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Final arguments scheduled in Alaska militia trial

Posted: June 13, 2012 - 12:01am

ANCHORAGE — The conspiracy trial of three Fairbanks militia members neared the closing stages Tuesday as defense attorneys and prosecutors presented final witnesses and were given an afternoon to prepare closing arguments.

Five weeks after their conspiracy trial opened in Anchorage, Alaska Peacekeeper Militia leader Schaeffer Cox and members Coleman Barney and Lonnie Vernon will hear four versions of closing arguments Wednesday.

The three are charged with conspiring to murder government officials and conspiring to possess unregistered weapons.

Cox and Barney face charges of possessing unregistered destructive devices and carrying firearms during a crime of violence. Cox alone is charged with possessing and making an unregistered silencer, possessing unregistered machine guns and solicitation to commit a violent crime.

U.S. District Court Judge Robert Bryan excused jurors just after 10:30 a.m. to work out details of final jury instructions.

Defense attorneys will argue Wednesday that their clients acted in self-defense as they took up arms to protect Cox at public appearances, including an interview at North Pole television and radio station KJNP in which a five-man militia security force patrolled the grounds, blocked off the entrance and checked identification of others entering.

Cox attorney Nelson Traverso called the conspiracy to murder charge “total, total overreaction of government.” Testimony showed the men were not at the station to promote violence or confront federal agents, he said, and were under clear orders to use their weapons only if fired on by people out of uniform who shot first without warning.

Barney attorney Tim Dooley said militia members were concerned about a “Ruby Ridge” style attack on Cox, and their understanding of that 1992 incident in Idaho in which federal law enforcement officers, during a siege, opened fire on Randy Weaver and his family.

Defense attorneys also will claim Wednesday that their clients were entrapped by the government’s primary informer on the case, militia member Gerald “J.R.” Olson, who agreed to work undercover in exchange for consideration on another criminal case.

“Olson did escalate topics and discussion throughout this investigation,” Vernon attorney M.J. Haden said.

Olson, brought up the subject of illegal weapons, “finagled’ the defendants into placing an order and brought in samples — three .22-caliber handguns with silencers and hand grenades — that Cox and Barney were examining when they were busted, Dooley said.

On the final day of testimony, it was Haden’s turn to call witnesses, and she summoned just two. Gary Eichhorn, a computer system administrator with the federal public defender’s office, testified that he was able to order inert baseball- and pineapple-style hand grenades over the internet. The former Army chief warrant officer said the devices had holes drilled in them and carried no explosives.

Haden also questioned FBI agent Patrick Westerhaus about wording he used in an affidavit to obtain a search warrant. The document indicated that Vernon had a personal use unconnected to the militia for a silencer that he is charged with conspiring to obtain. Under prosecution questioning, Westerhaus said Vernon also could have used the weapon in a violent confrontation with law enforcement officers.

Unlike the other defendants, Vernon did not testify.

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