In the months leading up to the arrests of five Alaska militia members for allegedly plotting to murder state and federal officials, the behavior of another Alaskan known as "Drop Zone Bill" was raising eyebrows.
The former bounty hunter who also ran an Anchorage military supply store had himself, some say, become an anti-government agitator. He was helping militia members purchase grenades and weapons. And, in the weeks before the March 2011 arrests, he was to looking to raise a pile of cash, and quickly.
This is the image of William "Drop Zone Bill" Fulton sketched in hindsight as his acquaintances try to make sense of the government's crackdown on members of the Alaska Peacemakers Militia. Fulton, 35, made national headlines in October when he handcuffed a journalist after an event hosted by U.S. Senate candidate Joe Miller, who eventually lost to incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski. Now he is in the news again for his apparent ties to the Peacemakers militia and speculation that he might have helped authorities in their investigation of the group and its leader.
Fulton has a long history of dabbling into business affairs that allowed him to emulate real-life law enforcement and military operatives. He worked as a bounty hunter, offered a security force for hire, and sold gear to survivalists, soldiers, the militia and others. In recent months, though, some who knew Fulton speculate that he secretly was working with law enforcement on its investigation into the activities of the Alaska Peacemakers , betraying the confidence of people who had come to know and trust him.
In early March, a joint state and federal domestic terrorism unit arrested five Fairbanks-area militia members, accusing the Peacemakers with planning a violent plot to retaliate against state and federal authorities. At the center of the charges is Schaeffer Cox, the founder and leader of the Alaska Peacemakers Militia. Prosecutors claim Cox, 27, encouraged other militia members to take up arms and plan the kidnapping and murder of a local judge and state troopers.
Cox, who has declared himself a sovereign citizen, had for months resisted the authority of a Fairbanks court to force him to deal with a misdemeanor weapons charges. When the court issued a bench warrant for his arrest after he missed a February trial date, Cox formulated what he called the "2-4-1" plan: for every militia member taken into custody, two government authorities would be kidnapped or killed, authorities allege in court records.
Prosecutors claim Cox was assisted in his alleged plot by militia members Lonnie and Karen Vernon, Michael Anderson and Coleman Barney, who all face state murder conspiracy charges. All but Anderson are also charged in state and federal court with acquiring illegal weapons. In a third and separate case, the Vernons, who are embroiled in a tax evasion suit in which they could lose their house, face additional federal charges stemming from their alleged plan to kill a federal judge and IRS employee involved in the case.
After the arrests in early March and word began to spread that the murder plots had been foiled, in part due to the work of at least two informants working with authorities, Fulton vanished. He signed his store, Drop Zone, over to an employee and gave his attorney control of his house. Nobody, not even his attorney, knew his whereabouts.
Inside the militia movement and elsewhere, the answer seemed simple: Fulton, who matches the description of one of the government's undercover operatives described in court records, must have gone into hiding out of fear for his life.
The revelations have caused people who knew Fulton to reconsider their dealings with him.
The Feds have said their cooperating witnesses were on the job for 10 months prior to the arrests, a timeline that coincides with actions atypical for Fulton, according to sources interviewed by Alaska Dispatch. Those once close to Fulton now question whether the odd behavior was part of an agenda to help the Feds nab as many people as possible. And even those who didn't know Fulton are suspicious.
One man who once considered Fulton a friend is deeply angry at the betrayal he says nearly got him burned.
Aaron Bennett was there when Fulton was brokering grenade deals with Vernon and Barney, and was close enough to the situation to have the FBI pay him a long visit. Bennett is certain that a reference to the nickname "Fuse King" in an investigator's written account of the Alaska Peacemakers' activities refers to Bennett himself.
Friend or rat?
It was a knock on the door by federal agents in March that has Aaron Bennett, who happens to be a Schaeffer Cox detractor and a former business associate of William Fulton's, both angry and scared.
"Bill Fulton was trying to put me in jail for the rest of my life," said Bennett about his longtime friend weeks after the FBI tracked him down and sat with him in a truck for hours rehashing what he might know and whether he was involved in anything criminal.
Bennett maintains he did nothing wrong, and there is no indication he has been charged with any crimes. But if his account of what the FBI had to say is true, Bennett may be the reason Fulton went into hiding. "They said their witness was afraid of me" and that word is I am "the most dangerous guy in town," he said.
