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October 31, 2014

Militia Documentary Off Target?

There has been a little flurry in the news about an upcoming documentary in the works featuring Schaeffer Cox, and the Alaska Peacemakers Militia. The film about “Plan 241″ is spearheaded by filmmaker Joshua Ligouri, but any reporting on it so far has been brief and peripheral. Let’s take a closer look.

Here is the “sizzle reel” for the proposed film.

Schaeffer Cox

To some, Schaeffer Cox is a domestic terrorist, who conspired with members of his Alaska Peacemakers Militia to murder employees of the federal government including a judge, and amassed an arsenal of illegal weapons he’d use to foment bloody revolution in the streets of Fairbanks. He is a violent, mentally unstable criminal who is better in the hole than on the streets.

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To others, he is a visionary, a brave and outspoken idealist, father and family man, son of a preacher, persecuted and prosecuted by a government gone out of control, which no longer represents the will of the people, and is willing to destroy lives in order to keep dissent at bay. He is the voice of resistance, and the patriotism of our founders, who stood against tyranny at the risk of losing everything, including their lives.

After a trial spanning six weeks in the summer of 2012 in Anchorage, the 28-year old Cox was found guilty and sent to prison for 26 years on a host of weapons charges, and conspiracy to commit murder of federal employees. A Sergeant in Cox’s militia, Lonnie Vernon, received an identical sentence. A third militia member, Major Coleman Barney, an electrical contractor from Fairbanks was the only one of the three charged, not to be convicted on the conspiracy charge and was sentenced to five years in prison, including time served which was almost two years at that point.

Plan 241 – The Documentary

The “241 plan” the film references was so named because Cox and his associates had planned to retaliate against the government by killing two feds for every one of the militia that was killed, burning two houses for every house taken, kidnapping two people for every one of them arrested. Two for one = 2-4-1. No violence was committed, but evidence was gathered and the FBI, troopers, and Fairbanks police arrested the three, plus Vernon’s wife Karen during a staged illegal weapons sale facilitated by another militia member, JR Olson, who was actually a criminal informant for the FBI who had infiltrated the group.

Controversy blazed as the media, the blogosphere, the public, and ultimately the 12-member jury wrestled with issues of the grey areas of the first amendment. Conspiracy charges are notoriously squishy, difficult to prove, and subjective. When does “just talk” become more than “just talk?” When is a plan really a plan? And how do we judge how our government is handling cases like this? If they fail to respond to a perceived threat, it’s easy to say that someone wasn’t doing their job, the government is incompetent, innocent people were hurt unnecessarily, how could this have happened? If the government acts before an act of violence has taken place, are they being alarmists? Are they using their considerable force to silence citizens speech? Are they creating criminals and prosecuting thought crime on their way to becoming a police state?

These are all legitimate questions, that we as citizens have a right and a duty to ask. But the answers don’t come easily. Nothing is black and white.

During the investigation of the militia, the government also employed a non-criminal informant named Bill Fulton, an Army veteran who ran a military surplus store called The Drop Zone in Anchorage. Fulton’s reputation was notorious in the community, and while never a militia member himself, some of Fulton’s best customers were members of Alaska’s many militia groups, making him the perfect point of contact to pass along information the FBI was seeking. Fulton worked undercover for years, unbeknownst to his friends, business associates and even his family. It’s the stuff mini-series are made of.

Sovereign Citizens

Another group who call themselves “Sovereign Citizens,”  including Cox and his associates, were customers at The Drop Zone. The Sovereignty movement is mentioned in the clip.

Sovereigns believe that the United States has strayed so far from its original intent, it has become a corporate entity that treats citizens literally as a monetary commodity. They eschew all forms of government licenses – marriage, drivers’, birth, fishing and hunting – believing that to apply for and possess such documents enters you in to an implied consensual relationship with the tyrannical corporate entity. They believe that by renouncing their citizenship, using documents of their own making, using their own money and barter system, not using last names, and conducting legal affairs in a Common Law Court, that they are able to effectively “opt out” of the government and its laws. They choose to live inside the country, but outside the scope and limitations of its laws.

Sovereign Citizens are not necessarily members of militias, nor are militia members necessary sovereigns, nor are either of those groups necessarily associated with the Tea Party, but there is substantial overlap of all three groups.

Fulton had the trust of the collective militia community and while in Fairbanks met with Cox, and his #2 man Les Zerbe. He was there for a conservative fundraiser at the store of his friend Aaron Bennett, commander of his own militia, who is heavily featured in the clip wearing a black shirt revealing large tribal tattoos on his arms.

