ANCHORAGE — Three Fairbanks-area militia members were portrayed by federal prosecutors Tuesday as dangerous conspirators who amassed a cache of weapons and plotted to murder government officials, while defense attorneys said their clients were ensnared by an overreaching government.
Attorneys gave opening statements in the federal trial of Schaeffer Cox, of Fairbanks, Coleman Barney, of North Pole, and Lonnie Vernon, of Salcha. The men have been in jail since being arrested 14 months ago in combined state and federal raids.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Yvonne Lamoureux said fully automatic machine guns, silencers and grenades were part of the men’s weapons cache, most of it in a trailer owned by Barney, 37. She also said the murder conspiracies were recorded.
The alleged plot was not just people sitting around discussing their views and complaining, assistant Lamoureux told the U.S. District Court jury in Anchorage after detailing weapons seized when the men were arrested in March 2011.
“We wouldn’t be here today if that was the case,” she said, adding that the prosecution plans to introduce 700 exhibits and call 70 witnesses, including FBI agents and an FBI informant, Gerald Olson, who recorded meetings after infiltrating the Alaska Peacemakers Militia led by Cox. With his involvement, Olson avoided his own jail time in an unrelated theft case.
Nelson Traverso, the attorney for Cox, said his client would never plot to murder anyone. However, Traverso acknowledged that Cox has a tendency to shoot his mouth off in championing a fight for civil liberties. Traverso described his client as a father of two, an avid outdoorsman, a young idealist.
“Yet, youth has its excesses,” he said of the 28-year-old Cox. “Occasionally, he displays a big mouth to make a point.”
Cox is a founder of the Second Amendment Task Force, a gun rights group that formed out of concerns about an economic and government failure. Cox and others in his circle are a group of “devout Christians” who wanted to defend their families against mobs and government in case of a collapse. Traverso noted that informant Olson was the one who encouraged the purchase of munitions and pushed for violence.
Cox and his alleged cohorts are charged with conspiring to murder law enforcement agents, as well as weapons charges. Vernon, 56, is charged in a separate case with his wife, Karen Vernon, with plotting to murder the chief federal judge in Alaska, Robert Beistline, over his rulings in a tax case.
Barney’s attorney, Tim Dooley, also said the government was overreaching in charges against his client, whom he described as a gun enthusiast and a Mormon active in his church. Items found in Barney’s trailer weren’t his and the government would have to prove he exercised control over the contents, Dooley said.
Vernon’s public defender, M.J. Haden, said the case was about Cox and that her client’s greatest wrong is his “very poor taste” in associates. She called Vernon a hard-working truck driver and a blowhard who tends to exaggerate to get attention.
Last October, the state dismissed charges against Cox, Barney and Lonnie and Karen Vernon.
At the time, prosecutors said the decision to dismiss state murder conspiracy and other charges was prompted by a Superior Court judge’s ruling to suppress all electronic evidence in the case. According to the ruling, audio and video recordings made during a six-month FBI investigation into Cox and his militia are not admissible because they were made without a search warrant, and therefore violate the Alaska Constitution. The FBI has wider authority to obtain warrants.
The fifth defendant in the state case, Michael Anderson, was not charged in the federal case. He was granted immunity and will testify in the federal trial. Lamoureux said Anderson will testify about his work compiling a “hit list.”
Authorities have said Cox was an advocate of the “241” retaliation plan, which stood for “two-for-one” — killing or kidnapping two officials for every member of his group who was killed or arrested.
The alleged plot arose after Cox was charged with misdemeanor weapons misconduct. He represented himself at a pretrial hearing where he denied that the Alaska court system was a legitimate judiciary. Cox said he would not attend another hearing until the court system explained its authority over him.
A warrant was issued for his arrest when he failed to appear for trial in that case in February.