High Drama at Militia Sentencing
Today is the sentencing for the Salcha couple accused of conspiring to murder a judge and his family, and IRS agents as they anticipated seizure of their home due to a tax dispute. Lonnie Vernon is also being sentenced for his role in the “2-4-1 Militia trial” with co-defendants militia leader Schaeffer Cox, and militia Major Coleman Barney. Lonnie Vernon plead guilty of conspiring to murder the judge in exchange for the dismissal of many of the charges against him.
Of all the characters in this tale, Lonnie Vernon is the most volatile and angry, and Karen Vernon is the most sympathetic. It proves to be an interesting and eventful day, worthy of a scene in a Greek tragedy, or some epic Hollywood courtroom drama – one that is rated R for language.
I wait in the lobby of the courtroom for the doors to be unlocked. A man is there sitting outside on one of the wooden benches that ring the space, and he asks me if I know Karen Vernon. I say I don’t. I’m just here covering the trial. He tells me that the court system is like the movie The Matrix. He’s done legal research on many cases, and tells me I have no idea how bad the corruption is. We have no country, he says. It’s gone.
The courtroom opens, and almost as soon as Lonnie Vernon, clad in a yellow jumpsuit, is ushered in, and the handcuffs are off, he is vocal and agitated like a caged animal.
“How come I didn’t get my meeting with Karen?” he demanded of one of his attorneys. Karen Vernon, his wife, is due to be sentenced this afternoon for conspiracy to commit murder.
“You’ll have to ask the bench,” his counsel Richard Curtner replied with an “Oh no, here we go” undercurrent.
“That was supposed to happen two hours ago.”
“Lonnie, stop,” admonishes MJ Haden in an exasperated mom voice. The two have been visibly at odds with one another since the verdict, and according to some, even before then. The relationship is openly hostile now.
“Let me see if I can do that,” says Curtner, who appears to be taking the role formerly assigned to Haden.
Vernon continues berating him for several minutes. “I want people to hear this. These people need to know,” he waved his hand at the spectators. “You play this game. I want the people in this world to know what you don’t do. These people over there, I want a marshal to stand behind each and every one of them too.”
“These people” were the federal prosecutors Steven Skrocki, and Yvonne Lamoureux, and FBI Special Agent Sutherland who was the case manager. Vernon increasingly sounds like a man who has nothing to lose, and a lot to say.
The courtroom begins to fill up.
“This is going to take a while, this is no bullshit. I’m going to get two hours. I’m going to have the time I need.” Vernon is speaking to his attorney, but also into the microphone, very aware of those in the courtroom listening. His level of agitation makes his words sound like they’re escaping from him in fits, and not well thought out. He’s a stream of consciousness guy. I was reminded of all the audio tapes I’d heard at trial, recorded by FBI informant JR Olson, a criminal in his own right, who had taken a deal to infiltrate the Alaska Peacemakers Militia to escape prison himself. Vernon can definitely get on a roll, and I expect that’s what lies ahead, but I have no idea how much of one I’m about to see.
“Come back in half an hour and we’ll see what’s happening at that point,” instructs the clerk suddenly, as Vernon is suddenly recuffed and led out the back door of the courtroom.
The prosecuters pow-wowed, and filled each other in. “Two hours? Well, he’s got a right to speak. OK.”
All clear the courtroom except the Clerk, the Matrix guy, myself, and a couple others. The Matrix guy says to the air that “the guy in the yellow tie is a real slimeball.” He’s seen him before in action.
“Why are the flags ass-backwards up there,” he wonders aloud at the configuration behind the judge’s bench in which the Alaska flag is on our left, and the U.S. flag is on our right.
“Probably because they don’t know, and they don’t care,” his companion answers.
“In the governor’s office, the flag has a silver tip instead of a gold tip. This is federal so there’s a gold tip on top. These guys are really into their symbolism nonsense. They’re not doing themselves any favors.”
I expect some kind of commentary on the gold fringe on the flag, which to the defendants, and other members of the “sovereign citizens movement,” means that the flag is not really an American flag at all, and goes to show that the court system is a sham. But, the conversation turns, and then falls silent.
As the courtroom fills again, I realize that the aforementioned “guy in the yellow tie” is in fact Federal Prosecutor Steve Skrocki. There are about a dozen people here, and a half-dozen reporters.
