After nearly two years in jail and a cascade of federal convictions, 28-year old militia leader Schaeffer Cox gave a final Hail Mary at his sentencing hearing Tuesday. Convicted of conspiracy to commit murder, solicitation to commit murder and seven weapons crimes, Cox was potentially facing life in prison.
A triad of mental illnesses -- paranoid schizophrenia, delusional personality disorder and paranoid personality disorder -- had clouded Cox's sense of reality, his attorney, Peter Camiel, argued in asking for leniency. It was the first time the notion that Cox might have been suffering under a compromised mental state had been uttered in open court. But it didn't work.
U.S. District Court Judge Robert Bryan told Cox he'd spend the next 24 years behind bars – a lot lower than what could have been a life sentence, but severe enough to get the message across that Cox's crimes were extremely serious. Bryan handed down a 310-month sentence, giving Cox credit for the 22 months he's served since his March 2011 arrest.
It was the same sentence given to Cox's codefendant Lonnie Vernon. A third codefendant – Coleman Barney, the only of the three to not be convicted of murder conspiracy – is serving out a five year sentence for weapons violations.
[Cox] was being controlled by this paranoia,” Camiel explained to the court before the ruling, drawing from the findings of a psychologist's report he referenced during the arguments he made at the sentencing.
Unpersuaded, U.S. Assistant Attorney Steven Skrocki told the court “it's a master manipulator that you've got here,” and urged Judge Bryan not to be influenced by an 11th- hour reinvention of Cox that the defendant himself may have opportunistically embraced.
Cox is a man who will do and say whatever is necessary to control things to his advantage, Skrocki argued. Even if the diagnosis is legitimate, Skrocki suggested it doesn't mitigate the 35-year sentence the government believed was appropriate for a man it described as a “manipulative, conning and self-aggrandizing individual with severe sociopathic tendencies.”
The long sentence, they argued, was the only way to protect the public “from a delusionally dangerous man who instead of advocating peace advocated the use of the gun.”
For his part, Cox spoke of the devastation he'd caused his family and the fog of paranoia that had taken over his mind over the last several years. He apologized to people who felt threatened by things he said, and cried throughout much of his statement. He spoke of the difficulty of reading the psychologist's assessment of him, and how relying on the support of his wife and parents – who agreed the diagnosis made sense – has helped him slowly accept that something in his life hasn't been right.
I couldn't have sounded any worse if I tried," he said as his wife and parents watched from the courtroom gallery. "The more scared I got, the crazier things I said.”
"I wasn't thinking, I was panicking. I lost all of my composure and created a horrible mess,” Cox told the judge, adamant he never meant to harm anyone. “I agree that there is something there. And I want to listen to the people that love me. And I will do whatever I need to to get better. Because life has been a horrifying nightmare for the last few years.”
Cox's sentencing is the conclusion of a high-profile case that brought Alaska into the spotlight for its home-grown band of would-be militia men with sovereign-citizen leanings, groups of which from around the nation had come under the intensified scrutiny of the FBI. Extreme believers willing to act out on their anti-government leanings had proven lethal during confrontations with law enforcement. The promise of a re-election bid by Democratic President Barack Obama only heightened tensions and a growing sense of peril. Such extremists, the FBI had warned, were becoming a top domestic-terrorism threat.
The case also raised issues of free speech, but the judge was clear: Cox's was not a case of free speech, but one of criminal acts. Neither Cox nor his followers were accused of actually harming other people – at least not physically. But they did speak about their willingness to kill in service to Cox's world view or to prevent his capture. And they took steps to arm themselves for bloody confrontation and develop plans by which to carry out their resistance. They made provocative statements perceived as threatening to judges, law enforcement and other federal employees, like TSA and Homeland Security agents.
Cox, who had openly declared himself to be a "sovereign citizen," was a gifted orator who spread his anti-government philosophy to anyone who would listen. Government was tyrannical and corrupt, he asserted. Because Cox believed government agents wanted him dead, he'd taken steps to make sure that didn't happen. He wore a bullet proof vest. He armed himself. And orbiting him in his hometown of Fairbanks were other members of his Alaska Peacemakers Militia – guys he'd convinced to defend him, armed, the government showed, with automatic weapons and grenades.
In his deepening paranoia, Cox became convinced a federal hit squad had been activated to assassinate him and his family.
