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The double life of 'Major Barney'

Jill Burke

Coleman Barney's efforts to get out of jail while he awaits trials in state and federal courts for his alleged role in a murder conspiracy and the purchase of illegal weapons may have hit a major obstacle. In an effort to convince a federal judge that Barney needs to stay put, federal prosecutors have released new details about the nearly year-long investigation that led to Barney's arrest.

Barney, Alaska Peacemakers Militia leader Schaeffer Cox and three others were taken into custody in March. They are accused in state court of plotting to kill a state court judge, members of law enforcement and their relatives -- potential retaliation, according to court papers, for any efforts by troopers or the courts to bring Cox, a fugitive on the run from misdemeanor charges, into custody and to stand trial. Barney, Cox and an associate named Lonnie Vernon are also accused in federal court of various weapons crimes.

Barney recently convinced the judge overseeing the state case to lower his bail and approve his release. But before he can go home Barney must also get a federal judge to give the OK, something prosecutors don't intend to let happen.

Barney's defense attorney has told the court that there are good reasons to let the man go home to his work and family. The state court, in which Barney faces the most serious charges, has already agreed to it. The 36-year-old lifelong Alaskan, businessman and father of five is also a respected and active member of his church. He is stable, hard working, looks out for his family and others and "has a history of contributing to the community, not destroying it," Tim Dooley, Barney's attorney, wrote in a motion filed recently with the court. To reinforce this point Dooley included several letters of support from Barney's friends and relatives.

Dooley also hinted that all is not as it may seem with respect to what is publicly known about the case, which relied on help from two insiders -- confidential informants who reported the militia group's goings-on to investigators. "Coleman Barney directly contradicts this confidential informant," Dooley wrote. And, a machine gun Barney is accused of having may actually have been someone else's gun, which "looked like an automatic pistol, but had been converted, without Coleman's knowledge, into a fully automatic handgun."

Barney thinks one of the silencers he's accused of having "was the hot water hose off a washing machine," according to Dooley. Barney also denies making threats regarding judges or anyone else.

Prosecutors are urging the judge to not be fooled, and to help the judge make up his mind they’ve offered new details about the day of Barney's arrest and evidence found at his home and other locations.

"Coleman Barney, father of five, business owner and member of the community referenced in the defense pleadings and in letters of support, is not the same Coleman Barney who elected to arrive to an illegal arms sale wearing body armor and carrying two loaded pistols. It is not the Coleman Barney who, during this arms sale held and examined with his own hands what he thought were live hand grenades, and a pistol silencer combination. It was not the same Coleman Barney who sought to purchase tactical weapons which only exist to kill either violently, secretly, or furtively," prosecutor Stephen Skrocki wrote in a motion filed Wednesday opposing Barney"s release.

Skrocki goes on: "To this sale, Coleman Barney arrived with a similarly armed and equipped fugitive/co-conspirator whom he (and without doubt his spouse) supported and harbored for several weeks amongst his own family of small children while hatching a plan to murder state of Alaska law enforcement officers and a state court judge. To assist this fugitive/co-conspirator, Schaffer Cox, Barney secreted and left in a very public place -- a well known and popular winter festival -- a trailer he owned, loaded with  tactically directed weapons of warfare -- two live grenades, grenade making components, 18 grenade shells, grenade launchers, a belt-fed Browning semi-automatic machine gun, and other militarily offensive firearms and ammunition."

"The decision to deposit this trailer in such a public place defies explanation and speaks volumes concerning character. In leaving the trailer in plain view, Barney placed the needs of his cause and his allegiance to his co-conspirator above those of who lived in his community. The risk of harm to the attendees, which included children of all ages, were very real and very significant."

In his motion, Skrocki raises questions about whether there may be additional weapons caches, undiscovered by law enforcement, that Barney might seek out if released.

Barney was also a "major" in the militia's command structure, tasked with protecting Cox, including in November 2010, when Cox went to a local television station for an interview, according to Skrocki.

A whiteboard taken into evidence detailed, in 13 steps, how the security teams were to approach their duties that day. They were advised to keep an eye out for "plain clothes agents" who might draw weapons. They were not to shoot "unless life is in danger." If any officers drew their weapons on Cox, his wife, or a common law judge who was also with them, security teams were to "shoot for defense." If troopers came to arrest someone, let it happen as long as it was peaceful. If force was deemed necessary, go first for non-lethal sprays of pepper-based gas and high velocity rubber bullets known as "hornets nests." The next step was to be "lethal force 2nd option -- lead poisoning."

Because there is a great deal of evidence in the parallel state and federal cases, Skrocki doesn't know if the state court judge who approved Barney's bail conditions was made aware of the full picture -- the evidence, including pictures, audio and video recordings, of Barney's close involvement with Cox's alleged violent plans and his access to the weapons necessary to help carry them out.

In the bail hearing held in state court, Dooley had successfully argued that defendants are innocent until proven guilty, and that there is no evidence to suggest that Barney is some kind of "right wing nut ball," or, in the words of the state prosecutor, a man who is dangerous because he is a member of a well armed, paramilitary group that righteously believes it is involved in a "holy war."

Whether Dooley can score a second victory in federal court remains to be seen, but federal prosecutors are doing what they can to block his efforts. "Coleman Barney's motion for bail must be denied. The risk to the community, the danger to the community and the risk of flight or absconding are simply too great," Skrocki wrote.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com