Vernons Plead Guilty to Conspiracy
Lonnie Vernon, 56, and Karen Vernon 66, a couple from Salcha, Alaska, wore matching yellow jumpsuits when they appeared in court to plead guilty to count 1 of an 8 count indictment, conspiring to murder federal officials – Judge Ralph Beistline, and IRS officer Janice Stowell. Beistline had ruled against the couple in a tax case in which Stowell was also involved.
Lonnie Vernon was one of three defendants, with Schaeffer Cox and Coleman Barney, in the recent 2-4-1 Fairbanks militia trial, where he was found guilty of conspiracy to commit murder of federal employees, and conspiracy to posses silencers and unregistered destructive devices.
These new charges spring from a separate series of incidents, which began in July of 2009 when the United States filed a civil tax case against the Vernons, alleging that they owed $118,000 in unpaid taxes to the IRS over the course of many years. The Vernons filed a counterclaim. Judge Beistline, who was assigned to the case, issued an order dismissing the counterclaim and warned the Vernons of a possible foreclosure sale of their property to satisfy the tax debt. The Vernons asserted that they were not citizens of the United States, but that claim was dismissed by Beistline as “frivolous.” At one point he even suggested they retain counsel for their own good.
By February of 2011, and continuing into March, charging documents say that the Vernons “did knowingly and intentionally combine, conspire, confederate and agree with each other to kill officials and employees of the United States…”
In exchange for a guilty plea by both Vernons to the conspiracy charge, the other seven counts will be dropped. Threatening murder of family member of a United States Judge.
Threatening murder of United States Judge.
Conspiracy to possess unregistered firearm and destructive device.
Possession of a silencer
Possession of an unregistered machine gun
Possession of machine gun
Silenced firearm used in furtherance of a crime of violence
Lonnie Vernon has also agreed to be sentenced to a term of imprisonment (which will serve as total imprisonment time for this charge, as well as those from the previous militia trial) from 262-327 months, followed by 5 years of supervised release. The U.S. also agrees not to prosecute the Vernons for any other related offense. The acceptance of the plea agreement for Lonnie Vernon was contingent upon his wife also pleading guilty to the first count. She has agreed to serve 188-235 months for her role.
The courtroom was sparsely populated, but there were several familiar faces in the room from the militia trial whose plot and characters were interwoven with these new charges and proceedings – Prosecutors Steve Skrocki and Yvonne Lamoureux, defense attorneys MJ Haden and associates for Lonnie Vernon, Special Agent Sutherland who was the FBI case manager, Lonnie Vernon, and of course Judge Robert Bryan back from Tacoma, Washington.
Lonnie Vernon, whom I’d gotten used to seeing in a light blue oxford shirt worn with one button open over a white t-shirt in the classic “you can’t make me wear a tie” style, came into the courtroom wearing yellow prison garb that resembled a surgeon’s scrubs. Next to him, instead of Schaeffer Cox and Coleman Barney, was a diminutive woman with shoulder length snow-white wavy hair, and round glasses. She looked like everyone’s grandma, only in handcuffs. It was Karen Vernon, Lonnie Vernon’s wife, and now co-defendant.
Lonnie took his usual seat on the left side of the courtroom, elevated on a dais. Today he seemed a little more bristly than he’d been before. His physiology was on high alert status. She, on the other hand, looked down a lot, and moved slowly and silently. If she had not been in yellow, you might have missed her.
“Let me explain about what we’re going to do here,” the familiar slow gravelly baritone of Judge Bryan said. “I have to take testimony from you if you want to plead guilty, and so you must be placed under oath. You still have the right to remain silent. You have the right to talk to your lawyers first if you have any questions. But do not give me any false answers.”
I cannot ever imagine anyone giving Judge Bryan false answers. I’m sure somebody has, but I know I wouldn’t. And if this whole judge thing doesn’t pan out, I think he ought to be that guy that talks people off the ledge. All he’d have to say is, “Why don’t you come inside?”
Suddenly, what I expected to be a fairly routine and uneventful series of events took a turn.
“Before we do this I’d like to have answers for some questions of clarification,” a voice called out. I realized I’d heard the voice on tape before, but seldom in the courtroom. It was Lonnie Vernon himself. The journalists in the room perked up their ears.
He started talking very rapidly with extreme agitation, sounding desperate, and breathless, as I’d heard him sound on the FBI tapes on one occasion. He talked about his deposition for “this so-called court system” and how Agent Sutherland and others had “taken all the records from our home.”