The Knife

A confrontation ensued which appears to be one of the center points of the new documentary. This incident was covered heavily at the trial, which I attended in June of 2012, and was a focus of the defense. So, I was fascinated to see it re-emerge, and to see how it will be portrayed in the film.

During the course of a gathering of militia leaders, including Cox, Zerbe, Bennett, and Fulton, there was an altercation. According to the prosecution, and ultimately the story which the jury believed was that Cox had divulged information to Fulton the night before, about intending to arrest and kill judges and law enforcement officers, which Fulton believed  might be imminent. At the meeting, Fulton attempted to delegitimize Cox’s authority, and erode his support with other militia members. During a verbal back and forth, Les Zerbe called Fulton’s loyalty into question making the undercover operative fear that his cover and reputation might be blown. In a show of Alpha male posturing, Fulton lunged at Zerbe who was on the other side of the cash register counter and said, according to Fulton himself, “If you ever question my integrity again, I will slit your fucking throat, and bleed you out at my feet, you son of a bitch.”

Well.

BillFultonDZ1

Bill Fulton, undercover FBI informant

The point of dispute, which is raised in the video, is whether Fulton wielded a knife when he said this. The following is from my coverage of the trial when Zerbe took the stand.

Nelson Traverso (Attorney for Schaeffer Cox): You just said he assaulted you?

Les Zerbe: By really raising his voice at me. And he was drinking about 10 beers, but I thought he was sane, and making believe he ws drinking it or something, and let me believe it was a setup. He approached me and came toward me with a weapon.

Traverso: What weapon?

Zerbe: I was looking in the man’s eyes to see how serious he was on harming me. I did not see the weapon although I was told it was a knife.

zerbe2-460x360

My eerily lifelike courtroom sketch of Les Zerbe evading questions from federal prosecutor Steve Skrocki in June of 2012.

Then, under cross-examination by federal prosecutor Steven Skrocki, Zerbe had this to say:

Skrocki: …you don’t know if Bill Fulton had a knife or not?

Zerbe: I looked in his eyes, like a pit bull. If a pit bull’s coming at you, you look in his eyes.

Skrocki: You didn’t get hurt.

Zerbe: It felt like I was.

Skrocki: You had a gun.

Zerbe: Yes.

Skrocki: A .45 in your coat pocket. You think he’s coming at you.

Zerbe: Yes.

Skrocki: Under oath you said you never saw a knife.

Zerbe: I didn’t see it clearly, but it was some kind of weapon. I just saw he had a weapon in one hand.

Skrocki: Now it’s in one hand? How do you know?

Zerbe: You usually carry your hand differently if you’re holding a weapon.

Skrocki: And you didn’t tell a trooper.

Zerbe: Nope.

Bill Fulton later testified that he did have a knife in his right hand, but stated that he held it in his pocket, and that he had controlled the situation as much possible to “make it look real.” He went on to state that he made sure to place Aaron Bennett between himself and Zerbe because, “I didn’t want to cut his throat.” Bennett did indeed hold Fulton back at the front of the counter, and Zerbe fled the store out a back door from behind the counter.

Given the testimonies of Zerbe and Fulton, I was surprised to see how the incident was portrayed in the 2-4-1 documentary’s “sizzle reel.” At 1:14, Aaron Bennett says of Fulton, “Bill pulled out a knife, grabs him, and puts it up to his throat and says, ‘If you say one more word, I’ll kill you. I’ll cut your throat.'”

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Whichever side of the larger issue you’re on, it’s pretty clear that if Fulton had “grabbed [Zerbe] and put a knife up to his throat,” the person whose throat the knife was up against would have known it was actually a knife. Bennett is a really great presence on film, and the “knife meets throat” version makes for a dramatic story, but based on what the person on the receiving end of the incident said under oath, it isn’t what happened. There’s no such thing as perjury in the movies, but this leads me to believe that the documentary may be entertaining, but neither the participants, nor (more importantly) the documentarians are particularly concerned with accuracy, which is a shame.

Coleman Barney

The second thing which struck me about the piece is the interview with the wife, and parents of Coleman Barney. Rachel Barney was pregnant with the couple’s fifth child when her house was raided by the FBI. Cox, who at the time was a fugitive from the law, had been staying at the Barney’s residence. She was home with the other children when agents stormed the house. It was understandably not a good day for the Barney family, and the lingering distress is evident. At trial, Barney was arguably the most sympathetic of the four convicted, and the judge received many letters from church friends, and business leaders in Fairbanks extolling his work ethic, family values, and good citizenry. In keeping with this assessment, Coleman Barney was the only one of the three charged with conspiracy to commit murder not to be found guilty. The jury deadlocked, and the government chose not to further press charges, probably feeling that Barney was the least dangerous of the three, and not a significant risk to society.

