ANCHORAGE — The FBI wanted to see if three Fairbanks militia members would bite if illegal weapons were dangled in front of them, and the subsequent sting was the final bit of drama in their arrest just more than a year ago.
Fairbanks FBI Agent Richard Sutherland testified Wednesday that the ruse was set up to gauge whether Schaeffer Cox, 28, Coleman Barney, 37, and Lonnie Vernon, 56, would buy hand grenades and handguns with silencers.
“We planned to provide suppressed weapons and grenades to see if they were willing to, or interested in, buying them,” Sutherland said.
The men were arrested during the sting and charged with conspiracy to possess unregistered silencers and destructive devices, plus conspiracy to murder law enforcement officers and other government employees.
Cox, the leader of the Alaska Peacekeeper Militia, also was charged with making and possessing an unregistered silencer, possessing an unregistered machine gun, and solicitation to commit a violent crime.
Sutherland was the prosecution’s last witness. Defense attorneys will get their chance begin to present witnesses Thursday at the trial that was moved to Anchorage because of the flood of publicity after the arrests.
In prosecution questioning and defense cross-examination, Sutherland, who supervised the government’s chief informant, again recounted the case from start to finish.
Cox, he said, came to the government’s attention with speeches in November 2009 in Montana that claimed — falsely it turned out — that he commanded a militia of 3,500 armed men. The FBI also took note, Sullivan said, when Cox said, “We are right on the edge of having blood in our streets” in Fairbanks.
The investigation escalated over six months and eventually included the recruitment of Gerald “J.R.” Olson, who agreed to infiltrate the militia and spy on members in exchange for a reduced sentence in a separate criminal case.
Testimony Wednesday again focused on a February 2011 meeting where the militia discussed its “241” plan — code for killing two law enforcement officers for every one militia member killed in the line of duty.
Cox attorney Nelson Traverso asked Sutherland whether he perceived an immediate threat from the discussion or whether Cox and others were merely generating ideas.
“That was one of the goals of our investigation — to find out,” Sutherland said.
The meeting occurred two days before Cox was scheduled to appear for a state trial on a misdemeanor weapons charge of failing to immediately tell a police officer that he was carrying a concealed weapon.
On the tape, Cox rejected the idea of a “Rambo” confrontation with law enforcement, noting that it would be a fruitless gesture and outmanned militia members would be “squashed like a bug.” They instead settled on an alternative — bluff, train, pray and continue recruiting.
Sutherland said the threat remained. The violence alternative, he said, was rejected because it could not be sustained, not because the suspects thought it was improper.
“They didn’t reject the idea philosophically that it was wrong,” Sutherland said.
Attorney Tim Dooley, representing Barney, asked Sutherland whether the “241” plan had ever come up again, other that when it was suggested Olson on instructions by the FBI. Olson in one recorded conversation questioned whether the militia’s response should be five for one rather than just two for one.
“He appeared to be pushing too hard, correct?” Dooley asked.
Sullivan acknowledged that he had to counsel the informant, who was given the task of finding out whether a plan was in motion, not to be too enthusiastic.
“He had to be careful that he was not the one pushing it,” Sutherland said.
Cox by early 2011 was exploring ways to leave Fairbanks with his family and Olson played a role in keeping him around until the arrest. Olson offered to set Cox up with a trucker who could smuggle him and his family past customs agents, and Cox had begun packing. Under questioning my Traverso, Sutherland acknowledged that Olson had made up stories for a series of delays with the fictitious trucker, such as mechanical problems.
The ruse was part of the FBI tactical plan to arrest the defendants away from their home and allow safe searches of their homes, Sutherland said.