Five days after members of an Interior Alaska militia group were arrested in connection with plots to kill Alaska State Troopers, judges and others, Anchorage businessman William Fulton -- a man once identified as the "supply sergeant" for the Alaska Citizens Militia -- went missing. He has not been seen since.
Fulton was the owner of Drop Zone, a military surplus store on Spenard Road. He gained some notoriety during the 2010 U.S. Senate race when, acting as security for failed candidate Joe Miller, he handcuffed and detained Alaska Dispatch editor Tony Hopfinger at a public meeting.
On March 15, a Drop Zone employee arrived at work to find Anchorage attorney Wayne Anthony Ross waiting for him in the parking lot. Ross had documents, signed by Fulton, handing over the shop with all its debts and assets to the employee.
The militia's email lists, websites and Internet chat groups where Fulton was an active participant under the names "Drop Zone Bill," "DZ" and "Bob Bob" started buzzing. "Anybody know what happened to DZ?" queried a poster named ironartist.
Others began to theorize that Fulton had gone underground to ready a “safe room” for the “fallout that could possibly be coming.”
"He just dropped off the map,'' said Norm Olson of Nikiski, head of the Alaska Citizens Militia, in a recent interview. "I have no idea what happened to him. I couldn't figure out why Bill had gone underground.''
Now, as more details emerge as to the arrests of six Fairbanks-area militia members, including references in criminal indictments to unnamed militia members who appear to have helped state and federal authorities, some are beginning to wonder whether Fulton is connected to the investigation.
"That would be a good question to ask and a good question to get answered," said Ross, who also holds a power of attorney signed by Fulton giving him control of the two houses Fulton owns in Anchorage.
"You're not just off on a folly of your own here," said Ross, a well-known defense attorney and Alaska's attorney general for the briefest of periods.
Ross will say little else about his client's mysterious and sudden disappearance. He did say he'd heard the rumors that Fulton is either wanted by authorities in connection with the Fairbanks case or that he is being protected as a witness.
"If that was true,'' Ross said, "that would answer the question as to why he disappeared. I think the FBI would be the one to answer.''
Anyone involved as a federal undercover operative monitoring Alaska militias -- or even suspected of being an informant -- might do well to disappear, Ross further suggested.
There are no charges pending against Fulton, according to both FBI spokesman Eric Gonzales in Anchorage and Lt. Dave Parker of the Anchorage Police Department.
As to questions about witness protection, Gonzales said, "if he were (there), we wouldn't be allowed to comment on that.''
Fulton, who had shut down his security agency in December and was just operating the surplus store, did not respond to e-mails sent to two accounts he's used in the fairly recent past to send notes and comments to Alaska Dispatch. Those e-mails also did not bounce back as undeliverable.
But Fulton's ties to several state militia groups and Fairbanks militia leader Schaeffer Cox are evident in the Internet chatter going back months. While there is no evidence publicly linking Fulton to a role in the state and federal cases currently playing out against Cox and his militia associates, Fulton appears to have been well aware that Cox was headed for serious trouble for some time. A web-based forum hosted by Google for the Alaska Citizens Militia chronicles some of the discussions Fulton and others have had regarding Cox’s escalating brushes with the justice system.
Cox, Lonnie Vernon and his wife Karen Vernon, Coleman Barney and his wife Rachel Barney, and Michael Anderson face various state and federal charges in connection with an alleged conspiracy that included plotting to kill judges, an IRS agent and Alaska State Troopers. The group allegedly amassed a large weapons cache that contained automatic weapons, silencers and hand grenades, all of which are illegal, and numerous other high-powered weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition.
All but Rachel Barney were arrested on March 10 -- five days before Wayne Anthony Ross showed up at the Drop Zone parking lot. Cox, Coleman Barney and the Vernons are being held without bail after initial hearings on Monday.
Attorneys for Schaeffer Cox and Lonnie Vernon did not returns calls for comment for this story. No attorney was listed in court paperwork for Michael Anderson, who is charged in a separate complaint as having provided surveillance and helping identify targets.
Karen Vernon was appointed an attorney by the court on Monday morning. Darrel Gardner, the Anchorage attorney who received the case, said Monday he had not yet met his client and had not received any of the paperwork.
