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Former militia leader Cox says mental illness claim was sentencing ploy

Sam Friedman
In this Tuesday, March 22, 2011 file photo, Schaeffer Cox speaks with his attorney Robert John during an arraignment hearing in state court at the Rabinowitz Courthouse in Fairbanks, Alaska.
Sam Harrel

FAIRBANKS - Schaeffer Cox has recanted the account of mental illness he gave at his federal sentencing hearing.

In a 13-page letter from the U.S. Penitentiary in Marion, Ill., posted on the "Stand by Schaeffer Cox" Facebook page, the former Fairbanks militia leader and political hopeful maintained his innocence and gave a detailed account of the years-long investigation that led to his conviction for conspiring to murder federal employees.

In tone, the letter sounds more like the public speaker known for organizing gun-rights and anti-government meetings in Fairbanks than the apologetic defendant who was sentenced in an Anchorage courtroom in January to a 26-year prison term.

In the letter, Cox said that before last January's sentencing hearing, his defense attorney told him that "If you go in there and tell the judge that you are innocent ... you will get a sentencing enhancement for refusing to accept responsibility for your 'crime' and you will get an even longer sentence than the one you've got coming. The only other thing we can do is see if we can get a doctor to say that you were crazy during the time leading up to your arrest. That could be a reason for the judge to not give you (a life sentence)."

Maria Rensel, who has been corresponding with him in jail, posted the July 26 letter addressed to "the Sensible People of a Candid World," on Facebook. She also posted a Nov. 2 letter in which Cox asked for help from Amnesty International. In his request for help, Cox described himself as a "political prisoner."

Cox, 29, was a handyman, mountaineer and son of local preacher when he stepped into the public light with a primary challenge to state Rep. Mike Kelly in 2008. Cox won 38 percent of the vote in the primary.

After the election, Cox became active in the sovereign citizen movement, a loosely organized framework of people who renounce the authority of the United States government. Cox began organizing what he described as his own alternative national government made up of a handful of followers in his Alaska Peacemaker's Militia and a court system that met in the back room of the Denny's Restaurant.

Cox was arrested along with four others March 10, 2011. In an Anchorage trial in spring 2012, federal prosecutors argued Cox conspired to kill federal law enforcement officers. Cox argued the two FBI informants associated with the case threatened him and deliberately provoked him into making inflammatory statements.

Cox dismissed attorney Nelson Traverso after the trial. In his July 26 letter, Cox said why he was unhappy with Traverso.

"Nelson Traverso refused to present our defense. When I demanded that he do so, he hissed back 'I'm not going to present anything that will be embarrassing for the government!! If I do, they will just come after me too!!'"

Cox said he had a better relationship with attorney Peter Camiel. Camiel advised him to feign mental illness, Cox said.

"He spoke with the helpless compassion that an older man feels for a young man being forced to lay down his ideals," Cox said of Camiel.

A few weeks after this discussion, Cox wrote that a forensic psychologist evaluated him. "She was a short frumpy woman with frizzy hair, beady eyes," Cox said in the letter.

At Cox's sentencing, the psychologist testified that Cox suffers from several paranoid disorders.

At that hearing, Cox was apologetic, according to The Associated Press, which reported on the hearing.

"I put a lot of people in fear by the things that I said," Cox told the court, according to The Associated Press report. "Some of the crazy stuff that was coming out of my mouth, I see that, and I sounded horrible.

"I couldn't have sounded any worse if I tried," he said. "The more scared I got, the crazier the stuff. I wasn't thinking, I was panicking."

Cox wrote in his letter that he's now seeking to appeal his conviction.


By Sam Friedman
Fairbanks Daily News-Miner