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Searching for the real Schaeffer Cox

Craig Medred
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
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

FAIRBANKS -- Summer, the brief period when Mother Nature smiles on the Far North, still seems a long way off here in April. There are only the first hints of the change of season evident in the daytime puddles forming in the icy streets and the winter snows avalanching off rooftops. Still, in better times, this is when jailed climber Schaeffer Cox would be preparing to launch another assault on the summit of 20,320-foot Mount McKinley.

An unmistakable presence in the clear, blue skies to the south, North America's tallest peak anchors a wall of Alaska Range mountains that seem to cut this corner of the 49th state off from the more urbane, more cultured civilization of Los Anchorage, as Alaskans are prone to call the 49th state's only real city back on the coast.

Most days now, Cox does not see the mountains. He spends his time locked in a cell at the Fairbanks Correctional Center. He leaves only in leg irons and an orange jump suit to attend court hearings. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Alaska State Troopers allege Cox is a dangerous man, a budding domestic terrorist caught in the nick of time. His bail has been set at $3 million.

Going to extremes

Friends and acquaintances of Cox, at least the few willing to talk, agree his anti-government rhetoric had grown more and more extreme, if not bizarre, in the past year or two. But in a place where those who don't love the government hate the government, they add, this is not all that unusual.

Interior Alaska is a land of extremes, both social and climatic. The temperature can hit a stifling 100 degrees in the summer and fall to a life-threatening minus-65 in winter. The people here are no less diverse than the climate. The Democratic Socialists of America boast a local office, one of only seven in the West, in the city that gave birth to the Alaska Independence Party of the late Joe Vogler and Todd Palin, the husband of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. A snowmachine racing champion, Todd was -- if Palin-era documents are to be believed -- at one time something of a shadow governor of Alaska. Sarah herself was never an AIP member, but she was a fan. As governor, she recorded a video to welcome delegates to the AIP convention saying, "your party plays an important role in our state's politics."

Vogler, a crusty old lawyer turned gold miner, formed the AIP with the idea of undoing statehood and turning Alaska into a self-supporting nation, or at least reestablishing it as some sort of an independent entity associated with the U.S. government. Since his murder in the early 1990s, the AIP has become more of a states-rights party, but its platform still leans toward the revolutionary. Among other things, the party calls for the elimination of public lands, including Alaska's world-famous national parks, and an end to "all bureaucratic regulations and judicial rulings purporting to have the effect of law,'' which would do away with a goodly number of the rules that now govern American society. These views might be considered a little extreme in some places, but they are not so extreme here.

The AIP was proposing its own Alaska tea party long before there was a national tea party campaign. National tea party favorite and West Coast spokesman Joe Miller now has a home at the very end of the road to the south of Fairbanks along the Tanana River. Miller almost won a U.S. Senate seat with a call for a radical restructuring of the federal government. A Yale-educated lawyer, Miller said he wanted to "get back to basics, restore essentially the constitutional foundation of the country, and that means the federal government becoming less onerous, less involved in every, basically, item of our lives."

Those views helped Miller oust incumbent Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the Alaska GOP primary, but in a state dependent on federal funding for an estimated third of its economy, she came back to narrowly defeat him as a write-in candidate in the general election.

A lot of Alaskans, including Murkowski, worry about what Miller called the "onerous'' nature of the federal government. In early April, 71-year-old Jim Wilde was on trial in federal court for resisting National Park Service rangers who pointed guns at him, knocked him to the ground, and handcuffed him. Murkowski had earlier called for a full investigation of that incident, and the details coming out at trial had caused a stir. There are quite a few people who would just as soon the federal government is gone.

Looking for attention?

Publicly, Schaeffer Cox went only a little further than most in joining groups essentially calling for the overthrow of the government. Privately, authorities charge, he went a lot farther than most. At what was dubbed the "Continental Congress 2009" in Montana, Cox hinted at violence. He lobbied to dump the government in favor of what he called "natural law." "The only reason we are sending them these instructions," he added in a taped interview, "is for the sake of conscience. You know, if somebody breaks into your house, you don't just to shoot them in the back. No, you yell, 'Get out of my house' before you tap them."

Whether Cox really planned to "tap" -- kill -- anyone is the big issue now. A Joint Terrorism Task Force headed by the FBI says he and four others -- some are calling them the "Fairbanks Five" -- were gathering weapons and explosives with the intent of killing judges and law-enforcement authorities. The FBI and Alaska State Troopers claim they have undercover informants and wiretaps to back up those accusations.

Still, in a place where bar talk regularly turns toward the violent, not everyone is so sure Cox planned to tap anyone.

"I think a good case could be made that it was just a bunch of people talking among each other," said Mike Prax, a former Fairbanks North Star Borough assemblyman. 