Barney’s attorney, Timothy Dooley, was the most effective of the defense attorneys, and strongly and consistently built his case on distancing Barney from Cox and Vernon. The farther his client was from the others in terms of physical proximity, ideology, communication, the better off he would be. When witnesses were called to the stand who didn’t even know Coleman Barney, Dooley would ask the same questions just to get the string of “no’s,” “Have you ever met Mr. Barney?” “Have you ever been in the same room with Mr. Barney?” “Have you ever even seen Mr. Barney?” Dooley from the beginning wanted the jury to think of Coleman Barney as the odd man out – not really part of what was going on with Cox and Vernon.

It’s possible the Barney family didn’t know how the sizzle reel would look, or how intimately their husband and son would be tied up with the man from whom his attorney tried so hard, and successfully to distance him.

There is No Smoking Gun

Another angle of the film appears to be the assertion that there was a murder conviction, but no victim. A quick clip from Mae Barney (Coleman’s mother) appears to imply this, and the final few seconds of the reel have a subtitle which reads, “There Was No Smoking Gun.” There was, in fact, nobody accused of murder. The most egregious charge was conspiracy to commit murder. So, the lack of a “smoking gun” or a murder victim is completely irrelevant to the charge. The issue is the existence of, or lack of existence of a plan, and conspirators.

It could certainly be argued by advocates for Cox, Barney and Vernon that a charge of conspiracy was not warranted in the first place. But to compare conspiracy apples to murdered oranges misses the mark, confuses the casual viewer, and won’t add anything to getting at the truth.

241b

The Government

The gist of the documentary is clear. The government makes stuff up. The government invents criminals. The government decides who will be guilty and makes them guilty. The government is bad.  Cox and Barney are completely innocent.

The truth, however, is not that simple, nor one-sided. The inclusion of at least one blatant falsehood takes the wind out of the sails of the accusation that government makes stuff up to suit their purposes. And while the loyalty of the Barney family is understandable, Barney actually got off a lot easier than Cox or Vernon, and was not convicted of murder as the clip leads one to believe. He was convicted only on weapons charges. Had he been convicted of conspiracy, he’d have gotten what Cox and Vernon did, 26 years instead of five.

The sentences also lead one to speculate what might have happened if Cox, Vernon, and Barney had taken the plea deals offered to them by federal prosecutors. It seems likely that Cox and Vernon may have fared better than they actually did. And perhaps Barney would have too. Surely whatever deal it was would still have amounted to a felony, and prohibited all three from owning firearms as a result. All three were held at the same facility in Fairbanks when the deals were made, and all three were apparently convinced they could beat the rap, and all declined to take the deal.

As a consequence the cases went to a jury trial, where 12 men and women plus alternates sat and listened to the trial for six weeks. There were hundreds of exhibits, and more than 70 witnesses called to the stand from both sides. The government did provide evidence, and they did prosecute, but they didn’t have control over what the jury decided. Barney, as I’ve stated, had a deadlocked jury on the conspiracy to commit murder charge. There were also charges of which the defendants were found not guilty. Cox himself testified for more than a full day. Barney testified on his own behalf as well, and it may have helped his case.

Off Target?

We will learn this coming Wednesday whether the documentary project will receive funding from The Blaze. If it does, we can expect an entertaining glimpse into the world of those who figured heavily into the trial. I know from experience that they are a fascinating bunch. But it’s unfortunate that the film has already strayed from what it might have been – an accurate portrayal of events as described by witnesses that matches up with testimony under oath, and a thoughtful discussion of the first, and second amendments, government accountability and responsibility, and where we agree to draw that line between keeping the public safe, and infringing on personal liberties. The story is interesting enough on a personal level, and a philosophical level, without having to obscure, or twist events. It doesn’t need spin. I fear the film will be entertaining, but an opportunity missed.

 

 

 

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Comments
24 Responses to “Militia Documentary Off Target?”
  1. mike from iowa says:

    Ms Pi-the reason we couldn’t find anything by this guy is his last name was mispelled. It is Ligairi.

    http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1810404/

  2. Krubozumo Nyankoye says:

    Dangerously deluded simpletons.

  3. Alaska Pi says:

    The sizzle dealie Pfwatted! as far as I am concerned

    Who is Joshua Ligouri? Credentials? Films made previously?