Tim Dooley, attorney for Coleman Barney (the first of the three co-defendants in the 2-4-1 militia trial, sentenced in September) sits next to Schaeffer Cox’s new attorney Peter Camiel in the front row. Cox, who will be sentenced tomorrow, fired Nelson Traverso, the attorney who represented him during trial, shortly after the verdicts.
Finally, Vernon is escorted back to the courtroom after almost 45 minutes.
He holds a piece of paper, and asks Curtner to read it aloud. He declines in hushed tones. “Then I’m going to read it. Another ineffective counsel…” he snorts.
Judge Bryan takes his seat, and clarifies the determination of the sentencing guidelines.
“It seems we are in agreement that this is a level 39 offense with a criminal history category of 1. Are there any guidelines we need to resolve?”
Steve Skrocki brings up a “waiver of interest” about Karen Vernon’s attorney, Darrel Gardner, having worked somewhere before he was in the public defenders office. It is never made clear exactly where that was.
The judge asks Vernon if he discussed Dan Gardiner continuing to represent his wife. “Did you discuss this with your attorney?”
“They showed me a piece of paper.” His demeanor reminds me of Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club.
“Did you have any objections?”
“I have objections to just about everything about this!”
“What does that mean?” Bryan asked.
And thus, the pressure cooker opens with a burst.
“I want to know who these people are who have jurisdiction over me! Does the government have jurisdiction to put him over me?” Vernon points a finger at Steve Skrocki, red-faced. “We’re going to discuss that today,” he stated emphatically.
“I believe we resolved that before,” says Judge Bryan in a tone and manner that could have been telling a child a bedtime story. Apparently, it’s the same tone he uses with irate defendants. Which is part of the reason he’s a good judge.
“Nothing out of disrespect for you, Judge Bryan, but these people have done nothing for me,” Vernon says in an uncharacteristically deferential tone.
“My recollection is that we resolved this before.”
“That was under fraud.” He turns to Skrocki. “If you have no jurisdiction over me, then what does a piece of paper mean? It’s just a piece of paper!”
Curtner pipes up, although in a defeated sort of way. “I did meet with Mr. Vernon and explained what the waiver was about. He agreed to it at the time, but to be honest, he may not feel that way today.”
The rest of the exchanges are rapid fire – far too much, and far too fast to assure you of an accurate and complete transcription. The following is meant to give you an idea of the experience of sitting in the court, and the drama that ensues.
“I see a force of law, forced on my by an unknown entity. I reside in the state of Alaska, not in our government realm. I am sovereign!”
Vernon becomes focused on seeing the paperwork stating what exact jurisdiction the federal prosecutors have over him.
“I demand it right now. I want them pulled out, and who this clown is with his agency!” He points at Special Agent Sutherland. I want it pulled out and provided from you, and you too.” His finger moves from Lamoureux to Skrocki. “And I want to see your Oath 61. I want to be respectful to everybody but I’m fed up with all this nonsense!”
“All of us have our appropriate appointments…” the judge begins.
“Who do you hold your allegiance to? I want to know who these people hold their allegiance to! We owned that land,” he said, referring to the couple’s home that was under threat of seizure for unresolved tax issues. “They came upon us fraudulently, and used those clowns over there. I’m going to stay here and yell until I see it, or hear it! I don’t care about procedure and your ‘rule of law’ crap. This was thrown out of a state court because of illegitimate crap. My God-given rights better not be taken.”
State charges which were filed against Vernon and the others were eventually thrown out because Alaska law is more stringent about privacy rights, and methods of gathering evidence than federal law, and the audio and video was not admissible at the state level.
He goes on to rail about JR Olson, a drug smuggler, and habitual criminal whom the government had enlisted to infiltrate the militia and deliver audio tapes of the defendants’ plans. He called Olson a “$300,000 whore, drug-dealing piece of shit.” (OK, he kind of has a point). “Yeah, look at me Sutherland. Where does the jurisdiction come from?
“I demand due process. You’re throwing me in jail. You’re declaring war on my country. I was born a free man on the land, with all my sovereign rights invoked. I wrote it down and sent it to all of you, and your little whored out buddy (Eric) Holder, and Hillary Clinton.”
Didn’t expect that one.