"That's the thing," said Andrew Sheeler. "It is kind of hard to tell."

Sheeler is a University of Alaska Fairbanks journalism student who interviewed Cox for a December 2009 story in "The Sun Star,'' the campus paper. The story dealt with Cox challenging a ban on firearms on campus.

"When I interviewed him," Sheeler said, "he was wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying a gun. I do get the feeling he is more of a true believer in that sense." But Sheeler is willing to concede that Cox might have just been a good actor, and he makes one observation about Cox with which no one argues: "He definitely liked the attention.''

"The weenie in the beanie,'' as some at the university called Cox, clearly wanted to be a political celebrity, a small-town version of Alaska phenom Sarah Palin. (As all of America knows, she hit the jackpot after a failed bid for vice president and her resignation as governor halfway through her first term.) Cox is still trying for that celebrity. He was and remains the most visible of the Fairbanks Five. Some say he appears to be almost looking forward to his trial, as if awaiting the start of "The Schaeffer Cox Show."

A website set up since his arrest "Stand By Schaeffer Cox" appears more about promoting Cox and his views than aiding his defense. It pushes Cox's "Arrest,'' "Interviews,'' "Speeches'' and "Schaeffer's Message,'' but also solicits funds to pay lawyers. As of Monday, it reported collecting $1,160 toward a goal of $40,000. It had also attracted five "Character Testimonials" in favor of Cox. All came from people Outside. They protested that the government had gone too far in arresting Schaeffer, a view with which he agrees.

"This will all be cleared up shortly," Cox is quoted on the site saying. "It looks like the FBI let their conspiracy theories get the best of them."

Budding politician or aspiring militia leader?

Back-track the life of Schaeffer Cox and the trail runs smack into Jesus. The man the FBI and state troopers now portray as a budding domestic terrorist grew up a God-fearing Christian boy doing good works.

When he came to the 49th state about a decade ago, it was as a teenager with his family. His father, Gary, took a job as pastor at the University Baptist Church here. It resides in an aging building tucked behind a restaurant next to a mini-mall in what was once a suburb called College. The church is just below the bluffs on which sit the University of Alaska Fairbanks in a multi-ethnic, well-educated part of modern Fairbanks that attracts an economically struggling class.

Only blocks from the church, university students can still be found living in rental cabins with outhouses, miserable at 50-below in winter. Some of them appear to date back almost to the city's founding as a gold mining town. The hardscrabble business community that sprung up along the Chena River just south of Felix Pedro's gold strike in the Tanana Hills is itself a strange place, at once the most cosmopolitan of Alaska's few cities and the most primitive.

Among its 35,000 residents, you are likely to find immigrants from a good share of the nations of the world, and most of them will have more than a passing acquaintance with what Alaskans call the "honey bucket" -- the can in the corner that serves as plumbing when it's simply too cold to sit on a toilet seat outside.

Cox himself grew up in more comfortable surroundings with indoor plumbing, but as a three-time climber of Mount McKinley, he became familiar with cold toilet seats. To keep the glaciers clean on the approach to the 20,320-foot mountain top, climbers are required to carry what the National Park Service calls a "Clean Mountain Can," a portable toilet, in which to pack human waste until it can be disposed of in designated drop zones. Despite Cox's allegedly violent anti-government feelings, there is no evidence he ever objected to this burdensome government requirement.

Park rangers, who make all McKinley climbers register in advance to get on the mountain and then sit through a mandatory orientation, don't remember Cox ever raising an objection to jumping through any government hoops. Neither are there any indications of any intent on Cox's part to overthrow the government when he challenged then-fellow Republican Mike Kelly for the Fairbanks District 7 seat in the state House in 2008. Cox got 36 percent of the vote, but that showing against an established incumbent and well-known Fairbanks resident was enough to lead some in the Republican Party to believe the then-23-year-old, sometimes carpenter was a rising political force.

Shortly after the election, Kelly -- in the best American political tradition -- tried to co-opt some of Cox's political base by telling a Fairbanks Second Amendment Task Force that work was underway to draft legislation that would make it legal for federally restricted firearms to be built and used in Alaska. Kelly proposed an Alaska Firearms Freedom Act modeled on Montana legislation and pushed by Cox.

The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, the local newspaper, noted Kelly made this announcement at a "meeting at the Friends Community Church, which drew about 400 people despite snowfall of 8 inches in some areas, (and) was the third since the movement was started about a month ago by 24-year-old entrepreneur Schaeffer Cox."

Cox, at the time, seemed to be embracing the power of democracy. He asked a diverse group of people, including state and federal authorities, to attend the gun rally at the church. A Democrat state senator showed up to say he was all for gun rights. Cox noted similar sentiments had been voiced by Alaska's congressional delegation.