    A competition which will result in funding by The Blaze? Seriously?
    Doesn’t that alone call the veracity of the story into question?
    Claims of unfair convictions based on claims of people who don’t seem to understand the charges ?
    Mr Bennett?
    murder-US-marshalls-ones-from-Colorado-which-didn’t-exist?
    the only-people-they-ever-catch-they create? so-let’s-create- a -criminal?
    Pffft!
    Smoke and mirrors stuff which avoids some important facts with a bunch of rilly, rilly dramatic music to punctuate his striking personal presence?

    I’m irritated this project has gotten this far. Hope it flops before it goes any further.
    We don’t need this crap.
    Discussion of plenty of issues, yes. Canonizing Mr Cox – absolutely not!

    • JHypers says:

      According to the mid-stream sources, Ligouri is a filmmaker from the Lower 48, and from what I hear, he’s done a couple other documentaries, but no clue if that’s true or not.

      You are surprised by The Blaze competition? A story like this is right up Glenn Beck’s alley…and in my estimation, might be why some of these fuzzy stories surrounding the case are coming to light. Remember that the clip is a pitch to make a film – not the actual thing. So what we’ve seen here conceivably could end up being totally different from what ends up in the final cut. Deceptive? Sure.

      • Alaska Pi says:

        I searched for films/documentaries by Mr Ligouri and found none. While I am certainly not the world’s best searcher I am quite puzzled that, starting with the Newsminer, mention is made of his being a filmmaker but no credentials follow. I know we here in Alaska are quite forgiving of self-invented personal histories by everyday people but we generally do expect some real history of so-called professionals.
        Of course I’m not surprised by the Blaze dealie, neither the competition nor the appearance of this crap in it. The question is “Militia Documentary Off Target?” Well, yes it is and with the Blaze venue in mind there’s little chance of correction or veracity being imposed from within or without .
        Romanticizing anything about this mess torches my shorts. I feel sorry for some of the folks like the Barney family but am not impressed that they appear not to understand , at this late date, what the charges against Mr Barney even were.
        Whatever this ends up being it is headed in a very stoopid direction.

    • mike from iowa says:

      Ms Pi- have you seen this?- http://www.takepart.com/article/2013/04/22/reasons-denali-wolf-population-low

      8 year moratorium on even talking about reinstating buffer zone around Denali to protect wolves?

      • Alaska Pi says:

        Yes- it is a messy untidy deal there mikey. AKM has covered pieces of this. If you read the comments on your article , you will see a pro-trapper squatter dissing everyone and everything to do with trying to re-establish the buffer zone.
        Rather nasty piece of goods there and not an ambassador for the legitimate trappers who are still out there for sure.
        The reactionary BOG behavior of the last few years is making messes it will take a long time to clean up and, to my mind, damaging wildlife management here in general.

        • mike from iowa says:

          Is there anything in Alaska that rethugs and their appointments haven’t screwed up? Alaska is numero four in oil production,even behind California with all their taxes and regulations. I hope the day comes when we can have a pleasant conversation about the good new days instead of reminiscing about how bad your beautiful state was under rethuglican thumbs. :)

          • Alaska Pi says:

            I dunno- there is the ebb and flow dealie. It has been better at times in the past here and hopefully this last lo-these-many-years crap is reaching its sell-by or discard date..
            I miss our bipartisan Senate majority. they were a real brake on some important administration doofups.
            I think the thing which torches my shorts the very most is the cognitive dissonance with the strict-constitutionalist crowd and their rude sneering at real live Vic Fisher who helped write our state constitution and fought long and hard to get us admitted to the union. Makes me wonder what they’d have to say to Madison et al …

  4. Peg says:

    I laugh when Cox and his followers claim there was no victim. Having been on the receiving end of an assault, terror and harassment from these fine citizens I can assure you there are indeed victims. One doesn’t have to be physically violated in order to bear scars. Schaeffer is exactly where he should be. It’s just too bad others of his kind weren’t also rounded up. They can be assured though that I am a changed person and if they hold any inkling of harming me or mine again the battle will not be fought in court.

  5. mike from iowa says:

    Quite an article and thanks for your time and effort. Now let’s have an argument about the 2nd Amendment. Where in the Constitution are the word guns or gun ownership mentioned? Assault weapons aren’t mentioned anywhere either. I believe a person has a right to firearms,but …..

    • William Fulton says:

      Well mike the second amendment for one mentions Arms and historically that would mean everything from rifles to cannons.

      Attempting to simplify the argument does no one justice it is a very complex issue, with the guarantee of a right expressly dictated by the constitution. The supreme court ruled on the issue that the “right to bear arms was an individual right” in the Heller VS DC case. So the question of what is and isn’t in the constitution is mute.