Bryan decides to reign him in. “You’re ranting about a bunch of stuff that we’re not going to get into today.” (He had a point too.) But Vernon is not dissuaded.
“This court has no jurisdiction over me and my state.” He looks at Judge Bryan as though an epic dramatic moment has arrived. “You can turn into George Washington, or you can stay with these paid whores and take it down into the dirt. I am not surrendering to a goddam bunch of whores!”
“You’re ranting about a lot of things that you may believe…” says the judge, almost sympathetically.
“What corporation do you work for?” Vernon demands.
“I don’t work for any corporation.”
“The United States is a corporation!”
“You can call it what you want…”
“I’ m making a finding that this court has no jurisdiction over me,” Vernon declares as though it were true.
Bryan tries again. “You’re going to disrupt this proceeding to the point we can’t …”
“You have no authority. You people come here to stir up shit. You paid informants over $500,000 to screw citizens over. We are ‘We the People,’ not ‘We the Bullshit.’ You wanna sit here for two hours and I’ll read stuff to you, … from the Supreme Court. The whores that stuck me in these bullshit prisons. I’ve written about it.”
His speech is almost too fast to understand, nevermind type, and he makes references to specific incidents that weren’t clear to me, but may have been to others.
“You scumbag from wherever you’re from…” He points again at Skrocki. “You don’t exist in my world. Neither does the slanderous bitch sitting next to you!” indicating Lamoureux. “You better have a marshal behind you before this day is over.”
It is chilling, I have to say. It is like watching the anatomy of someone who takes a stressful situation, and turns it into a threat because they have no other way of handling it. Clearly, he cannot do anything to the prosecutors, but the threat is there nonetheless. And I wonder if the prosecutors imagined they’d be having a day quite like this.
He goes on about Judge Beistline, the judge who had handled their tax case, and whom he is convicted of plotting to murder.
The judge got things back on track, and said he was satisfied with the written waiver and was ready to proceed to sentencing. I’ve forgotten that the waiver is how this started, with so much going on.
The crimes for which he is convicted have a 262-327 month guideline range.
Vernon is staring daggers at Skrocki who is sitting between me and him, so I got the almost full-on stare. It is not pleasant.
“Nobody’s going to prove jurisdiction. This court doesn’t exist! I move to dismiss!”
I wasn’t sure if the one getting sentenced was allowed to move to dismiss, but the judge stated emphatically, “Motion denied.”
“No, it better not be,” said Vernon. “Where is the declaration of war on the state of Alaska from this United States?”
Both the prosecution and the defense tell the judge that they will rely on what was written in the sentencing memorandum to establish a sentence.
Now, Vernon has the right to speak. I can’t imagine what else he will say, but there is plenty.
“They played with me with their psychiatrists,” he says as he handed the piece of paper from earlier to his counsel. “I want him to read this. Read it please to the court.”
“We haven’t filed this,” replied Curtner.
“I don’t care. They’re all having a good time over here with their money,” he sneered at the prosecution table. Then he accused MJ Haden, the attorney that had represented him at trial of dishonoring him and lying. “Don’t look at me one-eyed like that, MJ. You better look at me straight.”
It occurs to me that this may be his last moment of being in control for a while. Then he refocused on the paper.
“Read it Rich, please. Show me you’re a man – that you are of this land. It says right there,” he pointed at the paper, “you are the one that instigated this. I want it said. Let’s get it out in the open. They did a test on me because they thought I was nuts. I’m pissed! You’ve taken my wife from me, my home from me, my family from me, and I don’t know who any of you are.”
He holds the paper in front of him, and reads a description of his psychological analysis, stating that disruption of dopamine can be caused by heavy metal poisoning “of the nature described” and could result in pain and aggravated mood, with increased aggression.
Heavy metal poisoning?
I learn later that Vernon had suffered from heavy metal poisoning, which was not covered by Alaska’s workers compensation laws. He had apparently suffered from this for a period of time, which was not specified, but which I assume would have coincided with the time period of the events. The document went on to indicate that past behavior was the best indication of future behavior after this condition is dealt with, and that “in the event that the heavy metal poisoning has been abated, it is my professional opinion that he is unlikely to pose a future threat to himself or others.” The letter was dated December 28, 2012.
