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Defense lawyers bore in on Alaska militia informant's dubious past

Jill Burke

Government witness Gerald Olson, testifying against three militia members from Fairbanks in a federal courtroom, spent his last day before jurors Wednesday trying to withstand a triple onslaught by defense attorneys looking to discredit him. He'd already admitted under direct testimony for the prosecution that he had a criminal past spanning two decades, beginning when he was a rebellious sixteen-year-old who distanced himself from his deeply religious parents by rubbing elbows with the wrong crowd.

But Nelson Traverso, Tim Dooley and Rich Curtner, attorneys for indicted Alaska Peacemakers Militia members Schaeffer Cox, Coleman Barney and Lonnie Vernon, worked to drive the point home even further. With a long history of drug running and duping people out their money, why should jurors believe Olson now?

Olson had already shown the lengths he was willing to go to to pull in extra cash: shuttling the drug “crank,” known also as “go fast” or “speed” -- a precursor to today's more potent methamphetamine -- for the Hell's Angels motorcycle gang, bringing cocaine and marijuana into the state from Washington state, taking people's money for work building cabins, selling logs, or building septic systems that he never completed, stealing a tractor.

It was a lucrative calling. He'd pulled in $140,000 - $170,000 over the years while enmeshed in the underworld of drugs. But Curtner pointed out that Olson's current career path -- the one in which he abruptly returned to the long lost family values of his childhood and decided to become an informant -- might be an even bigger financial score.

“You hope to make more money as a paid informant than as a drug dealer or a drug smuggler or any business you had,” Curtner asked during cross-examination. “Is that right?”

“I hope to,” Olson answered. For his work on the militia case, the FBI had already given Olson $77,000 to help cover basic expenses and move his wife and children out of Alaska. Asked how much he still hoped to earn for his services during the case, Olson told Curtner he'd “go high.” If he ever found himself negotiating a fee with the FBI, $300,000 would be his opening bid, he said.

It wasn't until the FBI decided the case was getting serious and dangerous enough that Olson and his family needed to go into witness protection that it occurred to Olson that he might be able to draw an income from his undercover mission. The agency gave him funds to facilitate his relocation out of state, and suggested other compensation might be available.

“Up until that point there was no thought in my mind of getting paid. Only hopes of avoiding jail time,” said Olson, who did successfully avoid jail time on his second felony conviction because of his work on the case.

A 'mad scramble' on day of arrests

The defense team grilling came after prosecutors concluded their time with Olson by showing jurors video of the moments leading up to the arrest of Cox, Coleman, Vernon and Karen Vernon, Lonnie Vernon's wife. Several video and audio recorders hidden in Olson’s F-150 pickup truck and on his person captured the moments leading up to the arrests.

On that cold, clear winter morning in Fairbanks, the largest city in Alaska's interior, Olson arranged to meet the four targets in separate groups of two. It was March 11, 2011. Snow blanketed the ground, blue skies hung overhead. He made plans to meet up under the ruse of selling them pistols with silencers and live grenades.

In video clips showing three separate camera angles simultaneously, jurors watched as Olson met with the defendants in his truck to exchange the weapons for cash. Given that molded plastic grating obstructed some of the view on two of the video feeds, it appears the FBI hid the cameras behind dashboard air vents in Olson's truck. One pointed at the front passenger seat, the other was a wider angle revealing the front and backseats. The third video view was captured from a camera hidden somewhere on Olson's body. It showed more of the lower body portion of the front passenger seat than the other two feeds, which focused more on the upper body -- heads and shoulders.

Rigging Olson's truck to eavesdrop and record what happened caused an unexpected hiccup, one not discovered until the first arrest was supposed to get underway. The FBI had Olson staying in a motel. Because of deep sub-zero temperatures, the truck wouldn't start the morning that Olson needed to rendezvous with the militia men.

“We had a major delay,” Olson told prosecutor Steve Skrocki, who had asked if it threw the morning off kilter, setting off a “mad scramble.” After 45 minutes and a warm-up, compliments of a space heater brought in by Alaska State Troopers, the operation was again up and running.

In an unusual scene, Olson first went to the hotel room of Anchorage weapons dealer Bill Fulton, who had the pistols, silencers and grenades the men sought. The FBI encouraged Olson to try to convince Fulton to give over the weapons without getting paid until after the deal went down.

Only after the arrests did Olson learn he'd been sent in to negotiate with the FBI's second undercover informant on the case. “I thought he was going down too for selling illegal weapons. I thought I was setting him up as well,” Olson said.

A sting gone wrong

Lonnie and Karen Vernon were the first duo to go down.

They'd agreed to meet Olson at a trucking yard in an industrial part of Fairbanks thick with warehouses. They climbed into Olson's truck, husband in front, wife in back, and Olson left for a moment to go retrieve the weapons. He came back with a backpack and black pelican case, respectively containing four grenades (dummy grenades, but the buyers thought they were real) and a pistol-silencer combo. They looked the items over, and exchanged money. After giving Olson $750 in cash, Karen Vernon put the grenades in her purse and Lonnie Vernon kept the pistol combo near him.