Bennett is the co-owner of Far North Tactical, a Fairbanks military supply store that operates out of a small, moss-roofed log cabin close to downtown. Items for sale include medical kits, camouflage clothing, boots, guns, sights, armor piercing bullets, handcuffs, body armor, pouches and patches, inoperative grenade bodies sold as paperweights" and a wide variety of flags and signs with sayings like "Don't tread on me."
Bennett has known Fulton for years, well enough that he's dined at Fulton's home and has worked alongside him bounty-hunting and helping set up Fulton's Anchorage supply store, Drop Zone. The two met seven years earlier when Fulton worked at a store in Anchorage called the Ammo Can, where Bennett was a regular customer.
Over time Fulton wanted to open his own supply business, with Bennett on board as a partner. It didn't work out, but Bennett helped Fulton open Drop Zone and Bennett later opened his own supply store in Fairbanks.
"I used to tell everybody that Drop Zone was my sister store," he said.
The stores bought and sold inventory from one another, and Fulton helped counsel Bennett on how to make sure he didn't' get in trouble for "fencing" stolen items, something they needed to be watchful of when in the business of buying and selling used military gear.
More recently, Fulton is the reason Bennett found himself face to face on more than one occasion with members of the Alaska Peacemakers Militia targeted during the Feds' investigation, he said.
By August 2010, around the time the informants would have already been working with the FBI, Fulton had somehow gotten himself crosswise with Cox, Bennett said. Fulton's own words posted to a website forum for the Alaska Citizens Militia confirm that he thought Cox had plans to do something extreme against the government. On the blog, Fulton claimed that it was he who talked Cox down and averted whatever disaster might have ensued.
But Bennett claims it wasn't Cox who was talking about going against the government. It was Fulton.
"He's a f'ing liar," said Bennett of Fulton's assertions on the militia blog. "Bill invested 90 percent of his time trying to instigate an incident of epic proportions. He was trying to talk to everyone around him into attacking the government."
During August 2010, Bennett's store, Far North Tactical, participated in a fundraiser for the Interior Alaska Conservative Coalition, a group Cox helped establish and which describes itself as "a grass roots movement of citizens regardless of party affiliation who promote conservative values and a return to Constitutional Rule of Law." Fulton was at the fundraiser, too, representing Drop Zone, and the two stores held a sale, with some proceeds going to the coalition. At the event, Bennett and Far North Tactical co-owner Luke Lovejoy said there was obvious tension between Fulton and Cox, so much so that the men at times had to be separated.
Fulton and Cox were at odds over a plan to "nab some judges" – kidnapping them and forcing them to appear in court to answer to unspecified crimes, Lovejoy said. Fulton had "put things in motion" to make it happen, Lovejoy recalled. But at the fundraiser, Cox wanted to change the plan.
According to Lovejoy, it seemed like Fulton was angered that he would then have to "call off" the "big wheels" he had set in motion and ask his supposedly wide-spread network of people who were going to participate in the scheme to "stand down."
None of the charging documents make reference to this incident, and most details focus on weapons deals and the murder schemes allegedly hatched in early 2011.
Still, if Fulton was a paid informant working for the authorities, it casts his actions -- those in allegiance with and those against Cox -- under a new lens.
A curious invitation
Although the FBI never mentioned Fulton's name as its agents grilled Aaron Bennett during their conversation with him inside a truck earlier this year, Bennett is convinced Fulton was the agency's source and the scared witness they were referring to.
Based on descriptions of meetings and events chronicled by investigators in the paperwork supporting the arrests of Cox and his followers, Bennett believes he is among the figures mentioned, although his identity is withheld and he is only referred to as the "fuse king" – a man some of Cox's associates had sought out in their efforts to transform dummy grenades into functional explosives.
Fulton fits the description of the confidential source who helped arrange the meetings with the "fuse king," and Bennett confirms that Fulton was among the people there during the discussions. The meetings took place over a weekend in February when Fulton arranged a "summit" at an Anchorage hotel for the militia groups he did business with, Bennett said.
Bennett claims Fulton pressured him to attend. Bennett said the invitation was under the guise of being good for his supply store's business. But Lovejoy, Bennett's business partner, said there was a secondary agenda. Fulton wanted Bennett to embarrass Cox in front of the other militia leaders by debunking Cox's views and challenging Cox's account of how many followers he really had, Lovejoy said.