“You people just got me pissed off and wound up,” he explained. “I’ve been with my wife for 34 years. You scripted up a story for Schaeffer Cox. You’re part of it, Lamoureux. You popped some slanderous thing about my wife. You are not on my good list, Lady. All you prosecutors are what you are. I’m not going to say the name because it’s vile and foul. You are no part of my country. You’re whoring out whatever they tell you. I’m not done. You can’t look at me? Yeah. I claim my sovereign rights. It’s done. I’ve been treated as a political prisoner. Is that what I am? Why am I being treated like that? You come upon me with your force of law, with deception and fraud. I saw this scripted up thing about the Vernons. You know who did that? This little son of a bitch Sutherland scripted up a story. That’s their little drama.”
He goes on to talk about a piece of evidence that he disputed, in the form of “two pieces of wire with tape and a clothespin. That crap came from Far North tactical, and Aaron Bennett! But did they bring it up? Hell no. They used it against me as another piece of fucking evidence.”
He pointed at the prosecutors. “You belong in the shitholes I’ve been in in the last 20 months, with the doors welded up.”
“This Beistline character has no jurisdiction over the last 4 years. Not once did they prove jurisdiction. I had evidence – they destroyed it.”
“You’re a bunch of perverts!” he went on, describing a cedar chest that belonged to his wife that the couple had in their bedroom. The chest was searched by the FBI when they raided the house. “You and your pervert faggot buddies put fuck magazines in the chest that had three generations of heirlooms in it!”
This was the most upset he’d been so far. Red-faced, he pointed at Sutherland. “Get him the hell out! I don’t want to look at him!”
“You don’t have to look at him,” said Bryan, utterly calm.
“My wife didn’t do nothing to no one, neither did I. This Beistline character has been doing this in Fairbanks since his judgeship. He rubber stamps shit, and it means nothing. All of a sudden they come up with piles of paper against Lonnie and Karen Vernon. They want to put people in jail – those Fast and Furious little bastards like Eric Holder.”
Not an Eric Holder fan.
Truly distraught, he says that the court may as well drag him outside and “put a bullet in the back of my head. These motherfuckerds here started on my wife and me. I’ve got people in this audience here that know that fact. This is coming from my heart because I am fed up! I drove a truck in this state for 22 years. My wife and I bothered no one. We tried to make a place for our home and our kids. We were going to have to be living together soon because of the worthless son of a bitch that’s ruined this country.”
He turned back to address the judge.
“If you disrespect me as a sovereign on this land, then you are no better than them. I haven’t seen any powers of attorney. I want you to arrest these people until they prove who they are. I have no proof of who you are on my land.
“I have the right to demand who they are. I have judgments coming on me for crap that they instigated. I’m not disrespecting you, don’t get me wrong.
“I am not getting sentenced for anything I am in. I didn’t do anything to anyone, and never wanted to hurt anyone. I’ve done nothing to nobody. Just because they have a scheme.
“I would park a Sherman tank to keep these bastards out of my yard to keep them away from my family.”
That one sentence sums up much of what put Lonnie Vernon in court on this day. Whether or not he would have made good, he said in a convincing enough way to the wrong people that anyone who tried to take his house, or his property wouldn’t survive, and he likely wouldn’t either. I remembered his voice from the surveillance tapes saying he’d rather go down in a firefight than rot in jail. Things didn’t work out that way.
“I want to see who you are!” The request that he had repeated over and over became almost like a mantra.
“This is not the time or the place. I’d like to know if there’s anything else you’d like to say about the sentencing,” said the infinitely patient judge in his infinitely patient voice.
“I am not part of your court.”
“I understand you feel that way.”
“Nobody ever answered me. You have to prove your jurisdiction in my state. I’m claiming fraud on this whole son of a bitch. It’s illegal. It’s a sick frickin’ bird is all it is . And that’s what you are – a bunch of sick frickin’ birds.”
“What I must do is determine sentence.”
“I want to see a declaration of war! I am not part of this fraud called the United States. I need to see your oath of affirmation. I don’t want to hear this 30-year rule, where we hide things from the people. Not in your United Nations, or whatever. Not Schaeffer Cox’s bullshit. I want to talk man to man with someone who knows his law.”
I hadn’t heard him lash out at Cox before, but nobody escaped his tirade.
Bryan tried one last time. “I’m telling you that this court has jurisdiction over you, and if you don’t agree, you can take it to a higher court.”
