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Crucial ‘lone wolf’ takes witness stand in Alaska militia trial

Ben Anderson

As the prosecution builds its case against three Alaska militia members on trial on weapons charges and conspiracy to murder federal officials, one of the men initially arrested with them took the stand Tuesday to testify for the government.

That man, Michael Anderson, is largely associated with Alaska Peacemaker Militia head Schaeffer Cox; he knew the other two defendants on trial, Coleman Barney and Lonnie Vernon, mostly in passing until he was imprisoned with them on state charges that were dropped in October. He waited in jail for eight months, and Anderson’s testimony Tuesday revealed that he had become suicidal during his time there.

After the state charges were dropped, Anderson went free. But as part of a deal with the government, he returned to court to provide testimony about his role in Schaeffer Cox’s plans, primarily as an information gatherer who the militia leader turned to when he was seeking information on government officials.

Anderson’s testimony revealed a man who at times agreed with Cox’s arguments advocating for individual sovereignty free from governance by state or federal authorities -- but who also tended to second-guess Cox, other militia sympathizers when things got too extreme.

‘Kill them before they could come for us’

 Anderson, 36, is married with two children and has degrees in chemistry and mine engineering. He told the court that he has worked as a pilot and a chemist. Skinny, wearing a lavender shirt and glasses, Anderson didn’t exactly look like a “lone wolf” as he’d been characterized by prosecutors -- a bit of a wild card who didn’t fit with the rest of the accused conspirators.

Anderson met Cox when they were delegates at the 2008 Alaska Republican Convention, and they started spending time together when Anderson was laid off from his job in 2009 and began working construction and landscaping jobs with Cox.

Asked what he and Cox talked about, Anderson said that it was largely “general concern of economic collapse, (with) ensuing marshal law as a possibility,” he said. “We would want to be able to protect ourselves rather than just lay down and let it happen.”

The conversations were vague, concerned about mass arrests and population purges in the wake of collapse, characterized by Anderson as “Stalin-esque,” after Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

Cox and Anderson discussed the need to be able to identify any potential threats and “take them out before they could come for us.”

To that end, Anderson began compiling information on a hard drive of “potential enforcers,” including the home addresses of some government officials. That effort began in early 2010, Anderson said, and eventually included 15 to 20 names, including an Office of Child Services employee with whom Cox had an ongoing dispute as part of a domestic violence case in state court.

“A few (Alaska state) troopers, a few Fairbanks police, and the OCS worker are the ones I remember” being on the database, Anderson said.

Anderson said that he was partly driven to create the database by his own anger with the government -- he mentioned a traffic stop where he was pulled over for an expired license plate, only to have his car towed while he was left to fend for himself in minus-30-degree weather. Several of the names involved in those incidents found their way into the database, independent of Cox’s suggestions.

Second thoughts

 Repeatedly during his testimony, Anderson said he was never comfortable with the militia mindset. Unlike the defendants, Anderson was not an official member of the Alaska Peacemakers Militia. However, he attended a couple of meetings, including what he said was the first one. Asked why he opted not to join, Anderson said that he felt it was “a little bit narcissistic.”

Asked to clarify what he meant, he said, “The uniforms, the ranks. Kind of like wannabe soldiers. I felt it to be a little bit threatening to the community, and I felt like (joining) would be painting a target on myself.”

On another occasion, Cox called Anderson and requested he show up to a meeting between Cox and OCS. Anderson said that Cox was concerned that the agency would take his son from him at the meeting, and asked Anderson to be part of a “security team” to prevent that, Anderson said.

“That morning, I threw a tactical vest and an AK(-47) into the back of my car,” Anderson said, and headed toward the meeting place. About a mile into the ride, he said, he started second-guessing himself. The meeting went off without incident, and Cox left as soon as it was over, Anderson said.

Perhaps the biggest example of Anderson’s second thoughts came in February of 2011, when he got a call from Gerald “J.R.” Olson -- on behalf of Cox, Anderson said -- asking for the database. Anderson didn’t know this at the time, but J.R. Olson was working with the government in their ongoing investigation of the militia.

Anderson refused to give Olson the database, but the call so unnerved Anderson that he wiped the hard drive containing the database clean, using a program he got off the Internet. Then, he took a hammer to it.

“I put it on a concrete floor and smashed it until little parts of it fell out,” he said.

He lied to Cox at first about the database, but told him a month later that he had destroyed it. Anderson testified that Cox seemed to be surprised but didn’t address the issue further.

‘Hard time’

In early March of 2011, Anderson was among those arrested on state conspiracy charges. He spent about eight months in jail, placed in segregation. He said he saw Cox and co-defendant Barney Coleman about five times every week. Anderson said that both men were supportive and helpful, but he was still confused why he’d been caught up in the case.

“I’d just been charged with conspiracy to murder somebody I thought was Schaeffer’s friend, as well as a judge I’d never heard of before,” Anderson said.

He said he began to wonder how he would prove himself innocent, and how he would get his family through the ordeal. He said he began to think it would be better for his family if they didn’t have to go through it at all.

“I became suicidal,” he said. He wound up on suicide watch after chewing off the “guard” on his glasses, crushing it in a pivot point on a bench in his cell to sharpen it, and attempting to cut his wrists.

“It wasn’t very sharp,” he said. “More like digging away chunks of flesh. I did that for several minutes, unsuccessfully.”

When the state charges were dropped, Anderson went free. But he was visited again by federal agents on a material witness warrant to testify before a grand jury.

Cross examination

While Anderson’s testimony seemed to outline suspicious activities on the part of Schaeffer Cox, cross-examination by Cox’s attorney Neil Traverso focused on whether or not -- regardless of information gathered by Anderson -- that information gathering ever led to any acts or threats of violence.

Traverso drilled down on Cox’s philosophy, again bringing up the Alaska Peacemaker Militia’s motto -- “Defend all, aggress none” -- and mentioning that Cox had looked at Ghandi as a role model.

Anderson said that he, too, would urge others toward nonviolent means of resolving issues. He said he believed the government would eventually collapse on its own, and didn’t need to be pushed. He said Cox shared that view.

Cox made a similar assertion during a speech in Montana in 2009.

Most of Anderson’s testimony revolved around Cox, the defendant with whom Anderson had the most contact. Coleman Barney’s attorney Tim Dooley asked a few questions about what led to Anderson’s testimony on behalf of the prosecution. Meanwhile, Lonnie Vernon’s attorney M.J. Haden pointed out how little Anderson’s testimony had to do with Vernon, since they’d had only a passing acquaintance.

Anderson was one of the key witnesses in the prosecution’s case.  the other is J.R. Olson, the informant who recorded about 100 hours of audio and video surveillance in the case.

The trial continues Wednesday.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com