The federal jury trial of three Fairbanks militia members accused of conspiracy to illegally purchase weapons and murder federal employees got under way in Anchorage on Tuesday, as both the prosecution and defense presented their opening statements.
Schaeffer Cox, Coleman Barney and Lonnie Vernon, members of the Alaska Peacemakers Militia, were arrested in March 2011 after allegedly attempting to purchase silencers and destructive devices from a government informant and plotting to kill various employees of the federal government, including judges and Department of Homeland Security officials.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Yvonne Lamoureux, delivering opening statements for the government, outlined the multitude of weapons and ammunition possessed by the militia, and added that Cox, leader of the militia, often got "crosswise" with federal government employees. She said that Cox was paranoid about the federal government.
"He believed there was a plot by the federal government to kill him and his family," Lamoureux said. "The defendants shared similar beliefs -- that our government was not operating under the rule of law, but under the rule of force."
Much of the government's case is built around a series of recordings made by Gerald "J.R." Olson, amounting to about 100 hours recorded between July 2010 and March 2011. This includes, according to Lamoureux, video recordings of the attempted purchases of .22 caliber handguns fitted with silencers and grenades in two separate operations on March 10, 2011.
Two of the government's most important witnesses are Olson and Michael Anderson -- an associate of Cox who faced state charges following last year's arrests, but no federal charges. He was set free when the state of Alaska dropped its case in October 2011.
Anderson supposedly was responsible for gathering personal information about federal employees on Cox's orders.
"Michael Anderson will testify that he did compile that information for Schaeffer Cox, and Schaeffer Cox gave him names periodically to add to that list," Lamoureux said. She said that when Cox requested the list, Anderson was so worried what he would do with it that he erased the hard drive containing it -- and then smashed it to bits.
Olson, a former con man, may face scrutiny from defense attorneys, and ultimately, the jury, for his checkered past. Lamoureux brought that fact up for jurors in the government's opening statements.
"When Olson moved up to Alaska from Montana, he got involved in some criminal activity, and we're not going to ask you to like this guy," Lamoureux said. "He's lied, he's cheated, he's stolen, and he's going to tell you all that himself.
"(But) we wouldn't be here today if this case depended on Mr. Olson's words alone," she said.
Likewise, despite the defense's assertion that their clients were simply expressing distaste for the federal government, Lamoureux said that if their speech was within the bounds of the First Amendment, the case would never have reached this point.
"This isn't just about some people discussing their views, voicing their anger and frustration with the government," she said. "We wouldn't be here today if that were the case. They were preparing to act on those thoughts."
Wrong side of the law
The militia members are part of a nationwide sovereign citizens movement populated by outspoken Americans who believe government has run amok and overstepped its bounds, and who look to the U.S. Constitution to guide their system of law. On Tuesday, their defense attorneys outlined the reasons why they say their clients were within their rights of free speech when they discussed their frustrations with the federal government.
Schaeffer Cox attorney Nelson Traverso said that though his client may have had a "big mouth," he never advocated for active resistance to the government -- unless the government was to strike first.
"He feared that the federal government was out to get him," Traverso said, and alleged that a source had told Cox that federal agents were being sent up from the Lower 48 to execute him.
He said that Cox had always advocated for a passive resistance, pointing to a December 2009 speech that Cox gave in Montana where he told the audience, "You don’t need to gun down the beast, you need to let if fall or collapse on its own," referring to the federal government.
"He believed that the sovereignty of our citizens was in peril," Traverso said. He painted a picture of big talk that was within the bounds of free speech.
M.J. Haden, attorney for Lonnie Vernon, said her client was not part of the larger schemes of the militia, since he "was not part of the command staff" within the organization. She added that Vernon figures in far less of the recorded evidence than either of the other two defendants.
"The most important meetings, where Schaeffer Cox and Coleman Barney were making these plans, Lonnie Vernon wasn't even there," she said.
She, too, said that her client tended to talk big.
"Lonnie's rough around the edges," she said. "Lonnie's a hardworking truck driver, and he tends to be a little bit of a loudmouth; he's a blowhard, he tends to exaggerate."
Coleman Barney's attorney Tim Dooley said that his client, as a family man and successful owner of an electrical contracting company, had no reason to attack anyone, and that he could have gone through legal channels to purchase a silencer and grenade casings if he was interested in purchasing them.
"Coleman Barney has two speeding tickets from his teenage years -- he would get approval if he'd applied to fill out the paperwork, he can certainly afford it," he said. "He doesn't have to buy an illicit or illegal silencer."
Dooley said that a trailer owned by Barney, in which weapons were found, was not under Barney's direct control, and that Barney didn't know what items were in the trailer at the time the government searched it.
He said that $5,000 in cash that Barney had on him at the time he and Cox were arrested -- allegedly in the midst of purchasing the guns and grenades from Olson -- was intended to be deposited in the bank so that an employee could deposit a check that Barney had paid him with the previous day. According to Dooley, Olson picked Barney up to go look at the weapons while Barney was sitting in the bank's parking lot.
He said that the idea that these men were seriously discussing murdering anyone doesn't make sense -- that the militia was formed merely as a way for the members to defend their families.
"You'll see evidence that they did not have the mental framework to carry out murder, but to defend," he said.
Dooley said that Barney and the others were simply victims of belonging to the sovereign citizen movement.
"He has, I think, bizarre ideas, but what I think doesn't matter," Dooley said. "The U.S. government classifies anyone who advocates sovereign citizenship as a domestic terrorist."
Traverso had a similar conclusion during his opening statement. Looking at the jury, he summed up in a few words much of the motivation behind the entire sovereign citizens movement:
"I ask you to remember this refrain: It is dangerous to be right when the government is wrong."
Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com