“How about a lower court? Does anyone object to an Article 3 court to start right now?” Vernon looked at the spectators. You could have heard a pin drop. He asked again.
“We’re not conducting a public poll,” Bryan stated flatly. “Mr. Vernon, your position is clear to me. You’re making it hard for me to conduct court here. The things that I must consider here, in doing my job, are the nature and circumstances of the offenses. Other than these events that you’re here over, you’ve been a good citizen right up to the point all these things occurred. This is your first criminal offense and I appreciate that. Other than these events, you’ve lived an exemplary life. I also have to consider the offenses charged, an I’ve considered these things.”
“It’s all fraud.”
“The nature of these offenses is most serious particularly the conspiracy,” Bryan goes on, plodding slowly ahead, pausing while interrupted, but moving steadily forward.
“It doesn’t matter what I say. There was no intent. There was just mouthing it. I popped it off wrong, and I have to apologize. I was pissed. I am born a free man on the land, under God. These son-of-a-whores over here jumped into my life for what – for money? I demand to know who they are before you move one step forward. There’s no victim, there’s no crime.”
“Substantial punishment is appropriate. The court must protect the public from repeat of this crime.”
“Dismiss please, dismiss please, dismiss please! I’m not listening!” Vernon looks almost pathetic – a child with his fingers in his ears going, “Lalalalalala!” It strikes me that he really does believe he’s done nothing wrong – that bluster is bluster, and a threat is alright as long as nothing violent happens. I don’t know that he thought much about the consequences to other people, or the fear he’d caused. He seems at that moment like a figure in a Greek tragedy – a man for whom the fatal flaw of feeling like nobody can tell him what to do, taken to the end of the road, has led him here. Urged forward by a charismatic ideologue, and a paid FBI informant, he threw himself in front of the train, and never realized he was the one driving it.
“I rule that 310 months is appropriate, with credit for time served. In addition to that, the law requires that you pay the special assessment, which in this case is $300. Other than that there is no fine.”
25 years, and 8 months. His attorney had asked for 10, and the prosecution had asked for 35.
“There’s no fine, there’s no crime,” Vernon said in a sing-song sort of a way. It sounded like his OJ trial moment.
After his incarceration, he’ll have five years supervised release. A 310 month sentence on one count, and a 60 month sentence on the other will be served concurrently. The judge went on to explain his rights of appeal, and the terms of supervised release.
“Do you understand?”
“I understand it’s a goddam lie, and all of you are not of my country. You are from somewhere else.”
“I’m sorry your life has come to this and I’m sorry…”
Vernon interrupted. “I’m sorry people like you run this country, like this son of a whore like this,” pointing at Sutherland. “People come here to get away from pieces of shit. You have no jurisdiction in my state – pieces of dog shit.”
“I hope you do easy time,” said Bryan kindly.
“You’re part of them so I have to disrespect you on that.” It seemed like up to this point, he really had tried to be deferential to the judge, reserving his contempt for the federal prosecutors, and the FBI.
“I don’t disrespect you, and I’m sorry your life has come to this.”
And with that, the remaining counts were dismissed, in accordance with his plea deal.
And the handcuffs zipped, and Lonnie Vernon was led out.
It takes a few minutes to recover from what just transpired. Lunch is eaten.
Karen Vernon is Sentenced
Next is the sentencing of Karen Vernon, and when I tell you that you could not have had a more completely opposite sentencing hearing, I really mean it.
Karen Vernon, as I’ve said before, reminds me of the librarian that does reading time with kids, or a nice old lady who works in a yarn store, or the awesome grandma who bakes snickerdoodles when you come over because she knows they’re your favorite. OK, yes. She hocked jewelry to buy grenades, but to say that seems violently out of character is an understatement.
The whole crew is back. Judge Bryan says he’s read everything filed in regard to sentencing and reviewed the plea agreement and the events of the trial.
“Ms. Vernon have you had the opportunity to read the report and pre-sentencing memo?”
A tiny, slow, sad voice answers, “Yes, Your Honor. Yes, we discussed it.”
The maximum sentence under the guidelines is 235 months.
The issue is raised again regarding a job Mr. Gardiner, Karen Vernon’s attorney, had since he first got involved with public defenders office. “The question was whether you objected to him continuing to represent you in this matter. Do you have any problem?”
“No I don’t.”
