On Monday, Alaska Peacemakers Militia leader Schaffer Cox and two followers -- Coleman Barney and Lonnie Vernon -- once again told a federal judge they're not guilty of a string of weapons crimes alleged by the government. The new round of pleas followed the addition of several more charges by the government to the case against Cox and Barney.
Cox looks different these days. Gone are the short-cropped, neatly trimmed tresses he once sported. His hair is longer, wavier and parted in the middle -- reminiscent of the mop-headed look of boy bands from the 1960s. He's also grown a small goatee. There's also that trademark smile, an oddly calm affect for a man facing a slew of serious charges. And for someone who supposedly rejects government authority, he was respectful -- even downright sugary polite -- to the judge presiding over his fate.
"Your honor, I plead not guilty. Not just as a procedural formality, but as a genuine assertion of actual innocence on all counts," Cox said when asked to answer to the charges. Later, he would amplify the narrative he paints of an honest, God-fearing man wrongfully accused. "I am a critic, not a criminal," the outspoken anti-government orator interjected as the hearing neared its close.
Cox faces up to 70 years in prison if found guilty on the eight counts against him. Barney, who is accused in four counts, faces up to 30 years. Vernon is accused of only one count -- conspiracy to possess unregistered silencers and grenades, which could land him in jail for up to 5 years. In a separate case in which he and his wife are accused of plotting to kill a federal judge, he faces a significantly harsher sentence.
Combined, the men face 10 counts of conspiracy to possess unregistered silencers and destructive devices; possessing unregistered destructive devices, an unregistered machine gun and a machine gun; making a silencer; and carrying a firearm during a violent crime.
After the arraignments in Anchorage Monday, Cox's attorney made an unsuccessful push to have the weapons case dismissed, arguing that the investigation and subsequent charges stem from an encroachment on Cox's right to free speech.
Cox has long spoken openly and in depth on the ills of tyranny as well as the merits of the militia and its role in rebuilding society and government. Cox's words -- sometimes delivered in hours-long speeches -- were provocative and stirred debate. Yet they were never intended to prompt lawless action, argued Nelson Traverso, Cox's attorney.
Feds: Militia case about weapons, not speech
When the government couldn't find a way to stop Cox, it launched an effort to bring him and his militia down, continued Traverso, who raised concerns about how the informants gathered much of the evidence against Cox and the others. "They wanted to shut him up and that's what they have done," he said.
Prosecutors urged the court to reject the notion that the case was built on speech alone. It's about weapons -- not registering some and owning others that are illegal under any circumstances -- as well as attempts to acquire even more prohibited weaponry, specifically grenades and silencers.
"Statements about crime, about creating your own government, defying the court system, being immune from the law through force of arms, about murder, about acquiring illegal weapons and actions in furtherance of are not protected speech. The FBI's investigation into those actions overwhelmingly establish that the investigation was conducted for a legitimate law enforcement purpose," argued Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Skrocki in a motion opposing dismissal filed in advance of Monday's hearing.
Because a federal judge in Alaska is listed as the primary target of the Vernons' ire, Tacoma, Wash.-based U.S. District Court Judge Robert Bryan is overseeing the cases. Although he sympathized that the free speech aspects of the trial are likely to be a "sticky issue," he was not convinced investigators violated Cox's First Amendment rights.
"Protected speech does not mean that speech is protected from investigation" when what is said raises suspicion of a crime, he said in denying Cox's motion to dismiss. In delivering the ruling, Judge Bryan pointed to a November 2009 speech in which Cox boasted about having GPS jammers, airplanes, rocket launchers, grenades, claymores, machine guns and boats at his disposal.
Doesn't that justify investigation into whether those are true statements? Judge Bryan asked Traverso.
The speeches are not on trial, Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Skrocki reiterated after the hearing. What Cox and his associates had to say will show motive, but that is not the heart of the case.
Monday was also the first time the government openly named the confidential informants: Bill Fulton, former owner of the military supply store Drop Zone, and Gerald Olson, a convicted felon who ingratiated himself to Cox and managed to infiltrate Cox's militia, rising to the rank of officer. Both men recorded their dealings with Cox and others in the group.
The defense has suggested Fulton and Olson were the ones who insisted on taking up arms against the government, despite resistance to violent notions from Cox and others. The government asks if that is so, why did Cox continue seeking illegal weapons – namely grenades and silencers?
Further refuting Cox's claims as someone engaged in passionate speech and peaceful resistance, the government pointed to items seized at Cox's home, including a library with instructions on converting semi-automatic weapons to fully automatic ones, making silencers, and detailed instructions for making the toxins Ricin and Cyanide. The library also contained information on smuggling, lock picking, sniper training, how to make explosive shells, and "techniques for silent killing," according to prosecutors.
"While it is clear that this type of information is legally available virtually anywhere, Cox's possession of this personal reference library, coupled with his statements obtained during the investigation make clear Cox is anything but (an) innocent political figure," Skrocki wrote in a recent filing.
The trial against the men is scheduled to begin in February. If estimates from the attorneys are accurate, it will go on for weeks. All the defendants have asked to be transferred to their hometown of Fairbanks to await trail.
Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com