Feds Ask for 35 Years for Militia Leader
Federal prosecutors have asked that Judge Robert Bryan sentence convicted militia leader Schaeffer Cox of Fairbanks, to 35 years in prison. Cox, a 28-year old father of two who founded the Alaska Peacemakers Militia, would be 63 years old when released if prosecutors get their way. Unhappy with his representation during the trial, Cox fired his sometimes lackluster attorney, Nelson Traverso, soon after the conviction. His new Seattle-based attorney, Peter Camiel, has indicated that he will ask for a sentence of 10 years for his client. Cox has already served almost two years in prison since his arrest on March 11, 2011. Also arrested on that day were militia members Coleman Barney, and Lonnie and Karen Vernon, a couple from Salcha.
Cox, a charismatic ideologue and part of the “sovereign citizen” movement, was found guilty in June of a string of offenses, the most serious of which were conspiracy to commit murder, and solicitation to commit a crime of violence – the murder of an officer of the United States. In addition to weapons charges, the trial centered mostly on what has been dubbed the “2-4-1” conspiracy. The numeric name played on the words “two for one,” in which members of the militia planned to kidnap or kill two federal officials for every one militia member who was arrested or killed by authorities. Family members of officials were also targeted.
As a “sovereign citizen” Cox, had wrangled with the court system, and showed open hostility to federal workers from several agencies including the TSA and child protective services whom he believed to be planning to take his child from the home after a domestic violence charge.
Overblown comments by Cox at a militia convention in Montana, in which he claimed his militia had thousands of armed members, and said there would be “blood in the streets” of Fairbanks had prompted the investigation of Cox and his militia. Judge Robert Bryan characterized the group differently.
“I would say that there was no militia in this case, and I’m frankly a little tired of hearing about it. A militia is a body of citizens organized for military service. There is certainly a place for militias in this country, and perhaps for independent militias that are not regulated by the government. The second amendment starts, ‘A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State …,’ and maybe citizen militias are important for the security of the United States. This was not a well-regulated militia, and many withdrew and went their own way and left the small group of people who were talking big about many things, including crimes, but were not well organized, or trained, or anything of the kind.”
State charges against all of the accused were dismissed because the methods used for gathering evidence were not permissible by state law. But federal evidence gathering guidelines are more lenient, and many hours of audio and videotaped evidence was used by the prosecution throughout the trial.
In addition to the most serious charges, Cox was also found guilty of conspiracy to possess unregistered silencers and/or destructive devices, possession of unregistered destructive devices, possession of an unregistered silencer, possession of an unregistered machine gun, illegal possession of a machine gun, and making a silencer, and possession of unregistered destructive devices in the form of a hornet’s nest round (rubber pellets) in conjunction with a 37mm launcher.
A silencer, or “suppressor” is legal to own in the state of Alaska, as long as it is registered with an identification number, and a registration fee is paid. It is also legal to make a silencer, but there must be certain identifiers on the silencer itself, and it must be registered. Properly registered machine guns are also legal to own in the state. The hornet’s nest round and the 37mm launcher are legal to purchase and own separately, but possessing both items together is a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
Federal prosecutors called Cox a sociopath and a narcissist in the sentencing memorandum released this week, and say that he did not comprehend the danger and consequences of his actions. They also noted comments from Cox captured by FBI surveillance tape, including one of the most shocking statements heard at trial, referencing the families of his targets. “Well, I’m not going to target women and children, but I’m not opposed to killing them either, you know. I’m not against some, like, drastic, shocking things either, like, you know, mailing heads to people. I don’t want to gloat. Just make people suffer,” Cox was recorded saying.
Two government informants were used during the investigation. JR Olson, a drug smuggler, who also installed septic systems illegally (with devastating consequences to homeowners) was used to infiltrate the militia itself, in exchange for dismissal of charges against him. The other informant, Bill Fulton, set up a local retail business called Drop Zone, and engaged the militiamen in planning illegal weapons purchases. In addition, one militia member, Michael O. Anderson, who had ultimately backed out of the group voluntarily, and had attempted suicide while in jail, was brought in by the FBI as a witness for the prosecution to avoid charges against him for his part in the conspiracy. Anderson, who was assigned to research potential targets, was the author of a “hit list” which was mentioned frequently at trial, naming a federal official he planned to investigate for Cox.
