At his sentencing Monday, federal prosecutors were prepared to read a letter from the daughter of the federal judge self-described sovereign citizens Lonnie Vernon and his wife, Karen Vernon, are accused of plotting to murder. But prosecutors never read it. They didn't have to. Vernon did most of the talking, but he didn’t utter a thing that helped his situation.
Seattle-based U.S. District Court Judge Robert J. Bryan has been handling the criminal cases against Vernon, since a federal judge and other federal employees were among his intended targets. Bryan handed Vernon a 310 month sentence, which works out to 25 years and 10 months. For a man nearing his 60s, it's essentially a life sentence. Through a jury trial and a guilty plea in a separate case, Vernon was found guilty of weapons violations and with roles in separate murder plots.
Troubles for the career truck driver with a distaste for government and authority began when the IRS came after his home in Salcha, Alaska, south of Fairbanks, Alaska's second largest city. To put it mildly, he was peeved they'd come calling on a man who'd worked to make himself a non-entity to the federal government – a self-declared free man who believed no one had jurisdiction over him. His ire found direction and coaching under the tutelage of Schaeffer Cox, a rising young militia leader from Fairbanks.
Ultimately, Vernon's fury over the tax case and his long-held anti-government sentiment would be his undoing, as his personal agenda against the tax judge and his sovereign-citizen based militia sympathies escalated on parallel paths. He'd encountered Cox and become loyal to the cause during a time Cox's Alaska Peacemakers Militia was becoming increasingly brazen, talking about violent government overthrow, running heavily armed security details in public, and looking to buy illegal weapons.
In March, 2011, Vernon and his wife were arrested in a weapons sting, along with Cox and other members of Cox's militia. They'd all agreed to purchase unregistered silencers and grenades, and through the use of a confidential informant and video-rigged vehicles, the feds watched and recorded the transactions.
As the Peacemakers were formulating how to return society to God's law and the law of natural man, the Vernons were also getting increasingly irate over their tax woes and the government's attempt to collect the $165,000 it claimed the couple owed.
In the weeks leading up to the sentencing, Vernon's defense team did what it could to make their client look better in the eyes of the court. “Mr. Vernon’s unhealthily paranoia and distrust of the government, when fueled by coaching and learned lectures of others, leading Mr. Vernon to stray from the law. Mr. Vernon’s offense did not involve any physical contact with anyone. But certainly, his words were disturbing, offensive and wholly unjustified,” defense attorney M.J. Haden wrote in a memorandum to the court in advance of the hearing.
“God gave me a tongue and lips and I've popped it off wrongfully,” Vernon admitted during one of his many rants at Monday's hearing. It was the only thing he was willing to concede he'd done wrong. Everything else, he claimed, was merely a string of fabricated tales from evil government agents out to get him and his wife, minions of some secretive government structure he declared over and over weren't a part of his world and that had no jurisdiction over him.
“You talk about things that don't exist in your world. But Mr. Vernon you exist in the world and in our world,” Judge Bryan interjected, maintaining control of the proceedings, and to the extent he could, of Vernon.
Prosecutors, who argued in a written motion that Vernon could not be rehabilitated, appear to have aptly described Vernon when they also wrote he is “prone to bouts of anger and irritability as well as emotional outbursts.”
There was some suggestion during court, by Vernon himself, that some of his lightning-quick anger may be the result of heavy metal poisoning he suffered years earlier. He disclosed it when referencing a psychiatric evaluation he thought would help his case, since the author had concluded Vernon did not pose a future threat to either himself or the public. His attorney had declined to file the report with court, which Vernon called one more example that his attorney had failed him.
The Vernons, who lived in a remote, wooded home in Salcha, not far from the highway, were known to be quirky. During their civil tax case, they had tried to stop the proceedings by claiming they were not citizens or taxpayers of the United States, typical of members of the sovereign citizen movement.
When the FBI raided the Vernons' home, loaded weapons were found at nearly every entrance and window, and hostile signs hung nailed to tree trunks and on stakes at the entrance of their graded driveway. The signs warned that trespassers would be shot before any questions were asked. Long rants against the government and the IRS were part of some of those signs. According to a local shopkeeper, the Vernons refused to buy anything with a bar code, fearing they could somehow be tracked by the government if they did. And yet, neighbors say the couple was also kind and inviting to children who would come to trick or treat at Halloween.
“These people did nothing for me from day one,” Vernon complained to the judge, before letting orders and put-downs fly from his mouth. He was, in many ways, reminiscent of a child throwing a tantrum – respectful to the lead authority, the judge, but lashing out at at everyone else in his midst. “I reside in the state of Alaska. Not in your government realm. I am sovereign,” he said at one point. “[Federal agents] came upon my wife and I, free man and woman, and came to rape and pillage our land.”
Throughout the proceeding on Monday, Vernon was defiant, confrontational, agitated and liberally uttered profanity-laced put downs and challenges aimed at the FBI agent who led the case, the prosecutors, and anyone else involved he'd felt had wronged him, including his own attorneys. He demanded to see credentials of all of the court officers, including the judge, and to see the “declaration of war” the United States had issued against what Vernon called “my country” – meaning, his physical residence in the state of Alaska. “I am going to stay here and yell until I see it,” he declared after issuing his demands. “I want you to arrest these people until they prove who they are.”
As Vernon continued his rants, U.S. Marshalls drifted toward him, with three ending up standing behind him, and others keeping watch in others places throughout the courtroom. Eventually, Judge Bryan gently and politely rerouted the courtroom discourse to the matter at hand: his determination of how much time Vernon would serve.
Throughout the hearing, Vernon managed to call court officers vile, whores, scum bags, slanderous, and worse. “You are not on my good list, lady,” he told the prosecutor, firing at her with a glaring stare. He also tried to get the judge to throw out the case – to “dismiss under fraud and deception” – a request Judge Bryan denied.
“How in the hell am I supposed to have a fair trial? I suggest you people talk me out back and put a bullet through my head and claim the war. Or send us out of the country,” Vernon said as his diatribe was coming to an end.
Judge Bryan acknowledged that for most of his life, Vernon had been an upstanding citizen. But finding his crime “most serious,” he felt “substantial punishment” was appropriate.
“Dismiss please! Dismiss please! I'm not listening to this,” Vernon interrupted, objecting to what was about to happen.
Judge Bryan handed down a sentence of 25 years 10 months. Vernon's attorneys were hoping for a sentence just under 22 years.
“Mr. Vernon I am sorry your life has come to this. But I believe in the law and I believe that's what the law requires. Best of luck. I hope you do easy time,” Judge Bryan told Vernon just before U.S. Marshalls escorted Vernon away.
If he serves the full sentence, Vernon will be in his 80s before he's released. His wife, who is ten years older, was sentenced later in the day to 12 years. Sentencing for militia leader Schaeffer Cox takes place Tuesday.
Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com