Jason Gazewood, a Fairbanks attorney representing Coleman Barney, said Monday he anticipated receiving more information on the case by April 1. "These charges are real serious," he said, adding that he has not seen the governments' information on how they built the case or the details supporting his client's alleged involvement. He anticipates there will be hundreds of hours of tapes and surveillance recordings leading up to the arrests.
Gazewood did not know who the Anchorage weapons source referred to in the indictment is and was not sure at what point the government would reveal the name. A former prosecutor himself, he said it's not uncommon for the informant to be revealed at the last minute before a case goes to trial.
The case against the militia unfolds
Indictments and complaints filed in federal and state courts give a relatively detailed account of the governments' cases against the defendants, including when and how prosecutors believe the alleged murder plots and other elements of the suggested conspiracies came together. Investigators recorded meetings at militia members homes and other places, and relied on information from others who have not been named or charged, including an Anchorage person who was used by the group to secure weapons.
Fulton has said his Drop Zone military surplus shop does sell parts for weapons. And in interviews last year with Alaska Dispatch he said he sold all kinds of military gear and equipment that was legally available.
Schaeffer Cox began circulating in political circles about five years ago and ran for the Legislature in 2008, becoming well-known in the Fairbanks area. He was seen as a rising young member of the Republican Party at the annual convention in 2008, where people remember him making a number of speeches.
Cox founded the Second Amendment Task Force in 2009, and since at least January 2010, according to the court records, has been actively involved in a number of militia groups including the Second Amendment Task Force, the Liberty Bell Network, the Alaska Assembly Post and the Alaska Peacemakers Militia.
He ran into trouble with police in March last year when he was arrested for assaulting his wife after the couple got into an argument while driving to Anchorage from Fairbanks. Then, later that month, he ran afoul of law enforcement again. It's that case -- a weapons charge -- that appears to have led directly to the alleged conspiracy and murder plot.
It was a year ago -- on March 18, 2010 -- when Cox showed up at a home where police were serving a search warrant after the Liberty Bell Network sent out a text alert that an "unauthorized search" was underway. Cox, wearing a bulletproof vest and armed with a knife and a handgun, was standing outside the home taking notes. He was confronted by police when he headed toward the home and charged with a misdemeanor weapons violation for not notifying officers that he was carrying a concealed weapon. The case was finally supposed to go to trial on Feb. 14 but Cox failed to show up in court.
Cox found sympathetic listeners in the Vernons, who had their own troubles with the federal government. Lonnie and Karen Vernon had been called into federal court in July 2009 for allegedly failing to pay $118,000 in taxes over several years. The case was randomly assigned to Judge Ralph Beistline.
The Vernons, who acted as their own attorney, filed a counterclaim against the government and Beistline dismissed it, warning them they could lose their home in Salcha in a foreclosure sale to satisfy the debt. The case progressed, with most court orders going against the Vernons, and the couple was ordered to respond to the government's motion for summary judgment by March 7.
By that time, according to court records, Cox and his militia comrades were already on a path to "take up arms against the government." Cox was intent on resisting the weapons charge while the tax case against the Vernons was fast coming to what appeared to be an unfavorable end. Staunch militia supporters agreed to help, convinced that the governments were an illegitimate authority and that the Constitution required resistance by all means necessary.
What they didn’t know was that law enforcement authorities were already watching them, and surreptitiously recording many of their gatherings and meetings.
'Dead in one night'
In October, Cox and the others "began amassing multiple caches of assault rifles and prohibited explosive devices" according to a state criminal complaint. In mid-December Cox warned a judicial services officer that his group knew where all the troopers lived. "We have you outmanned and outgunned and could probably have you all dead in one night," the complaint alleges he said that day.
Over the next few months, Cox met regularly with "command staff" of the Alaska Peacemakers Militia, including the Vernons and Coleman Barney, to plan how they would respond to any effort to arrest Cox once it became clear he wasn't showing up for trial.
The Vernons, according to federal indictments, were threatening to kill federal Judge Beistline, his wife, two daughters, his brother and an IRS agent.