His outburst ended with one final plaintive question, “I want to know who has jurisdiction over Karen and Lonnie Vernon!”
“The United States of America does,” answered the judge, seemingly unfazed.
“Can you show me a contractual agreement that shows that?” asked Vernon with an air of ‘gotcha.’
“Then what are we doing here?”
The judge sighed. “Well, we can go through a long discussion about what you are doing here, but you are within the United States, and the prosecutor believed that you had committed criminal acts under the law, and so you were brought to court to answer for that.”
“Can I see this prosecutor’s written… writ of…” Vernon paused a long time trying to find the right words. He finally gave up and said, “I want to know who he is, and his power of attorney over me. If I’m accused, it’s for exercising my first amendment rights to the max and protecting my life, my wife and my property! I have been threatened, starved, deprived of my meds, I have been literally shit on by the department of corrections!”
I don’t know if he meant literally, but it sounded like he meant literally.
“My God, if I have to scream my lungs out for someone to hear me…These paid pretenders are no more than pretenders,” he burst out pointing at his defense attorneys. “I’ve sat here and played along so they wouldn’t take my wife!”
I’d been so wrapped up in Vernon’s outburst, that I hadn’t thought of his wife. I looked down to where she was sitting, in Coleman Barney’s old seat, and saw she’d turned around in her chair, with her hand out – palm facing her husband – and was talking softly but strongly. I saw her mouth the words, “Stop it.”
“I’m sorry Karen,” he said in sort of a “you know how I can get” kind of way.
The defense team looked like they were wearing invisible cement hats – hunched over, and slumped as if under a weight. You could tell they’d had one of those weeks – and it was only Monday.
“I understand how you feel about those things,” said Judge Bryan who was indeed intimately familiar with the beliefs of the sovereign citizen movement by this point. “Your questions indicate to me that you don’t understand how our legal system works in this country.”
In the previous trial, it had come out that Vernon, Cox and other militia members had altered their drivers licenses and signed papers stating they were “sovereign citizens,” and therefore free from the laws and the legal system of the United States, which they feel is illegitimate, and has become a corporate interest and no longer represents the country as it was intended to be.
The judge asked Lonnie Vernon if he was prepared to enter a plea.
“I’m going to enter ‘guilty,’ yes I am… on my first amendment rights, using all the way to the hilt!”
Lonnie Vernon then swore to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, “so help me God almighty, my father, my wife, and all the free men on this land!”
Karen Louise Vernon swore too, in a tiny little voice. “I do.”
Then came the usual slate of required questions, the spelling of the names for the record, establishing that they could both read and write English (she has a high school education, and he has one year of college), that both were not addicted to drugs or alcohol, or under the influence at that moment, that neither had been treated for mental illness…
You have each received a copy of the indictment and have had the opportunity to discuss charges and plea agreements with lawyers?
“Yes I did. I read ‘em over myself,” Vernon declared.
“You each anticipate pleading guilty to count one that charges you with conspiracy to murder federal officials. The government has agreed to dismiss the remaining charges against you, and agrees not to prosecute for any related in indictment.
“You both agreed that this is a so-called package deal, that the plea you give depends on the plea given by your spouse,” Judge Bryan moved through the paperwork item, by item.
“That was the way it was offered to us,” a defiant Lonnie Vernon stated flatly. You could tell that he’d taken this deal as the best option he had, but was none too pleased by it.
The judge then explained that the maximum statutory penalties for the crime to which they were about to plead guilty were life in prison, and an additional $250k fine.
Sitting back in the chair with his glasses slipped over the neck of his shirt, Vernon licked his lips and looked upward. His face involuntarily twitched, and he appeared to be choking up. Karen Vernon looked silently at the tabletop in front of her.
Bryan went on to explain that the couple would lose any right to own or possess firearms, vote, hold office, or serve on a jury.
“There are sentencing guidelines the court must consider.” Bryan continued through the paperwork. “The court must consider the offense and the offender. The court must consider you folks and your background and history and the offense.”
When the judge talked about the federal officials, Vernon said, “These would be the ones that have not proved their jurisdiction over us? We’ve asked for this for two years before this mess. Who are we to believe? Not the little worm on the end of the row over there,” he pointed at Agent Sutherland who sat at the prosecutors’ table, “and his friend from the east coast playing his fancy ass prosecutor crap.” Presumably, he was talking about Steve Skrocki. He continued his agitated outburst, and alluded to the fact that Agent Sutherland had appeared at his residence with another man and emptied a machine gun in order to intimidate him. It was hard to tell exactly what he was talking about, and he would change topics and not finish sentences. “Nobody brings anything forward! How the hell can we be thrown away as trash under the guise of the United States, or whoever you think you are?” The contempt was palpable.
