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Alaska militia murder-plot defendants have trial date set

Jill Burke

It's been about four months since militia leader Schaeffer Cox and several of his associates were abruptly taken into custody. The state and federal governments say the group is dangerous: anti-government loyalists with access to firepower who have pledged to seek bloody justice against anyone -- including judges, law enforcement and family members -- that tries to force them to comply with the laws of the land.

On Friday, the judge overseeing the state court proceedings set a trial date of April 16, 2012. But by that time, Cox and the other defendants hope their high-profile, intense brush with the law will be nothing more than a bad memory.

"Your honor, we'd like to get this moving along considering Mr. Cox is innocent and he's sitting in jail," Robert John, Cox’s attorney, told Alaska Superior Court Judge David Stewart at a status hearing held at the state courthouse in Fairbanks.

Cox, the leader of the Alaska Peacemakers Militia and alleged ringleader of a shoot-to-kill plot against the justice system (in which he faced misdemeanor charges at the time), believes prosecutors screwed up when they took their case to a grand jury to obtain an indictment.

"The [motions to dismiss] accuse the prosecution of treating the grand jury like a high school class, handpicking a foreperson and failing to explain the burden of proof needed to return an indictment," reported the Fairbanks Daily News Miner when Cox first started filing paperwork to have a judge look at whether things had been done properly.

"The charges brought against him are bunk," according to Cox’s wife, Marti, who has been keeping in touch with supporters on a "Stand by Schaeffer Cox" Facebook page. A recent post "praying for a breakthrough" was followed by this prayer:

LORD, my God, show the wonder of Your great love, You who save by Your right hand those who take refuge in You from their foes. Keep Schaeffer Cox and our family, as well as the Barneys and Andersons and Vernons, as the apple of Your eye; hide us in the shadow of Your wings from the wicked who assail us.

Married couples Coleman and Rachel Barney and Lonnie and Karen Vernon are also charged, as is a chemist and mining engineer named Michael Anderson who was successful in getting a charge against him dropped. Prosecutors had alleged, based on the statements of a confidential source who reported hearing something about Anderson going to Cox’s house in 2010 to remove "illegal items," that Anderson had tampered with evidence. His defense attorneys said it was based on hearsay and should be tossed. Since prosecutors didn't object a judge agreed to dismiss the count.

Dubbed a computer guru who researched the home addresses of Cox's supposed "enemies," Anderson is also accused of being a part of Cox's alleged kidnapping and murder conspiracy.

Defense attorney Lori Bodwell says prosecutors are stretching reality. There's no proof Anderson had joined the militia or that he was in on the so-called murder plot, she said.

"Thoughts themselves are not evidence of a conspiracy," she told the judge.

Furthermore, the fact that Anderson may have used publicly available databases to pull up the addresses of certain figures -- including Alaska State Troopers that Cox thought were out to get him -- isn't a crime, particularly if Anderson had no ill motive when he did the research, Bodwell argued.

"There was no target on their back at the time the list was made," Bodwell said in court. "Cox just wanted to know where his enemies lived."

Court records show Anderson never gave the list to Cox or any other militia member and that he had grown increasingly leery of Cox. Anderson also wasn't found with illegal weapons, and faces none of the weapons charges that some of the other defendants, including Cox, are accused of.

The state is trying to imply Anderson's guilt simply by the fact that he knew Cox and sometimes went to Cox's gatherings, Bodwell said, an affiliation that itself isn't enough to prove conspiracy.

"You can sit around and talk about a lot of things and until you come to an agreement to do something illegal it's not a crime," she said. There's no proof it amounted to anything more than "people expressing their views which in this country they are allowed to do," she said.

Prosecutors countered that Anderson, they believe, was involved with Cox's group as early as August 2010, when it started meeting more frequently, amassing weapons and ultimately coming up with the murder schemes, according to prosecutor Gayle Garrigues. "I think the conspiracy began in the fall of 2010 and that's the evidence presented," she said.

Judge Stewart said it could be a few weeks before he came to any conclusions about whether the state has enough evidence to charge Anderson. Meanwhile, Anderson had hoped to be released on bail, a request Stewart turned down because he didn't believe the people Anderson had lined up to keep an eye on him -- his wife and his mother, who is temporarily visiting from Florida -- were good choices.

Rachel Barney, the wife of a "militia major" accused alongside Cox with the most severe crimes, has also been drawn into the court fight. She's accused of hiding Cox away at her home while Cox was on the run from misdemeanor state charges and during the height of his developing paranoia that authorities were coming for him.

Barney argues that the charge is trumped up and should be thrown out.

"We don't dispute that Mr. Cox lived at her house," Barney's attorney, Gary Stapp, told the court. "But it takes more than that to be guilty of a felony."

Stapp tried to convince Judge Stewart that as a gracious host who had welcomed Cox into her home, Barney was unaware of the scope of the trouble Cox had gotten himself into. Barney had to know that he was on the run, that police were looking for him, or do something active to block his prosecution, in order for her meet the criteria to be charged with harboring or concealing a fugitive.

State prosecutors dispute that interpretation. And they say it's ridiculous to think that Barney, who was present in her home for conversations both about obtaining silencers and about smuggling Cox out of state by way of a truck driver only referred to as "Hans Solo," could have been as uninformed about the bigger picture as Stapp would like the court to believe. 

Not only did Barney allow Cox to stay at her house for two and half weeks after she overhead the conversation about the silencers, but "the smuggling of the fugitive is [also] excellent circumstantial evidence," prosecutor Benjamin Seekins argued.

Just as with Anderson's push to have his charges dropped, Judge Stewart took Stapp's arguments to do the same in Barney's case under advisement.

Barney, who last month gave birth to her fifth child, is the sole defendant of six who are facing felony charges in the case to remain out of jail.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com