On Feb. 4, Cox sent Lonnie Vernon and another member to Anchorage to pick up some hand grenades and C-4 explosive. Vernon and the other person spent a couple days in Anchorage, meeting with potential weapons suppliers. Vernon was seeking an illegal silencer.
That was the same time that an “Alaska Militia Summit” was held at the Millennium Hotel in Anchorage. The agenda included ways to “build cohesiveness and solidarity” and Fulton, who was listed as a commander, was scheduled to give a presentation on “how to deal with the media.” He was also an organizer of the event according to a flier.
At the same meeting, Cox, also listed as a commander, was scheduled to discuss organizing and recruitment.
Just days later, back in Fairbanks, Cox unveiled his "241" - or "two for one" -- plan which called for militia to react with twice the force that authorities had used in what he considered to be "a war."
"If he was arrested, two state targets would be 'arrested' (kidnapped)," according to the state complaint. "If he was killed, two state targets would be killed. If his house was taken, two state target houses would be burned."
Judges and Alaska State Troopers would be specifically targeted since it would be their actions that resulted in Cox's arrest or worse. The supporters were supposed to watch Cox's Twitter feed where he would instruct them how and when to initiate the 241 plan.
With the Feb. 14 court date approaching, Cox filed a number of motions in Fairbanks District Court asking that his case be dismissed. He contended he was a "sovereign citizen" and not subject to court jurisdiction. When his case was not dismissed, Cox told police that he wouldn’t be showing up for the trial.
Feb. 14 arrived and Cox, as he'd promised, did not show. A warrant was issued for his arrest and more charges were filed.
But the meetings continued, according to the court records, and law enforcement continued to record the group's discussion. On Feb. 19, the militia command staff -- Cox, the Vernons, Coleman Barney and other militia members -- met at Barney's house, where Lonnie Vernon apparently tore into Cox for poor planning and told the young militia leader he could no longer stay at the Vernons' home. Cox and his wife, wearing bulletproof vests, collected their belongings from the Vernons and, armed with assault rifles, returned to the Barney residence where they remained in hiding. Rachel Barney, Coleman's wife, has been charged with helping hide Cox.
Growing concerns in the militia community
About the same time, the broader militia community was beginning to worry about Cox and what would happen because of his refusal to address the weapons charge. Fulton was one of the most outspoken about what appeared to be transpiring within the movement.
“I for one will not be throwing my life away because Schaeffer can’t keep his mouth shut. I will be ready if an unprovoked attack comes at any one of you but Schaeffer purposefully messed with the Bull (as my dad (used) to say) and is probably going to end up with the horns, pretty much due to his own stupidity,” Fulton wrote using the handle “bob bob” in a Feb. 19 post.
That "stupidity," Fulton believed, was Cox's failure to appear on the misdemeanor weapons charge, and his public threats to troopers and others that he could "outgun and outman them."
The situation, he thought, was escalating needlessly.
“I like Schaeffer, I believe in a lot of what he stands for (not all but a lot). I will support him to a point, but I will not leave my family fatherless because he likes to poke rattlesnakes,” Fulton wrote.
In the same post, Fulton alludes to having to mediate a similar situation with Cox last summer. “Most of you are unaware that this almost happened last summer too and was (diffused) by quite a few of us,” he explained.
By Feb. 23, Cox's weapons collection included a .30 caliber machine gun, a fully automatic assault rifle, multiple pineapple grenades, a grenade launcher, dozens of assault rifles and pistols and thousands of rounds of ammunition. According to federal indictments, members of the group had continually discussed a "weapons cache" and at one point took grenades and assorted other weapons from it. Some of the weapons were stored in a utility trailer on Barney's property.
On March 10, the same day the Vernons and Cox and Coleman Barney allegedly bought even more weapons, FBI agents, state troopers and Fairbanks police finally closed in, taking them into custody along with Michael Anderson. Rachel Barney was charged this week and has been summoned to appear in court.
The arrests spark fear and anger
On the day of the arrests, word quickly spread among the militia's online community. Members warned that police were also “going after” Cox’s followers and that it was “time to hunker down.”
Soon, people were ready to come to Cox’s aid, raising money for him and his family and, fearing for the way he might be treated while in custody, asked for help organizing people to keep close tabs on the proceedings and on where Cox may be being held.