“I can see you’re as honest as the day is long,” he said to the judge, and sounded somewhat sincere. “… and I’m trying to be too. Who has jurisdiction over me? Do I have a contract with the United States?!”
“None of us have contracts,” came the calm voice of Judge Bryan from the bench. “We’re all in this together. It’s part of being a citizen, or being in the country. You subject yourself to the jurisdiction of the country.”
“I thought we were born free men and women on the land, according to the Constitution!”
“That’s part of where a lot of people go wrong, because they think they don’t have to abide by the rules of the government. We have the same obligation as citizens, and we have to obey the law, and we have to pay taxes, and it’s the way the system works. And you can’t decide on your own.”
“I’m supposed to support a war machine that goes around the world slaughtering millions of people? That’s not who I and my wife are,” said Vernon. (I wasn’t expecting that one.)
“If you don’t like the way it’s going, that’s why we have an election system,” replied Bryan.
“My wife and I filled out paperwork to get out of this system two years ago,”said Vernon, referring to paperwork he had signed renouncing his citizenship and claiming sovereign citizen status which he and others believe exempt them from US law.
“But you’re still here,” said the judge.
And he continued on, explaining that legal counsel would continue to be available to him at public expense, that he had agreed to give up the right to appeal any conviction resulting from the plea and any sentence imposed within the terms of the plea agreement.
Haden and other two attorneys sitting to Vernon’s right were stoic.
The judge asked if they were prepared to do this, and if they understood the terms of the plea.
“It’s not fair but that’s what I’m going to do,” said Vernon.
“Yes, I do,” came the tiny whisper from Karen Vernon.
Throughout the question and answer period, Lonnie Vernon would lean back in his chair, lips pursed, and rolling his eyes. Then he’d lean forward into the microphone with mostly terse, clipped, answers.
Bryan remained patient, unflappable, and almost avuncular.
Karen Vernon sat quietly and sadly.
“Are you satisfied with the representation you have received?” the judge asked.
After a pause you could have driven a tank through, Lonnie Vernon answered yes.
“You cannot object if you sign this,” the judge reminded him.
With arms folded, he said in a tight voice, “Yup. Seems to be the game in this country.”
“You’re stuck with your plea once you make it. Do you understand that?”
“Yes, I understand.”
Now, he turned his attention to Karen Vernon.
“This is a global agreement, and if Mr. Vernon does not enter a plea of guilty, or if he tries to withdraw his plea prior to sentencing or does withdraw it, then the whole thing is off and the government can proceed to charge you on all charges,” he said, and Karen Vernon indicated that she understood.
“You are charged in count one with the conspiracy to murder federal officials. How do you plead?”
Karen Vernon paused for a moment, and then, voice quavering, she said, “I plead guilty, Your Honor.” If it was a movie, you’d watch her character and know that she was thinking to herself, “I didn’t expect my life to turn out like this.”
“Is the factual basis all true and correct?”
She took several minutes to read over the account in the documents which began with the Vernons’ tax problems in court and the ruling by Judge Beistline.
“Because of and in response to the above, L. Vernon and K. Vernon developed a plan and agreed to murder United States District Court Judge Ralph R. Beistline and IRS Revenue Officer Janice Stowell, while those officers and employees were engaged in and on account of the performance of their official duties. L. Vernon and K. Vernon joined together in this conspiracy knowing that the object of the conspiracy was to murder Judge Beistline and IRS Revenue Officer Stowell and intending to work together to help accomplish it.”
It went on to detail a meeting between the Vernons and confidential informant J.R. Olson in which Lonnie Vernon said he was going to use a silencer to kill Judge Beistline, that he knew where the Beistline family cabin was, and that he was going to kill the female IRS agent.
The Vernons met with Olson again and said they’d be interested in purchasing hand grenades, and offered to exchange Karen Vernon’s jewelry for them.
The next month, in March of 2011, the Vernons said they had the money for the silencer, and Lonnie Vernon indicated he was going to use it on Judge Beistline’s daughter and her children. He asked the informant for help in his plan to kill the Beistline family. Karen Vernon gave Olson a paper with two addresses on it for the Beistline residences, and showed him a map with highlighted routes showing how to get there. They discussed the logistics of the plan and said they needed to conduct more surveillance after they purchased the silencer.
