A documentary project that is currently faring well in the competition for the reality TV show Pursuit of Truth – a program on Glenn Beck’s Blaze TV network – purports to be about investigating the “truth” about the arrests and convictions of Alaska militia leader Schaeffer Cox and several of his cohorts. But if a “sizzle reel” video just released to promote the project is any measure, the film’s version of “truth” may well be at variance with the established facts of the case.
Cox, declared “delusionally dangerous” at his sentencing, is currently serving a 26-year prison term for organizing a conspiracy to kill a federal judge and law enforcement officers in the Fairbanks area, where he lived. He and three other militiamen were arrested in March 2011 and charged with the conspiracy and a bevy of related firearms violations.
In Pursuit of Truth, hosted by actor Vince Vaughn, a Salt Lake City filmmaker named Joshua Ligairi has been preparing a project purporting to demonstrate that Cox and his band of militiamen were railroaded by a rogue FBI investigation, and selling it to the show’s judges – quite successfully so far. His project, titled “Plan 241,” was named a semi-finalist in the competition that aired last Wednesday.
The competition’s winner will get help from the show to produce a full-length version of their documentary.
The “sizzle reel” – a two-minute preview of the film highlighting its most intriguing components – was released as part of the competition. It primarily features a handful of people telling the filmmakers how Cox and the others were railroaded by the FBI and an “out-of-control” informant.
Much of the onscreen time is devoted to Aaron Bennett, the tattooed proprietor of a Fairbanks gun-and-gear shop called Far North Tactical and a friend of the convicted militiamen. At a key point in the video he describes some of the “out-of-control” behavior of the key government informant in the case: “Bill pulled out a knife, grabs him and puts it up to his throat and says, ‘You say one more word, I’ll kill you, I’ll cut your throat.”
Bennett is describing a verbal confrontation between the informant – a man from Anchorage named Bill Fulton who owned and operated a military surplus shop there – and Schaeffer Cox’s second-in-command, a Fairbanks man named Les Zerbe. But it is not at all clear that he’s giving an accurate description.
As blogger Jeanne Devon of Anchorage, who covered the trial daily, reported at the time, Zerbe testified in court that Fulton “came at me with a knife” but then admitted that he did not see a knife in Fulton’s hand: “I was looking in the man’s eyes to see how serious he was on harming me. I did not see the weapon although I was told it was a knife.”
Fulton himself testified that Aaron Bennett was in between himself and Zerbe during their altercation, which he described as purely verbal. So the court evidence suggests that if Fulton did have a knife – and Fulton himself testified that he had one but didn’t threaten Zerbe with it – it is highly unlikely it was brandished and held to Zerbe’s throat. Otherwise, Zerbe would have testified to that effect.
The other primary witnesses in the video are the parents of militiaman Coleman Barney, who, the evidence suggests, was accidentally caught up in Schaeffer Cox’s schemes and, accordingly, given a lighter sentence, a pair of concurrent five-year terms. All of them express the opinion that the case against the men was unproven, though that was clearly not the opinion of the jurors who heard the evidence in the case.
During his conversations with the Pursuit of Truth judges, Ligairi made clear that he had already decided on the angle for the film he wanted to make. He told them that “basically, the FBI’s investigation crossed all these boundaries they weren’t supposed to cross,” and described the agency’s behavior as “Orwellian.” When one judge asked if he would be able to remain objective during the investigation, Ligairi indicated that he had already made up his mind: “I don’t agree with what they’re doing, but I do not want to see innocent people go to jail.”
For all its ominous music and implications, however, there is no evidence, physical or otherwise, in any of Ligairi’s footage so far to support the allegations of improper convictions in these cases.