Alaska Militiamen Convicted in Conspiracy to Murder Officials

Rejecting Schaeffer Cox’s claim that he was merely exercising freedom of speech when he spoke of killing a judge and law enforcement officials, a federal jury this summer convicted the boyish Alaska militia leader of heading a murderous conspiracy against the government.

Also found guilty on June 18 of conspiracy to commit murder was Lonnie Vernon, a member of Cox’s group, the Alaska Peacemakers Militia. The jury could not reach a unanimous verdict on that same charge against a third defendant, Coleman Barney. But Barney, 38, of North Pole, along with Cox, 28, of Fairbanks, and Vernon, 56, of Salcha, was found guilty of a host of weapons charges, including conspiracy to possess unregistered silencers and destructive devices.

The convictions cap an FBI investigation that began in August 2009 and culminated with the suspects’ arrest in March 2011, after they began taking concrete steps to carry out a wild-eyed plot to kill, kidnap, and terrorize their perceived enemies in the government.

Alaska Peacemakers Militia leader Schaeffer Cox faces up to life in prison when he is sentenced in a plot to kill, kidnap and terrorize government officials. (Photo by Sam Harrel/AP Images)
Described in court documents as “extremely paranoid and narcissistic,” Cox was once something of a rising star in Alaska politics. In 2008, he received 37% of the vote in a Republican primary bid to upset a GOP incumbent in a race for the state House of Representatives.

But he soon drifted away from the mainstream, instead embracing militant antigovernment views. In 2009, he was listed as a delegate to the We the People Continental Congress, which brought together antigovernment “Patriot” leaders, conspiracy theorists, tax protesters and other radical-right leaders. As an alternative to the established system he so reviled, Cox also organized a pseudo-legal “common-law court,” which met in the back room of a local Denny’s.

The Peacemakers developed their plot after Cox’s 2010 arrest on misdemeanor weapons charges. Following a pre-trial hearing at which he acted as his own attorney and said the Alaska court system had no authority over him as a “sovereign citizen,” Cox decided to skip his March 2011 trial.

Knowing a warrant would be issued for his arrest if he failed to appear, he and his co-conspirators devised their so-called “2-4-1” (“two for one”) plot: If Cox were arrested, two law enforcement officers would be kidnapped; if he were killed, two targets would be killed; if his house were taken, the houses of two targets would be attacked and burned.

The Peacemakers also took concrete steps beyond mere talk to carry out their murderous plot, conducting surveillance and amassing a weapons cache that included pineapple grenades, fully automatic machine guns, silencers, and dozens of high-powered assault rifles. Under the law, only once such concrete steps are taken does conspiratorial and even murderous talk become a criminal conspiracy.

Two FBI informants infiltrated the group, providing the government with tapes of Cox discussing “overthrowing the federal government by violent means” and hanging court employees so their bodies dangled “like the wind chimes of liberty.” He boasted that his militia had 3,500 members, a claim that federal authorities say was a ludicrous exaggeration.

On March 10, 2011, Cox and four alleged co-conspirators were arrested and held, initially, without bond. But the case almost died when an Alaska state judge ruled that the FBI informants’ recordings of their plans were inadmissible under state law because they were made without a search warrant. That prohibition did not extend to federal law, however, and this January a federal grand jury indicted Cox, Vernon and Barney for conspiracy to murder.

One of the original defendants, Michael O. Anderson, was granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony. The other, Lonnie Vernon’s wife Karen, still faces a separate trial (with Vernon) for allegedly plotting to murder Alaska’s chief federal judge, who entered rulings in a case brought against the couple for refusing to pay federal taxes.

Cox and Vernon face terms of up to life when they are sentenced this fall.