Three days later, on March 10, 2011, the couple was arrested when the Vernons purchased and received a pistol equipped with a silencer, and two hand grenades (not knowing at the time that they were provided by the FBI and were inert.) They paid in cash, and Karen Vernon put the grenades in her purse. Both she and her husband were carrying loaded firearms during the transaction.
The factual basis concluded:
In the vehicle that the Vernons drove to the weapons transaction on March 10, 2011, the Vernons had the map with post-it notes of Beistline’s family’s addresses and the routes to these locations highlighted on the map. The Vernons also had in their vehicle numerous letters from the Vernons addressed to friends and family, explaining that if they are receiving the letter, it is because the Vernons are no longer living. The letters describe the Vernons’ long dispute with the IRS and how the Vernons pray that their deaths are not in vain. The letter concludes with “We will not FREELY GIVE our home, land and personal property to this tyrant, nor will we die cowards, licking their jack-boots. We did not go down without resistance and standing for our rights, the lead deficiency of those who came to take ours from us, was corrected as best we could.” The Vernons also had body armor two assault rifles, additional handguns and several hundred rounds of ammunition in the vehicle they drove to the weapons transaction.
L. Vernon and K. Vernon intended to use their firearms, silencer, and hand grenades to murder Judge Beistline and IRS Revenue Officer Janice Stowell in retaliation for and on account of the performance of their official duties as officers and employees of the United States.”
When Karen Vernon had finally finished reading, she answered, “Yes sir,” indicating that this would serve as her testimony.
“Are you asking now that I adopt the factual basis set forth in your plea agreement as your testimony in this case?”
Next was Lonnie Vernon. The judge began, “Your plea agreement is a little different and it’s my understanding that you’re agreeing that you be sentenced to a term of 262-327 months, followed by 5 years of supervised release. That’s part of your agreement?”
“That’s what they put down. I’m not up on the facts of all these limits, but it’s part of the agreement.”
“Your sentence in this case and the other case will be between 262-327 months in prison totally and you will be sentenced totally with both cases. Is that your agreement?”
“If that’s what’s in it, yes,” said a tight-lipped Vernon.
Judge Bryan went through the sections stating that he was giving up his right to appeal, and sentencing guidelines, and that it was a global agreement with his wife. Finally, the time came.
“You are charged in count 1 with conspiracy to murder federal officials. How do you plead?”
“Guilty to exercising my first amendment rights with no action.”
“Are you pleading guilty to the charges set forth in the indictment?”
Then the judge asked about the factual basis. “Is it true and correct?”
Lonnie Vernon’s factual basis was the same as his wife’s, which she had just read to herself in court moments before, with one exception. There was an additional section detailing a car trip he made from Fairbanks to Anchorage which was featured prominently in the militia trial from earlier in the summer. Vernon had accompanied informant J.R. Olson on a mission to obtain a silencer, and grenades from Bill Fulton, owner of the Drop Zone military surplus store. Unbeknownst to both Vernon, and Olson – Fulton, too, was an informant for the FBI.
During the long car ride, Vernon talked about having a “spot” for the silencer, referring to Judge Beistline. Vernon described his civil tax case, and said he was going to kill the female IRS agent (Janice Stowell), and the judge handling his case (Ralph Beistline). He also indicated he knew Beistline’s family, and that they had a cabin, and its location. He also indicated that he intended to kill Beistline’s wife and his children. He also described that he had designed his home as an ambush site for federal officers or employees who may come to take his house, and if they showed up, Vernon would be able to kill them.
When Bryan asked him if the factual basis was true and correct, Vernon looked almost startled. His eyebrows shot up, he gave a small huff, and looked at ceiling. Then, a pause, and a painfully cold and level answer.
“Yes, I believe it is.”
“It appears that both defendants are competent and capable of entering an informed plea,” said Judge Bryan. “There is a knowing and voluntary basis presented by the defendants which contains each of the essential elements of count one of the superseding indictment.”
And with that, the pleas were accepted – guilty of count one of the superceding indictment. Sentencing for the Vernons was scheduled for November.
And with that, the couple in yellow stood, and the familiar zipping metallic noise was heard as they were handcuffed and led out of the courtroom. I remembered hearing Lonnie Vernon on one of the FBI audio tapes, talking to his fellow militiamen about how he’d rather go in a shootout with federal agents than to lose his home, and spend the rest of his days in prison. I guess we don’t always get what we wish for.