"I just sort of marched in a direction I believed in," he told the News-Miner, "and I looked over my shoulder and there were 1,000 people there." At the time, Cox looked to be on his way to a future as a successful Alaska politician.

Less than two years later, law enforcement officers associated with the Joint Terrorism Task Force handcuffed the 26-year-old and hauled him off to jail, where he remains held along with four others. The government charges against Cox, Coleman Barney, Lonnie and Karen Vernon, and Michael Anderson link all five to the Sovereign Citizen Movement, which the FBI considers a dangerous, domestic terrorist organization. The movement generally opposes local, state and federal laws in favor of English common law, or what Cox called "natural law."

Cox clearly advocated for that idea, but whether he was actively involved in trying to violently overthrow the government to make it happen -- or just blowing revolutionary smoke based on his religious belief that government has become a false God worshipped by too many Americans -- remains to be determined at trial.

"We're all praying for Schaeffer," said former climbing buddy Joel Beckett, now a student at the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry in California.

Searching for the real Schaeffer Cox

The search for the real Schaeffer Cox behind the videos that have come to portray him as an impassioned but rambling Constitutionalist -- a far north, Glenn Beck wannabe without the chalk board, or captivating drone --  is complicated by the fact that a lot of the people who know him best refuse to talk.

His wife, Marti, told reporters who visited the couple's small, ranch-style home with the climbing wall out back she agreed to an interview. She set a date, but failed to keep the meeting. The house is in an old subdivision on a hillside above town. The take-home car of an Alaska State Trooper was parked in a driveway just up the street.

Cox's father Gary, a trim and visibly fit older man, came to the door of his small, neatly maintained tract house in a densely packed College-area subdivision to say he'd prefer not to say anything. He was polite, but quickly closed the door and retreated inside beneath the black bear hide hanging on the wall.

Accountant Ben Schilling, who worked with Schaeffer on the "Mechanics Ministry" at his dad's church, cut an interview short. "I'm not interested in his troubles," Schilling said. "Based on everything I've read, I'm not even sure I know him."

Another member of the ministry was more talkative, but wanted his name kept out of the news. An old hunting and motorcycle racing buddy of Schaeffer's, he said he wondered about his friend's association with Lonnie and Karen Vernon, two of the young man's co-defendants.

"We were sitting on a ridge, hunting," the friend said. "I don't know any of those people. I asked Schaeffer about them. I told them I hoped he was influencing them and not the other way around. I always told Schaeffer my prayer for him was that these people didn't affect him."

The hunt was in the fall. By winter, Schaeffer would be deep in a conspiracy, authorities allege, to kill a judge and troopers in retaliation for any actions taken against the militia groups he was leading or Cox himself. The plan was called two-for-one or "2-4-1." If one militia member was killed or arrested, the militia was to counter by killing or kidnapping two law enforcement officials. The plan was never implemented. Cox and the others were arrested, authorities contend, before they had a chance to do anything but plot, gather weapons and conspire.

"I hadn't spoken much to Schaeffer even months prior to the arrest," the friend said. "We used to get together weekly to pray and talk, but he kind of pulled away. I don't know all the ins and outs. But we saw him at church almost every Sunday."

The friend continued:

I know that I really liked the Cox family. They're really good people. They're all good people. I don't know man. I'm not comfortable talking about this. I would consider Schaeffer a friend. It was always interesting to go do something with him. He's into a lot of stuff. He's got a sailboat. He does some diving for (sea) cucumbers. He's a climber. He liked to race motorcycles. Everything the guy's into recreational (sic) has a little bit of danger it.

Many of Schaeffer's friends were the same way. All had been exposed to danger or went looking for it. Zabud Carper, one of the others helping with the Mechanics Ministry to fix snowmachines to send to needy people in rural Alaska, did at least one tour of duty in Afghanistan.

Another friend of Schaeffer's, Raymond Lowdermilk of the Alaska National Guard, likes to race snowmachines and motorcycles. The ministry's Ken Riley was an Army helicopter pilot.

Schaeffer's climbing buddy Joseph Nichols was an instructor on the climbing wall at UAF and a former "cannon fire direction specialist" for the U.S. Army, who got a degree in philosophy from UAF before going to work as a bike mechanic in Fairbanks. He left Alaska shortly after Schaeffer's arrest.

Some of these and other former friends of Schaeffer's could not be located for this story. Most either refused to comment or failed to respond to repeated email or voicemail messages.

One who did respond said only this: "I just don't think this is something I want to be talking about."

Schaeffer Cox now seems to have gotten himself involved in such a dangerous game that not many want to play.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com