Cox's world began to spiral out of control when, he claims, he felt his family was threatened by a state investigation into the welfare of his son. He'd had some minor run-ins with the law, including a minor weapons charge, which escalated into a full blown form of Cox-style resistance against what he perceived as an onerous and meddling government interfering with his right to live freely as a sovereign citizen, one who would not be subservient to laws of a government he didn't endorse or acknowledge.
This extreme reaction to relatively minor scuffles with government authority gave Camiel his first clue that something about his client's world view was distorted, out of proportion to the reality of the circumstances an otherwise bright and capable young man found himself confronted with.
Along the way, Cox ran for political office, and went on to form The Alaska Peacemakers Militia, the Second Amendment Task Force, the Liberty Bell Network and a version of his own “country rangers.” He'd also participated in a form of common law court known as an Assembly Post, popular among sovereigns around the nation. In the eyes of prosecutors, Cox had done no less than form his own government to replace the one he had renounced and felt at war with, with its own leaders, judiciary, and military arm. Cox himself even spoke of attempting to initiate “diplomatic relations” with Alaska courts and law enforcement officers.
Each of his entities, taken alone, was directed to or toward supplanting or challenging government. Taken together, they formed a political movement with Cox as the indisputable leader,” prosecutors wrote in their sentencing memorandum submitted prior to Tuesday's hearing.
Cox caught the attention of federal investigators when he made a speech called “the solution,” presenting his formula for government resistance to like-minded audiences in Montana and other states. In those talks, he bragged of having a 3,500-man militia, machine guns, lasers, bombs, missiles, and other illegal weapons. That admission – to criminal acts – gave the government a legitimate interest in investigating his claims and what he was up to, even if, as Cox's attorney suggested, the claims were “pure fantasy.”
Cox and his associates were caught on tape talking about a retaliatory plot that came be known as 2-4-1, or two-four-one. For every militia member caught or captured, two of the enemy – in this case, Alaska State Troopers, judges, their family members or anyone else associated with “tyranny” and unjustified aggression would be captured or killed. Cox was heard in surveillance tapes speaking about how he'd have no problem killing women and children, if his cause drove him to it. And, he and his men developed hit lists of people – both state and federal – who had aggrieved him.
He and his inner circle had also attempted to purchase hand grenades and unregistered silencers, working to amass an arsenal they could use if the bloody showdowns Cox feared and prepared for ever became reality.
Mentally ill or not, Cox maintained the ability to be persuasive and develop a following, and to motivate others to act, the judge found. People like co-defendant Lonnie Vernon, who had his own axe to grind with the government over back taxes and had, with his wife, formulated a plan to kill the federal judge overseeing the seizure of his home.
But as for Cox's militia, Judge Bryan debunked claims that Cox's militia was a legitimate, rogue force to be reckoned with. Militias are armed and trained for military service. But Cox's group of followers were never trained the way legitimate militias are, Judge Bryan said, observing “it never amounted to a militia.”
A group of church and family supporters wrote letters to the judge, trying to give him an image of Cox that they held to be most true. A family man. Good father. Good provider. Good friend. An industrious businessman and independent, peace-loving learner who was unabashedly passionate in his views.
I want people to know who he was,” said Josh Browning, a firefighter and friend of Cox's who's worked to be supportive of Cox and his family throughout the proceedings.
Browning is among the people who'd seen a “definite escalation” in Cox's rhetoric over the years, but does't believe the Schaeffer Cox he knows is a man that would kill.
The Cox he knows is a friend who will help out in any situation at any hour, a handyman with a willing attitude and the ability to find inexpensive fixes, a devoted father to his young children.
In his letter to the judge, Browning didn't deny Cox had done wrong, but did ask for leniency. “Just as I have seen Schaeffer transform into a great man, husband and father, I have also seen him transform into a humble, broken man,” Browning wrote.
Their meetings are now reduced to jailhouse chats. In some of those over the last year, Cox has confided to Browning the desperation with which he longs to return to his family. If his words caused this trouble, he'd cut out his larynx. If it was his deeds, he'd cut off his arms – anything to be able to go home.
In the end, Judge Bryan agreed that the psychologist's findings about Cox's mental health made sense. The terms he'd written in his own trial notes after Cox's performance before the jury offered a parallel impression to the psychologist's: paranoia, grandiosity, narcissism, egocentricity, pathological lying. Still, serious mental health issues wouldn't soften Cox's fate – a fate he'd brought upon himself and his family, according to the judge. He could get help in prison for his paranoia and delusions, and it was clear he posed an ongoing danger to society.
"It may provide a reason for some of what he did but it is not an excuse,” Judge Bryan said.
Contact Jill Burke at firstname.lastname@example.org