2000s. The leader of the group, David Burgert, along with five others, was indicted on weapons and conspiracy charges after a police informant told authorities that Project 7 was plotting to kill judges and law-enforcement officials.
There are echoes of Project 7 in the Alaska militia trial: both cases featured busts where federal agents seized thousands of rounds of ammunition. There was discussion of “hit lists” containing the names and personal information of proposed targets. While jurors hear arguments in the Alaska Peacemakers Militia case over whether militia members were actively planning to overthrow the government, Project 7’s goal, reportedly, was one of revolution. And that may be where the key difference lies.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Burgert managed to escape the more serious conspiracy charges: “Although officials are convinced the Project 7 plot was real, Burgert ultimately is convicted only of weapons charges and draws a seven-year sentence.”
Salon looked at Project 7 as a major step back for a militia movement that was trying to legitimize itself in the wake of September 11, and one prominent militia figure even referred to Burgert as “a miscreant.”
Burgert was later released from prison, but the former militia leader had further brushes with the law. In June of 2011, the now-47-year-old Burgert -- who had been living out of his car at various campsites -- fled from and fired on Montana sheriff’s deputies after they attempted to contact him at a rest stop.
After leading the deputies on a 30-mile chase, Burgert fled from his Jeep into rugged terrain near the Montana-Idaho border. Police and U.S. Marshals unsuccessfully searched. News agencies and police described Burgert as a survivalist at the time and scaled back their search.
But the mountainous terrain where Burgert disappeared isn’t friendly to human habitation, especially during the frigid winter, leading many to speculate that if Burgert didn’t make it back to civilization, he may be dead.
But Jason Johnson, public information officer for the Missoula County Sheriff’s Department, believes Burgert is still out there somewhere, a year after disappearing.
“We still don’t know where,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of speculation -- a lot of people think he could be deceased in the mountains up there.”
Johnson added that there was an organized search planned for this summer.
Contact Ben Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org