One by one, as militia leaders spoke at the summit, Bennett admits he zealously challenged their self-made images of power and large ranks, and he mocked Cox's claims of leading the largest militia in the state.
"You could fit your whole militia in an outhouse on my job site," Bennett said he told Cox, who attended the meeting by phone from Fairbanks.
Fulton videotaped the entire meeting, Bennett said.
Fulton acts weird, then disappears
Looking back, a lot of things were strange about Fulton's demeanor that weekend in February, Bennett said, who suspects Fulton may have been trying to set him up.
"I'd never seen him be so weird," Bennett said of Fulton.
Fulton's insistence that Bennett come to the militia summit in Anchorage in February was strange. Bennett said he didn't belong there because he wasn't a militia leader. But Fulton was unrelenting. He even offered to pay Bennett's way, and Bennett eventually gave in and agreed to attend.
The night before the summit was to begin, Fulton offered to buy dinner for Bennett, Lovejoy and Jeff Signorino, a man who had worked with Bennett and Lovejoy over the years. Afterward, Fulton asked the group to come up to his hotel room for a few drinks. Once in the room, Fulton revealed he wanted to "do a deal" with some other guys -- Coleman Barney and Lonnie Vernon – men Bennett was not fond of and had no interest in working with.
Fulton never openly said he wanted to arrange anything illegal. But Fulton also wouldn't offer up any details about the deal he was trying to craft. Then things deteriorated quickly when Vernon began calling Bennett a "demon" and a "devil," in a rant apparently motivated, in part, by Bennett's tattoos. Bennett said he told the group he didn't want to be there and left for the night. Lovejoy and Signorino stayed behind.
The next day, after the militias held their summit meeting, Fulton again approached Bennett with an offer. "He asked me to come by (Drop Zone) and talk about some things," Bennett recalled.
But when Bennett visited Fulton at the store, Fulton revealed that the two men Bennett wanted nothing to do with – Barney and Vernon – would be stopping by any minute. He wanted Bennett there because he thought Bennett could be of use to the men, Bennett said.
Fulton, he said, confided that he had "sold a case of grenades" to the men and that "'I told them they could come get the fuses from you.'"
"I wouldn't sell those guys a damn thing," Bennett said he told Fulton. "Those are one-second fuses, and the ATF says they're illegal, so I got rid of them." This exchange, as recalled by Bennett, closely parallels an event documented in court records by one of the investigating FBI agents.
After the Feb. 4 militia summit and before the March 10 arrests, Fulton called Bennett to let him know he was trying to sell everything in his store in a "name-your-price" rush to raise enough money to buy the building Drop Zone operated out of. For Bennett, it was one more unusual twist signaling something more might be going on with Fulton.
"I realized his time was short," he said.
Fulton's desire to sell items quickly is corroborated in a post to the Alaska Citizens website. In the post, a woman from the Kenai Peninsula who says she had contacted Fulton to purchase dehydrated food and a 55-gallon water barrel claims Fulton tried to also get her to buy grenades.
"He told me that he was trying to raise money to buy the property and to bring cash he has several connexes filled with supplies," a woman identifying herself as Robin Boerner Mitchell wrote on the website.
Suspicious about the unusual offer, Mitchell made a call to the weapons trainer who helped her get her concealed-carry permit and learned that she would need a permit to purchase grenades. She was in need of something to help deal with a bad dog on the neighbor's property, but grenades weren't quite what she was looking for. In her blog post, she wrote, "Didn't (Fulton's) employees notice he was offering grenades for cash to Mormons on the phone?"
Not long afterwards, Fulton – the man who had seemingly positioned himself in the last year to simultaneously rub elbows with militia members and lend a hand to a high profile U.S. Senate candidate – dropped out of sight.
For all of Fulton's unusual behavior, Bennett and Lovejoy said, one thing was constant: He was always looking out for himself first. And now, they believe, he was doing so over the past year while helping authorities in their militia investigation.
"I think that if that piece of shit was ever in jail, he would think twice about trying to fuck people randomly," Bennett said.
Whether Fulton will resurface as the criminal cases against the militia members move forward remains to be seen. His attorney, Wayne Ross, did not respond to an inquiry seeking an update to his client's situation. And nobody from the FBI is willing to discuss Fulton.
Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com.