The defense asserts that Cox (who testified for two full days in his own defense) was full of bluster, but only meant to defend himself and his family if attacked first. References to the deadly incident at Ruby Ridge were only sometimes allowed at trial, but were brought up more than once by the defense and its witnesses as an example of government overreach with deadly consequences. Camiel said that the sentencing recommendation from the prosecution was “out of line” considering that nobody had been hurt, and nothing had actually happened except talk.
Lonnie and Karen Vernon
In an intertwined case, federal prosecutors also recommend sentencing Cox’s fellow militia member Lonnie Vernon to 26 ½ years behind bars, and his wife Karen to 15 ½ years. Lonnie Vernon is asking for a sentence of 21 years, 10 months, and Karen Vernon is asking for five years. If the prosecution’s recommendation sticks, Lonnie Vernon will be 84 years old, and his wife will be 82 at the end of their sentences.
Lonnie Vernon was one of the three militia members, with Schaeffer Cox and Coleman Barney, who were tried and convicted over the summer on various weapons charges, and conspiracy to commit murder. Vernon and his wife Karen plead guilty, in a second case, of plotting to kill an IRS agent, and another federal official over a tax dispute which could have resulted in the seizure of the couple’s home in Salcha.
The Vernons had left stamped addressed “good-bye letters” in their vehicle, explaining to friends that if they were reading the letter, it would mean the Vernons had been killed, likely in a firefight with federal agents. The letters expressed that the couple hoped they didn’t die in vain, and that they would have tried to correct the “lead deficiency” of those who opposed them. The letter referred to the federal government as “the largest terrorist organization in the world,” and stated they’d go down in a firefight defending their home. “We will not freely give our home land or personal property to this coward nor will we lick their jackboots,” the letters said.
The third militia member in last summer’s trial, Coleman Barney, was the only one of the three not found guilty on conspiracy to commit murder, after the jury was unable to come to consensus. Barney was sentenced in September on weapons charges. The prosecution sought 10 years, and the defense asked for time already served. Ultimately, the small business owner and father of five was sentenced by Judge Robert Bryan to five years behind bars, including time already served.
Bryan was careful to explain that there were mitigating factors, which affected the standard sentencing guidelines used by the court to determine length of sentence. Some factors that could result in a longer sentence than the guidelines would indicate, are weapons or dangerous instrumentalities being used in commission of an offense, disruptions of government function, and endangering national security. Bases for going below the sentencing guidelines is criminal behavior that is considered to be out of character, and if the person had been an upstanding citizen before the crime.
During Barney’s sentencing, several references were made to Cox as the leader of the operation, and Barney simply being a “follower.” Leadership in a conspiracy is also considered grounds for a longer sentence.
Just as Schaeffer Cox, Barney had also been found guilty of the destructive device charge of possessing the hornet’s nest round and the 37 mm launcher. When sentencing Barney in September, Judge Bryan did comment on that specific weapons charge. “Although this was technically a destructive device, as destructive devices go it’s not a bad destructive device. It qualified as one, but it’s not the same as if it were a pipe bomb, or something more dangerous than a hornets nest round.”
“This could have been far more serious than it ended up being,” the judge concluded. “Mr. Barney was participating with a group trying to get weapons for purposes that were certainly not within what a polite society would expect. The dangers have been fully explained and discussed here, and there was real danger in this whole thing, and so the offenses are serious enough. The sentence should reflect the seriousness of the offense, promote respect for the law, and give just punishment… And there are other things the court must consider, and that’s to promote deterrence to Mr. Barney, and others who may be aware of what goes on in court.”
Lonnie and Karen Vernon are scheduled to be sentenced Monday, and Cox on Tuesday.