In the end, a federal jury in Alaska didn’t believe militia leader Francis Schaeffer Cox’s claim that he was just a free-speech loudmouth — more like Gandhi than Rambo — and convicted him of heading a conspiracy to murder a judge and law enforcement officials.
The jury also convicted Lonnie Vernon, a member of Cox’s Alaska Peacemakers Militia, of conspiracy to commit murder. But it couldn’t reach a unanimous verdict on that same charge against a third defendant, Coleman Barney.
Cox, 28, of Fairbanks, and Vernon, 56, of Salcha, both face a term of up to life in prison when they are sentenced Sept. 14 in Anchorage by visiting U.S. District Judge Robert J. Bryan from Tacoma. Barney, 38, of North Pole, faces sentencing after being convicted of conspiring to possess unregistered silencers and destructive devices.
The convictions cap an FBI investigation that began in August 2009 and culminated with the suspects’ arrests in March 2011. Cox, Vernon and Barney have been in custody since then. Vernon and his wife, Karen Vernon, still face a separate trial separate trial for allegedly plotting to murder the chief federal judge in Alaska, Robert Beistline, who entered rulings in their antigovernment tax-protest case. State conspiracy to commit murder charges against Cox and others members of his militia were dismissed last November, but the Justice Department pressed on with the federal charges.
Now, the Alaska militia convictions likely will be viewed as a new, significant victory in the Justice Department’s effort to infiltrate, disrupt and stop domestic terrorist groups from carrying out violent antigovernment crimes.
In a similar militia case brought by the Justice Department in March, a federal judge in Michigan dismissed charges against seven members of the Hutaree militia who went to trial for allegedly plotting to kill police officers in hopes of igniting a revolution against the government.
In Georgia, in a third recent high-profile militia conspiracy case, federal prosecutors have obtained two guilty pleas and are getting ready to take two other defendants to trial.
In Anchorage, the jury reached its verdicts Monday afternoon on the third day of deliberations.
“The prosecutors withheld evidence from you guys!” Cox yelled at the jurors after the verdicts were read in the courtroom, the Anchorage Daily News reported. The judge responded, “Mr. Cox, please.”
Cox attorney Nelson Traveso attempted in closing arguments last week to convince the jury that the young father of two is not a dangerous revolutionary as portrayed by the government, but a “loudmouth” activist who merely exercised his free speech rights with “liberal use of violent imagery,” according to media accounts.
On the stand defending himself during the trial, Cox told the jury he’s more like Gandhi than Rambo.
After listening to and apparently rejecting that claim, the jury convicted Cox of a total of nine of 11 charges, including seven weapons charges. He was acquitted on charges of carrying a handgun while conspiring to purchase destructive devices and possession of a handgun while discussing the murder conspiracy.
Beside the murder-conspiracy count, Vernon also was found guilty of conspiracy to possess silencers and unregistered destructive devices. He was acquitted on a third count, accusing him possessing a firearm while discussing the murder conspiracy. Vernon was the only defendant who didn’t testify. Cox and Barney both testified in their own defense during the trial that began May 8.
At the outset, prosecutors portrayed the defendants as dangerous conspirators who used their Peacemakers Militia to amass a cache of weapons, some illegal, and plotted killings of government officials. Assistant U.S. Attorney Yvonne Lamoureux said in opening statements that fully automatic machine guns, silencers and grenades were part of the militia’s weapons cache, most of it in a trailer owned by Barney.
Cox talked about killing judges in their homes at night, about outgunning state troopers. He referred to federal Transportation Security Agency employees as Nazis and discussed hanging court employees to dangle like the “wind chimes of liberty.”
The wild-eyed conspiracy evolved, authorities say, after Cox was charged with misdemeanor weapons charges in state court. At a pre-trial hearing, he acted as his own attorney and said the Alaska court system wasn’t legitimate and had no authority over him as a so-called “sovereign citizen.” A warrant for his arrest was issued when he failed to appear for trial.
Cox developed his so-called "2-4-1" retaliation plan, promising that his militia would kill or kidnap two state or federal law enforcement officials for every member of his group arrested or killed. He recruited militia members from a Second Amendment Task Force, a gun-rights group composed of “devout Christians” who banded together to defend their families against mobs and the government in case of an economic and societal collapse, according to various media reports.
Cox also created a “common-law” court system, a panel of sovereign citizens that met at a Denny's restaurant in Fairbanks and “acquitted” him of a domestic violence charge after he had pleaded guilty to the crime.
Cox’s militia activities weren’t restricted to Alaska, as he developed ties to sovereign-citizen activists throughout the Pacific Northwest. In short order, the glib militia leader was making the circuit of antigovernment groups, finally catching the attention of the FBI for speeches he delivered in Montana in 2009.
By August 2009, the FBI had recruited Gerald Olson, a one-time confidence man and drug runner for the Hells Angels, into Cox's militia as a paid FBI informant. For his undercover work, Olson avoided his jail time in an unrelated theft case.
The FBI also recruited and paid a second informant, Anchorage military surplus store owner William “Drop Zone Bill” Fulton, who infiltrated the Peacemakers Militia. He testified that Cox’s militia group planned to issue warrants for the arrests of judges, to be followed by trials and possible executions.
As the informants’ secretly recorded various conversations, Cox boasted his militia had 3,500 members – a claim that federal authorities now say turned out to be a wild exaggeration. Cox also boasted that he was so important in militia ranks that the FBI had sent a “hit team” to Alaska to assassinate him. At the Fairbanks Airport, he denounced federal TSA employees as “Nazis.”
It was completely appropriate for the FBI “to take an interest” in Cox for the type of antigovernment violence he was espousing, the federal prosecutor argued to the jury. Cox’s boasts, in turned out, were designed to build an army of loyal followers for the day Cox could make his move, U.S. Attorney Steve Skrocki told the jury.
“We're not telling you Schaeffer Cox is guilty because of the speeches he made,’’ Skrocki told the jury in closing arguments, according to the Anchorage Daily News. Cox had taken the next step, the prosecutor told the jury, claiming he had 3,500 militia members “ready to go” and equipped with armed with rockets, claymore mines and other illegal weapons.
“Why would you need your own court system, your own county rangers, why do you need handcuffs and a Taser?” the federal prosecutor asked the jury after testimony concluded. “At some point they're going to be strong enough. That's the motive behind it,” the Anchorage newspaper reported.
“People can joke about rendering a verdict over a Grand Slam” at Denny’s, Skrocki said, but Cox’s plans were serious: He had a hit list of state and federal law enforcement officials and convinced his armed followers that they should be prepared to shoot to kill.
When he took the stand in his own defense in early June, Cox blamed the two FBI informants for pushing talk of killing federal officials. He acknowledged building a machine gun when he was 16 and said it would be fun to own a few live grenades, the Anchorage Daily News reported. What he didn’t do, Cox told the jury, was plot to kill anyone.
Under cross-examination, Assistant U.S. Attorney Yvonne Lamoureux asked Cox about his public statements that a federal “hit squad” was planning to assassinate him. “I believe it more now than then,” Cox said.
Cox attempted to contradict earlier testimony, claiming he was afraid an FBI informant might kill him and blame federal agents in an attempt to start a bloody clash with authorities.
“I was convinced Bill Fulton was going to slit my throat like he almost slit Les' throat if I got in the way of this plan that he was pushing,” Cox said. The Anchorage newspaper reported that that was a reference to a 2010 encounter between Fulton and Les Zerbe, the militia's second-in-command.
Cox said he believed federal officers were out to get him after being told that FBI agents and deputy U.S. Marshals were asking questions and seeking a solution to their “Schaeffer Cox problem.”