Alaska militiaman Schaeffer Cox needed help and he knew it.
When an old friend from former Congressman Ron Paul’s failed presidential campaign offered to raise money for Cox’s legal defense, he jumped on it.
“It’s my hope and prayer that after reading this and seeing the hell my family and I have been through, that you will help me with this – my LAST chance to prove my innocence – and return home to my family,” Cox wrote in an Sept. 1, 2014, draft of a fundraising pitch.
Cox, the founder of the Alaska Peacemakers Militia, wrote that letter as he sat in the federal prison in Marion, Illinois, serving a 310-month sentence for an anti-government murder conspiracy to kill a state judge and police officers.
Within months, something went awry.
Now, Cox, 34, is suing four people and two companies involved in the “Free Schaeffer Cox” movement, alleging they embezzled more than $100,000 raised in the name of helping Cox get out of prison and beat charges that he conspired to commit murder.
The lawsuit, which Cox filed in October from his cell at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, offers a rare look at how fundraising pitches are made for imprisoned far-right and racist “alt-right” activists.
Most prominently, multiple fundraising efforts are ongoing for five people arrested and convicted of violence at the racist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.
Problems with raising money for the imprisoned don’t always become public.
But the documents filed in Cox’s lawsuit give a glimpse of not only how the pitches for money are put together, but also what can happen when the inmate and the people raising money for him have a falling-out.
A fundraising pitch
Cox, a Fairbanks, Alaska, resident, once showed political promise, taking 37 percent of the vote in 2008 in a GOP primary bid to unseat an incumbent Republican member of the state House of Representatives.
He went to prison after being convicted in 2012 for a plot to kill, kidnap and terrorize government officials he perceived as enemies of the Alaska Peacekeepers Militia.
Cox was a proponent of Paul’s Libertarian-focused presidential bid in 2008.
He went on to lead the Alaska Peacemakers Militia, which the Southern Poverty Law Center classified as an anti-government “Patriot” group.
As he sat in prison in Marion, Illinois, before his transfer to Indiana, Cox heard from Maria Rensel, a Fairbanks, Alaska, friend from the Paul campaign who testified on Cox’s behalf during the conspiracy trial.
Rensel pitched Cox in the summer of 2014 on the idea of fundraising for a “Free Schaeffer Cox” campaign through an entity called “Alaskans for Liberty.” She put together a team of like-minded folks, including Colorado resident Terry Dodd, Stewart Skrill of Ruskin, Florida, and US Observer, an Oregon-based outfit that publishes stories on people they believe to be wrongly convicted.
Cox knew Rensel, but none of the other board members of “Free Schaeffer Cox.”
For Cox’s part, he’d have to allow the use of his photo and write letters asking for donations.
Cox signed on, writing fundraising letters addressed “Dear Patriotic American” from his prison cell asking people for money to help him fight his conviction.
“This is my cry for help,” Cox wrote in a Sept. 1, 2014, draft fundraising letter. “Not just for me and my family, but for Americans like you who may be the government’s next target.”
The agreement allowed Rensel and the board of “Free Schaeffer Cox” to collect money through a fundraising company called Eberle Associates, a McLean, Virginia, direct mail company known for working with conservative clients such as the Koch Brothers-funded FreedomWorks and American Border Patrol, which the Southern Poverty Law Center designates as an extremist group.
The first fundraising mailer went out in early 2015, pulling in, according to court documents, $38,000 in donations from 1,500 people.
That’s when something went awry.
Big projections, big fall
After the first $38,000 came in, Cox and the “Free Schaffer Cox” board seemed happy. Eberle Associates predicted that the fundraising efforts could pull in $300,000 over three years.
“Thank you for placing your confidence in us, Maria,” Eberle President Tammy Cali wrote in a letter to Rensel on Feb. 25, 2015. “We are truly committed to helping raise critical funding to Schaeffer’s legal battle.”
Eberle wrote a check to “Free Schaeffer Cox” on Feb. 23, 2015, and all seemed to be going well. Mailings went out and Cox penned more fundraising letters from his prison cell in Marion, Illinois.
In an Oct. 5, 2015, draft included as an exhibit in the lawsuit, Cox wrote the prison had the nickname “Little Guantanamo” and the Obama administration had an “enemies list.”
“And since I was the main organizer of the 2nd Amendment lobby in Alaska and represented thousands of conservative voters, I had to go and they didn’t care how,” Cox wrote.
The fundraising letter echoed a defense Cox used at trial – that he was a loudmouth who stood up for gun rights, but not a danger.
A jury didn’t buy the attempt at papering over his extremist activities, convicting Cox of plotting to kill a judge and law enforcement officers, some of whom took part in the two-year investigation that led to his arrest.
Over the next five months, the trust deteriorated between Cox, the “Free Schaeffer Cox” board, Eberle and US Observer. Letters and emails in the court file indicate that Cox wanted more say over the board of “Alaskans for Liberty,” a push the board rejected.
One thing is clear: Cox became wary of the “Free Schaeffer Cox” board members by Feb. 11, 2016. That day, Cox sent an email to Ryan Mobly, a copywriter with Eberle known for handling conservative fundraising pitches and told him to stop the fundraising campaign.
“I’m just saying I’m not going to ask people to donate to ME when in reality I have no idea at all where the money is actually going,” Cox wrote. “That’s reasonable.”
Cali put a halt to the fundraising campaign a week later, telling Cox that if he couldn’t work out his difference with the board, the efforts would end.
In an email filled with biblical references on March 7, 2016, Rensel told Cox his accusations against the board were false and hurting the campaign to raise money for his legal fight.
“Perfect timing Schaeffer … right when the work is ready to pay off, you self-destruct,” Rensel wrote in an email signed by the other board members.
Emails in the court file show that Rensel and Cox stopped speaking, prompting US Observer to stop researching the case and Eberle to freeze the “Free Schaeffer Cox” account and hold the money.
“What a mess!” Cali wrote Cox on Dec. 21, 2016.
It is unclear what became of “Alaskans for Liberty,” which initially incorporated in 2012 in Wyoming, and the “Free Schaeffer Cox” movement they ran.
“Alaskans for Liberty” had an IRS non-profit designation as recently as 2017, but it is unclear what became of the money it raised under the “Free Schaeffer Cox” banner. Cox said in court records he didn’t get any of the funds. The group doesn’t have a website.
Rensel ran for lieutenant governor of Alaska on the Constitution Party’s ticket in 2014. The Southern Poverty Law Center lists the Constitution Party, which spews conspiracy theories and believes the government should be limited to “its Biblical foundation,” as an anti-government group.
Rensel’s Facebook page was last updated in 2015. She could not be reached for comment.
Since parting with “Alaskans for Liberty,” Cox has a new set of fundraisers known as “Schaeffer’s Angels.”
The group put together a website as well as an online petition calling for President Donald Trump to pardon Cox, a common move for anti-government groups. The White House closed the petition drive because it garnered only 56 signatures after being created on Aug. 9, 2018.
For now, Cox sits in a maximum-security prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, awaiting resentencing in his federal criminal case in Alaska.
Along with the suit against Rensel and the onetime board of “Free Schaeffer Cox,” he’s sued the confidential informant the government used in the criminal case.
That lawsuit, against William Fulton and Dallas-based Benbella Books, is pending in federal court.
Much like Cox’s criminal case, there’s no court date set in the lawsuit over the book.
Photo illustration by SPLC