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Prosecutors: Alaska militia 'security plan' was really conspiracy to murder Feds

Jill Burke

Self defense is surfacing as a rationale among three Alaska militia members for the armed body guard operations that are partially responsible for their arrest in March 2011. Militia leader Schaeffer Cox, a self-proclaimed sovereign citizen and two men he commands, Coleman Barney and Lonnie Vernon, are currently on trial, accused of weapons crimes and plotting the murder of state and federal officials. Personal security details Cox ordered his men to perform resulted in the men equipping themselves with guns and grenade launchers to repel a band of fictitious federal assassins Cox believed were out to get him.

Federal prosecutors allege the security plan was actually a murder conspiracy, an agreed-upon strategy to shoot at anyone -- in particular, undercover law enforcement officers -- who drew a weapon on Cox, his wife, or other associates. But the defendants maintain they only planned to shoot to kill if their life depended on it.

Barney was emphatic with the distinction during his cross examination by Assistant  U.S. Attorney Steven Skrocki Monday. "We do have the right of self defense," Barney said from the witness stand, explaining that he knew he might have to shoot to kill someone, a possibility he maintains he would only have resorted to if "defending against murder."

One issue jurors will likely be asked to think about as closing arguments near is whether Cox and his group sought out or created the conditions that would have yielded the potential for violent conflict. Cox had established rules of engagement for the group, centered on whether government came after him or left him alone. Yet by skipping a court date in a minor weapons case, Cox assured his non-compliance with the law and solidified his status as a fugitive, raising the potential for his arrest. 

Coupled with Cox's public displays of disrespect to and defiance of the court system, a climate was brewing that could have become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Prior to skipping a court date, Cox had encouraged supporters to come to other, earlier court hearings in ploys to get attention and intimidate state court judges. Barney has said during these courtroom appearances, Cox had twice taken his antics too far. Telling judges that people wanted to kill them in the middle of the night, and telling Alaska State Troopers that the militia had them "outmanned and outgunned" was too extreme, Barney said. As a result of his growing discomfort, Barney had asked Cox to tone it down. Even so, the impact of Cox's courthouse grandstanding has been difficult for Cox and his men to shake.

During their federal trial this week, when Skrocki asked if Cox was "using the militia to threaten the court system," Barney said "yeah."

Staying with the theme, Skrocki attempted to show jurors that the security details in service to Cox were more than a group of guys exercising their Second Amendment rights to bear arms. These were men who intended to go to great lengths to keep their man safe.

"This would have caused a lot of heartache with law enforcement at any level," Skrocki asked, using his right hand to hold up an AR 15 semi-automatic assault rifle in the courtroom. The weapon, a Valentine's Day gift from his wife, was among those Barney carried during a protective detail for Cox in November 2010. Skrocki's point was, if police or troopers or the FBI came across men carrying such weapons in public, they'd be inclined to check the situation out. And yet, it was a confrontation with law enforcement that Cox feared, and the very scenario that had given way to the prospect of launching the retaliatory 2-4-1 plan. 

Barney said he was aware that certain situations required more decorum. A protective detail for Cox outside a Fairbanks courthouse was kept more simple, with maybe nine men armed with handguns, including himself, working to make sure Cox made it safely from the courthouse exit to a waiting car. But when Cox was due for a television appearance, the situation was different.

The television station was on private property, Barney believed. Because of this, he said he didn't think being more heavily armed would cause public distress. To this location he brought side arms, the AR 15 and 180 rounds. For extra "non lethal" defense tactics, he mounted a grenade launcher to the rifle and loaded it with a canister of rubber pellets -- an illegal combination, according to the indictment. Another man rode the wooded perimeter of KJNP, and Lonnie Vernon, similarly armed, worked the entry point of the lot. 

Skrocki tried to get Barney to admit he'd been given orders by Cox that night to shoot to kill. But Barney was clear, opening fire on law enforcement was only intended as a last resort. And, a last resort only to be invoked if unidentified people, including undercover agents who failed to identify themselves, showed up and started shooting.

More than once Barney stated that he'd disagreed with some of Cox's musings. But, not enough to cut ties with the militia leader or resign his enlistment. He didn't like the talk about 2-4-1, and other extreme plans for propaganda and resistance. "I was not OK with everything that was talked about," Barney said. "But I was not given orders to do anything that I was uncomfortable doing."

The trial is close to wrapping up. The third defendant, Lonnie Vernon, has yet to present his case. He is not expected to testify. Jurors are expected to get the case by the end of the week.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com