On March 12 -- two days after the Fairbanks arrests -- another militia member, Ray Southwell, commented that while he “would not kill” for Cox, he “would take his position in jail if he could be freed and returned to his family.”
Other posts from the group's members offered theories about how Cox became so entangled. They suspected a government informant, someone who might instigate a situation or conversation that could be used as a basis for criminal charges.
"Schaeffer was under enormous strain. He was on the run, and exiled, and in hiding. The burden on him involved his wife and children. He was weary and subject to suggestion," wrote Norm Olson, the founder of the Alaska Citizens Militia, in a post dated March 12.
In the long musing, Olson also addressed surprising revelations, found in the court documents, that "someone was recording conversations."
“Ah, 'up jumps the devil!!' in this whole affair,” he wrote. “Once you find out who did the recording, you’ll know who controlled the discussion and controlled the shots.”
Olson likens the involvement of informants to other high-profile militia cases, like the Hutaree of Michigan, the Freeman of Montana and Randy Weaver of Idaho.
Fairbanks police and Alaska State Troopers were willing to wait patiently to arrest Cox on the failure to appear charges, Olson theorized, until “Someone started talking about things that would bring in the federalees. And someone was recording the loose talk.”
If Fulton had anything to do with the “loose talk” or the surreptitious recordings, it appears it is not something that would have gone over well among his militia brethren.
“Some SOB started talking trash and some other SOB pushed a button and a bunch of SOB’s in big black SUVs came oozing into Fairbanks,” Olson wrote.
In discussing the Cox situation, Olson went on to offer a warning. “In every case, and more which I have witnesses throughout the years, the loose talk and threats and the discussion of ‘plans’ eventually led to the downfall of that group. Remember always that ‘The Third Man IS Listening.'”
By March 14, group members began wondering what had happened to Fulton. One poster commented that the last time he had seen “DZ” -- short for Drop Zone Bill -- Fulton was at the Feb. 4 militia meeting in Anchorage. “He was wearing a bullet proof vest because of something he said was posted on CNN, taken out of context,” he wrote.
He also noted that Fulton’s phone number didn’t seem to be working. “Will someone go check on him?”
Another poster commented that he had emailed Fulton about acquiring tents for an upcoming “rendezvous,” but had never heard back.
A day later, on March 15, posters began to theorize that Fulton had gone into hiding, worried that bigger trouble was looming.
By that evening, another poster let the group know that Fulton had been last seen the previous Monday, the same day he signed over his store to an employee and his homes to an attorney.
“He has not been heard from since,” the poster wrote. “I assume he bugged out to a safer climate due to the number of threats he has received. He had to have received a credible threat just to vanish.”
Hours later, just after midnight, Olson encouraged his followers to maintain their resolve. “Be steady… Don’t let them scare you. Show your strength by refusing to run,” he wrote.
Fulton's sudden departure troubles his friends
In an interview last week, Olson continued to puzzle over what has happened to Fulton. He does not, however, believe anyone involved with the militias is after him.
He's also not convinced Fulton is the mole that militia members feel certain betrayed Cox and the others. The feds, Olson believes, regularly use disinformation to try to undermine militia groups across the country.
"It's all speculation,'' he said. "It tears apart the fabric of our solidarity. I believe this is all a setup. I know Schaeffer. He's a gentle man.''
The new owner of Drop Zone says he is "freaked out'' by Fulton's disappearance and the circumstances surrounding it. He's worried that if there is someone after Fulton they might not be aware that Fulton is no longer associated with Drop Zone. He asked that his full name not be used in this story but agreed to be referred to by his last name -- Giles.
"I'm concerned,'' Giles added. "People don't just give stuff away. I mean, it's one thing to give somebody a beer, but it's another thing to give somebody a house or your business.''
Giles said he and others have tried to find Fulton and his wife, Mary, in recent days. But there's not a trace of the former Army specialist, who said he started Drop Zone in part as a place disabled vets could find companionship and maybe a little work on the side.
"It's nuts,'' said Giles. "That's the only way to say it. How do you take it in? I spent more time with that guy than with my wife.''
And then he disappeared without a word.