“You discussed with him – his employment – and are satisfied that’s not a conflict?”
“I hope it isn’t, and I assume so. That would be alright.” She looks meek, and sad.
Gardner says he sees no conflict.
The judge notes objections in the addendum to presentencing report, and that several things were, or will be stricken including an “inference that Vernon offered up the cabin.”
Yvonne Lamoureux presents the opinion of the prosecution, and starts with the reliance on a psychologist’s report which concludes that she poses no risk of violence to the community. She states that the psychologist did not have factual evidence about the case that was relevant, and did not know what Vernon had admitted.
“Those statements should have been taken into account in determining if she poses a danger to the community. Her own statements demonstrate the serious nature of offense – statements about killing federal officials. ‘We need to cure the lead deficiency’ of judges,’” – a reference to the good-bye letters to family and friends found in the Vernons’ truck.
“…examining grenades on March 10. ‘These will do the job,’ referring to grenades. These were not reviewed by the psychologist. Her actions demonstrate the seriousness of the offense, a plan in the works. There was a map to the Beistline residence with the route highlighted. She had given the informant a Post-it Note with information, talked about how they would murder family members. There were plans in the works that were interrupted when they were arrested.”
The prosecution concedes, “She worked hard, was a good member of society. Since she was incarcerated, she’s been a contributing member of the prison society.” Lamoureux goes on to say that taking all that into consideration warrants a sentence of at least 188 months, even given her history and her age.
Vernon’s attorney Darrel Gardner is next, and references numerous letters of support for her. Bryan says he’s read them, including material from the prison.
Gardener clarifies that it was not reflected in the written report, but he had summarized things for the psychologist. “He knew what she was charged with, and the general facts of the case.”
“The report is important,” he goes on. “Look at her as an individual – 5 decades of lack of criminal history. And the letters also indicate ‘the current case does appear to be a significant exception to her usual way of functioning.’” Her problems, the report said, were in part “functions of the dynamics of a long-term relationship with Lonnie Vernon. It’s clear from evidence that she was not a willing participant, and was assisting her husband to acquire grenades…”
He urges the court to “look at the dynamic.” She’s been married to Lonnie Vernon for 30 years. He talks about couples who are very different from one another. “You marry a personality, but end up living with a character.” He asks the court to imagine what living with Lonnie Vernon must have been like, for 30 years.
“She maintained that relationship, loved and was devoted to him. When you have a strong personality like Mr. Vernon, you join them, or leave them. She went along to the point where she willfully participated in making these plans. In her mind, she never thought this would actually happen. Lonnie Vernon had lots of weapons, a machine gun, as lots of people in Fairbanks, and the country do. Would she have gone through with it, or been involved at all except for Mr. Vernon?”
That is the question.
“Given her age and psychological assessment, a sentence substantially below the low end of the guidelines is appropriate. She should have the opportunity to live the latter part of her life without being in custody.”
Gardner recommends five years, and cites her support within the community, and the fact she could live with her sister. He mentions that Coleman Barney, one of the defendants in the militia trial sentenced by Bryan, had only received five years. He was not convicted of conspiracy, but she admitted responsibility. So, in his mind, the sentence should be similar. “It goes a long way of showing her acknowledgment this was serious error. The chances of anything like this happening in the future are practically nonexistent.”
Now it is Karen Vernon’s opportunity to address the court. Bryan asks if she had something to say.
“I wrote me some notes, because it was easier,” she practically whispers. “I would like to offer a sincere apology to this court and…” She falters, and begins trying to stifle a cry. “… anyone who may have felt my words or actions were meant to cause harm to anyone.” It is clearly a struggle for her to get it out. “I also apologize to my family and friends for the shame…” She has to stop to keep from sobbing. “… and embarrassment this has caused. And I mean that sir, I truly do.”
Judge Bryan looks like he believes that, and I think everyone in the courtroom does.
“Where is your mind regarding this whole income tax issue regarding Judge Beistline?” Bryan asks her.
“It’s out of his hands. They sent it to another judge. It went to the 9th circuit. I’m doing it the lawful way like I’d been doing all along. It’s up to them. I’m trying to do everything the lawful way.”
Bryan, looks at her, head in hand. He, like the rest of us, appears to be struggling with the schism between Vernon’s demeanor, and her husband’s – between who she appears to be, and what she has actually done.