      The larger discussion is if we need the second amendment at all and if not what type of arrangement would still provide for the common defense, while removing weapons from those who should not have them, and make sure that the government doesn’t hold a monopoly on deadly force. I am a huge fan of the swiss model but am certain it would never work here

      • mike from iowa says:

        Well said. I take exception to what is and isn’t in the Constitution is moot. Strict constructionists-those who literally interpret the Constitution claim if a right is not enumerated in the first 10 amendments,that right does not exist. They use this to claim abortion is unconstitutional. But then they also claim there is no establishment clause. For the sake of argument I go back to not finding the word guns anywhere. I don’t claim any insight to what the Founding Fathers figured the word arms meant or means. A literal interpretation “could” mean the two appendages most humans have at birth. Established precedent doesn’t appear to mean much,depending on the make up of federal and Supreme Courts. I will agree this nation needs civil dicussions about guns and who can have them and we don’t or can’t have these discussions with the two major parties so far apart on everything.

        • William Fulton says:

          Mike

          I wish it was just the two major parties, but they sadly are just a reflection of us. We as a country have become polarized, most of the ideas regurgitated by folks are learned by watching sound bites of whatever media we watch that seems to agree with our point of view. Honest debate is long dead and unbiased reporting is almost unheard of. The self inflicted ignorance of most people when it comes down to their beliefs is disgusting.

          We are slowly segregating ourselves into red states/blue states and this does nothing but harden our resolve on whatever position we’ve taken because we surround ourselves with like-minded people who tell us we are correct.

          Our nation desperately needs a civil and honest discussion not just about guns but everything, from the role of government, to our military actions, human rights, privacy,….we need to have a sit down. But it will not happen because solutions do not generate votes only fear. Left or right they both use fear to motivate there voting blocks and its wrong. We are a declining civilization and I have a bad feeling that by the time people wake up it will be to late. I love my country but America with all its promise and all its potential is slowly committing suicide and “We the People” that created her are the very force that is destroying her.

        • JHypers says:

          mike…I quote directly, Amendment IX to the Constitution…in my opinion the most critical of all, but rarely if ever mentioned:

          “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

          This was a rather important discussion in the early years of the Republic, regarding a specific list of rights to be protected. “What about those not listed?” was the argument against a Bill of Rights…and the Ninth Amendment resulted. This amendment not only serves to recognize non-enumerated rights, but specifically mentions who retains them: the people. “The People” are individuals, not a collective body that serves to deny individuals. This was a common argument against the 2nd Amendment prior to DC v. Heller, but is not limited to such examples related to firearms. Thinking logically, the people are what created this constitution for a federal government, so they cannot be one and the same. In short, society is separate from government.

          Strict construction goes far beyond the Bill of RIghts…in fact most arguments related to such an issue surround the primary articles of the Constitution, one of the more critical ones being Article I, Section 8, as this specifically lists what Congress is expressly authorized to do….which leads me to a very critical point about the concept of limited government.

          Strict construction positions, primarily, served as a means of preventing government from doing something because it was not written in the Constitution. By your definition, which in a contemporary sense seems plausible, The People are limited in what they can or cannot do based on what is in the Constution. The problem with that arrangement, is it contradicts the entire premise of the Constitution, which was the establishment of a governing system given specific authorizations, along with both general and specifically enumerated limitations.

          I return to the word ‘retained’ in Amendment IX. The people retain their rights, because it was a general acceptance at the time that people’s rights were inherently inalienable. I seriously question whether most people still agree with this conceptual definition of rights, regardless of political affiliation.

          Understanding the Ninth Amendment as it is written should be a critical component of strict constructionist thought, but I don’t think it’s even considered.

      • Lol... says:

        Well why not include a clip of ol Todd Palin who IS a part of that or some kind of Alaska Militia…

        Sounds like the makings for a “The Frozen Ground 2″ – starring Todd Palin – the plane the prostitutes…smirk…so will Dave Parker play the cop? lol…and what is his occupation again? lol…

        • Dontcha No says:

          oh he got appointed to make sure they hire judges to strike down cases that should be won!
          Dontcha know…

        • William Fulton says:

          Todd is not in a Militia

          I should know……. he was on the other hand in the AIP a libertarian leaning secessionist based political party that has been around for about 30 years in Alaska. What should be pointed out here is not all AIP are Militia Members, not all militia members are tea party, etc etc that’s not to say that most of them aren’t insane just that being part of one group of idiots does not necessarily dictate you are a member of the other.

  6. Zyxomma says:

    Jeanne, I followed your coverage of the trial, and am looking forward to your review of the movie. I seriously doubt I’ll ever see it, however. I’ve got better things to do.

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