Seconds later, the FBI can be heard approaching the truck and loudly yelling at the group to get out of the truck and lay down on the ground. Olson rolled out of the driver's side onto the snow, was cuffed and taken into custody. Lonnie Vernon had a delayed response -- remaining seated through several demands for him to get out. After a few seconds, he, too, exits the truck.

Olson's arrest was all show. Before long, he was back in his truck and meeting up with Barney and Cox to repeat the takedown play. But as with the frozen truck engine that started the day, everything did not go as planned.

With Barney in the front seat and Cox in back, the men drive to a location that the FBI had set up for the weapons exchange. On the way, Olson explains that the weapons supplier, Fulton, was only able to get .22 caliber pistols, smaller than the men had hoped for. Cox remarks that with a “22 at close range it takes a long time to die.” He also talks about the merits of silencers, explaining that their benefit is more about the “element of escape” than the “element of surprise.”

Barney and Cox spend some time handling the pistols and grenades that Olson retrieved from a few yards away alongside a nearby trailer. But before any money changes hands, someone approaches their vehicle to ask what's going on. The man claims to own the property and wants to know what they are doing there. Olson tries to talk their way out of suspicion, explaining that they are there waiting for a friend, someone whom they had arranged to “haul a load” for them.

The man, who wasn't with the FBI, then blurts out: “The reason I'm here is because there is a whole line of guys out there with bullet proof vests on and they're all looking in here.”

“Holy shit!” is heard from someone inside the truck as the trio learns the news.

Missing grenades

In perhaps a sign of the sensitivity of the trial and the seriousness with which the government views the case, early in the day courthouse security had called in a bomb dog to inspect a suspicious bag found propped against a second story window outside the courtrooms. It turned out to be a small, canvas doctor's-style tool bag left by a maintenance man who was on the floor.

The courthouse guard called off his request for the dog, but clearly had not taken the event lightly. Security has been heightened at the federal building in Anchorage as a result of the trial. Cox and his co-defendants are accused in a violent murder conspiracy targeting federal officials, including judges, and the anti-government beliefs of them and other associates, coupled with talk of weapons and killing, has been cause for concern.

Heightened levels of concern are a top bone to pick among the defense attorneys, who hope to convince jurors the case has been overblown from the start. Olson had a lot of reasons, they suggested, to embellish what he'd seen and heard, and they tried to get at that during cross-examination.

One example they offered was Olson's claim to have seen eight live grenades at one of the weapons caches. Yet, during its search of the property, the FBI never found the items, leaving nothing to back up Olson's word.

On the stand, Olson said he was “surprised” to learn the grenades had never been located. Defense lawyers also brought up Olson's talent for persuasion, status as a tax evader and someone who still owed a long list of victims of his various swindles tens of thousands of dollars.

Defense lawyers always questioned the basis for Olson's involvement with Cox's militia.

“Were you aware of any information from the FBI or anybody else in the federal government that Mr. Cox, Mr. Barney, (or) Mr. Vernon had been engaged in criminal activity that you need to be involved in as an informant?” Cox’s attorney Neil Traverso asked. “When you started to work for the federal government, your job was to get these illegal weapons in their hands, correct?”

“No,” replied Olson. “The mission was to observe. To become a member.”

The attorneys raised other questions about the timing of equipment malfunctions that prevented Olson's secret recording devices from at times working.

They also emphasized Olson as an agent saboteur, trying to show that it was Olson who kept pushing Cox to come up with a plan of resistance against the government, and someone who fanned the flames, especially in promoting the murder plot that had come to be known as “2-4-1,” two government officials taken or killed for every militia member arrested or harmed.

“I'm not as gifted at words but maybe in other ways. Like the 2-4-1. I'd be willing to do something like that to get some attention,” Olson was heard saying to Cox in an audio recording played in court.

“I was definitely not trying to promote that. I was trying to get information on 2-4-1,” Cox said when asked for an explanation.

He did, however, concede that walking the line between what he was tasked with doing and having real conversations to get at it was at times challenging. The FBI wanted to know who was on Cox's alleged hit list and what it would take for Cox's men to begin waging violent warfare.

Take, for example, a meeting held in a school bus -- which a militia member had converted into a motor home -- during which the 2-4-1 plan was hatched. At first, Cox suggested one-for-one. But Olson upped the ante by suggesting it should be five-for-one.

“Offering 5-4-1 was going over the top,” suggested Richard Curtner, one of Lonnie vernon's two attorneys. “Didn't the FBI say you were going too far?”

Olson's handler hadn't said so, Olson said, but the agent did at times reiterate to Olson his expected boundaries. “There were several times that he had to remind me to not instigate stuff (or) offer suggestions, just to let it come to me. I was reminded of that quite a bit,” Olson said.

Trial continues Thursday.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com