“You can’t escape responsibility because it may have been your husband’s idea. Why didn’t you say no up front?”
“I did say no, and no, and no and no. Over and over. ‘Don’t say things. Don’t say things that are threatening, that someone else will think is threatening.’ I said no to the grenades. We can’t afford ‘em. We don’t need ‘em.”
She pauses for a moment in anguish, weighing the question, and composing herself.
“…and I just finally gave in. And when I’m with him sometimes my mouth overruns my thought process. That happens with a lot of people… or maybe it doesn’t. I didn’t want him to feel… The guy was offering him work, and I didn’t want to stand in the way, and cause him to say, ‘You lost me that job.’”
“Who was going to give him work?” asked Bryan.
“JR Olson.” Her voice gets dark as she spoke the name of the FBI informant her husband had just called “a $300,000 whore drug-dealing piece of shit.’ “The job was in logging. It was something we’d done before. And he was tickled to death to be out in the woods, even for a few months.”
“Your husband remains very angry. How do you feel about this court system and this whole thing?”
“I know I made a mistake in who I associated with. Not my husband – no! I love him. I don’t agree with what he says, and the way he says it, but I still try to get along. And I know there’s corruptness in the court – anyone who tries to deny it is blind. There’s corruptness in everything. I try to do things in the way that’s lawful, and I think the way some of this was done is wrong, but that’s my personal opinion. It isn’t something I can just make a change and do anything about. I think I still have the right to disagree with how some things are done.”
Judge Bryan seems satisfied, and is ready to come to his conclusions.
“Well, the law tells us to look at the nature of the offense and the history of the defendant and her characteristics. Let me talk about that latter thing for a minute. Before this all came up, Ms. Vernon was the salt of the earth. You couldn’t find a better person or a harder working person, as far as the case and the letters indicate. Since this happened the nature has come out with what she has done in the prison with the other inmates. It looks like what we have here is a good person who did a very bad thing. And that leads to the seriousness of this offense. This was a most serious offense, and it was a conspiracy that I’m afraid was well on the way to possible conclusion with horrible results. It may have been more your husband’s fault than yours, but that does not excuse you, and I guess in these days of women’s liberation, women are expected to speak with their own voice and not get dragged into things because of some guy, no matter how they feel about that guy.
“In light of her age, there should be some modification of the guidelines, but not much. This is a situation where there are a lot of people in the community who think this never should have happened – that is, the prosecution should never have happened. But these things are part of our law, and what we recognize as important to live in an ordered society, so we don’t hurt each other. This offense was serious.
“I’m not sure it’s of concern to deter Ms. Vernon from further offenses, but certainly any sentence should be sufficient to deter others form thinking they could somehow win by doing away with public officials whom they disagree with. Ms. Vernon is not likely to commit any further crimes, let alone a crime like this, …but the seriousness of this crime keeps coming back.
“When the smoke clears, a sentence of 12 years is sufficient. 12 years from when you were first arrested will get you to your mid-70s. I’m past that myself. There’s a lot of life to be led, even after such a lengthy sentence. I think it’s appropriate for the seriousness, but also considering all the other things in your life you’ve done so well.”
“Is it 12 years from when I was first arrested?” Vernon asks quietly, but with composure.
“10 less good time, and I think you’ll be able to use your prison service to be of service to others. We had Mr. Vernon in court this morning. He was very angry, and I guess you understand that. I told him that I was sorry that his life had come to this, and I’m sorry your life has come to this. I hope you do easy time, and that you continue to serve the other women in the prison system. You’re looking at a long hard time ahead, but it’s not the end, and it’s something you can live through and come through the other side, and be a better person than you were during this period of time.”
Everyone stands as the judge leaves the courtroom, and Vernon looks up at her attorney with big eyes, gives his hand a squeeze, and I could see her lips move in a “thank you.”
It was a day of extremes in personality, but both Vernons march forward into whatever the rest of their lives hold. They strike me each as people with a fatal flaw – his, a stubborn “you can’t tell me what to do” streak with a dash of heavy metals, and hers being a compliant small fish, trying to keep her life peaceful at the expense of good sense, and getting caught in a net larger than anything she could have imagined.
Militia founder Schaeffer Cox will face sentencing for conspiracy to commit murder, and a host of weapons charges tomorrow.