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How Gerald Olson infiltrated the Alaska Peacemakers Militia

Jill Burke
Rachel Barney, charged in state court with helping hide a fugitive, in a Fairbanks courtroom April 5, 2011
Jill Burke photo
Judge David Stewart.
Jill Burke photo
Schaeffer Cox, founder of the Alaska Peacemakers Militia, is accused in an alleged conspiracy to kill a state judge and others. He faces conspiracy and weapons charges in state and federal court.
Jill Burke photo
Schaeffer Cox in a Fairbanks courtroom on April 5, 2011
Jill Burke photo
Michael Anderson is accused as a conspirator in an alleged plot to kill a state judge and others. Photographed in Fairbanks on April 5, 2011.
Jill Burke photo
Lonnie Vernon faces multiple conspiracy and weapons charges in connection with alleged plots to murder state and federal judges and others. Photographed in Fairbanks on April 5, 2011.
Jill Burke photo
Karen Vernon faces state and federal conspiracy and weapons charges in connection with alleged plots to murder state and federal judges and others. Photographed in Fairbanks on April 5, 2011.
Jill Burke photo
Coleman Barney, accused in an alleged plot to kill a state judge and others, faces conspiracy and weapons charges in state and federal court. Photographed in Fairbanks on April 5, 2011.
Jill Burke photo

Editor's note: This is the second of a two part-series on Gerald Olson, a government informant who has been helping the FBI in its case against the Alaska Peacemakers Militia. Part I, "Alaska militia infiltrator exposed," chronicled his past run-ins with the law and what he may be getting in return for cooperating. Part II looks at Olson's relationship with Schaeffer Cox, the leader of the Alaska Peacemakers Militia, and how Olson has helped investigators.  

How exactly contractor Gerald Olson earned the trust of Alaska Peacemakers Militia leader Schaeffer Cox isn't known, but he may have rekindled previous associations to get the job done. The man the Alaska militia community knew as "J.R." and to be a close confidant of Cox had "claimed some inside knowledge from days gone by," according to a post on an Internet forum for the Alaska Citizens Militia.

Cox and four other militia members stand accused of plotting to kill state and federal officials. It is now clear that the joint investigation between the FBI and Alaska State Troopers depended on two paid informants, who for at least 10 months prior to the March arrests of Cox and others involved in the alleged plot, had been assisting authorities in their probe.

Olson is one of the informants, along with Bill Fulton, the former owner of an army surplus shop who also helped provide security for Republican candidate Joe Miller during his failed campaign for U.S. Senate last year.

Olson's interactions with Cox, as well as militia members Coleman Barney and Lonnie Vernon, were secretly recorded by investigators. Barney gave Cox a place to stay and allegedly aided him in moving weapons around and helped formulate an out-of-state escape plan. Cox tasked Vernon with making appearances on his behalf and with obtaining explosives and guns. Although the recordings have not been made public -- Cox and the others are in jail awaiting trial in spring 2012 on federal and state charges of weapons violations and conspiracy to commit kidnapping and murder -- a picture is emerging of the role Olson played in the probe and what he got in return.

As detailed in the first part of the series, Olson has been described as a shoddy contractor who was charged with stealing a construction tractor, fleecing homeowners and other criminal acts. But as he began cooperating with authorities in the militia investigation last year, it appears state prosecutors cut him some breaks for his past acts in return for being a government informant.

Olson puts himself in position

After the March arrests of Cox, Barney, Vernon and his wife Karen, and Michael Anderson, it didn't take long for other militia types in Alaska to figure out that something was amiss. Those involved in the movement -- self-described patriots and, in some cases, members of other regional militias -- began openly questioning Olson and his background. Among them was Norm Olson, commander of the Alaska Citizens Militia and the former head of the Michigan Militia.

In early April, Norm Olson, who is no relation to Gerald Olson, wrote on Alaska Citizens Militia online forum:

Does anyone know anything about a man who calls himself J.R. Olson? He is probably from the Palmer area. He was associated with the crew who helped Schaeffer Cox during the time he was in hiding. He showed up at the Fed. 5th Commanders Conference in Anchorage, accompanied by Lonnie Vernon … I've accounted for the whereabouts of everyone else, but this I.I. [sic] Olson is nowhere on my radar screen,” he said, adding “apparently, he has disappeared along with Bill Fulton.

Other posters recall seeing a man named "J.R." at a militia convention held in February in Anchorage. Gerald Olson was there with Lonnie Vernon, who was so angry about a federal tax case hanging over his head that he was developing his own violent quest for revenge, according to information Gerald Olson provided to investigators. At the convention, the men dressed in uniform: multicam jackets, hunter green shirts and tan Carhartts.

The recollection fits investigators' description of the level of access an informant matching the description of Olson had to the group. At Cox's direction, Olson road-tripped with Vernon from Fairbanks to Anchorage to attend the February statewide militia gathering, according to authorities.

It is during the car ride that Vernon discussed with Olson his plans to kill employees of the Internal Revenue Service and U.S. District Court Judge Ralph Beistline, according to documents filed in federal court in Fairbanks. Upon arriving in Anchorage, the two tried to get their hands on grenades and make arrangements to purchase a pistol and silencer, prosecutors alleged in court filings.

Olson, investigators reveal in court documents, had positioned himself well enough to gather crucial first-hand information that would ultimately lead to the arrests of Cox and the others. He spoke of hidden weapons caches and of Cox's surveillance on the home addresses of district attorneys, judges and state troopers, leading to a so-called "target list." And, according to a post at the Alaska Citizens Militia online forum, Olson also served as a juror at a common law trial in January held for Cox at a Denny's restaurant in Fairbanks.  

He also worked at a jobsite with Vernon and was at the meeting in which Cox supposedly hatched his alleged "2-4-1" plan -- the foundation of the government’s investigation.

Cox's plan called for retribution: For every militia member arrested or harmed in some way by the government, he and his group would retaliate by kidnapping or killing two people from the ranks of their perceived enemies.

Olson helped Barney -- described as a "major" in Cox's militia, devout church member, electrical contractor and father of five -- unload a weapons cache from a storage shed on Cox's property, watched as Cox taught Barney how to make a silencer, and served as Cox's errand man. At one point, authorities alleged, Olson was dispatched to retrieve a bulletproof vest and grenade launcher from Cox's house as the militia leader, in hiding at another home, prepared to flee the state.

At the time, Cox was wanted for failing to show up for a state court trial on misdemeanor weapons charges, initiated after Cox had, the previous March, approached police while wearing a concealed weapon and didn't tell them about it.

Olson also allegedly discussed with Barney and Cox the details of smuggling Cox and his family out of state via a fictitious truck driver referred to as "Hans Solo" in court documents.

A risky move pays off?

The intersection of criminal cases against Olson shows a man working early with authorities in order to get a break. Notes from hearings and motions from past crimes committed by Olson -- including stealing a construction tractor and a contractor scam involving septic systems -- show that he'd already worked out an agreement with state prosecutors.

The state and federal governments are both involved in the militia cases making their way through the federal courts. Olson's name shows up in state court, where he was defending himself against his theft and shoddy contract charges. Last Friday, during a hearing related to those legal troubles, state prosecutors revealed that Olson is working on the militia case.

Olson cooperated at "great personal risk to him and in doing so safeguarded the lives of a number of prosecutors, troopers and judges," Fairbanks District Attorney J. Michael Grey told state Superior Court Judge Kari Kristiansen on Friday.

That cooperation dates back to last year. Through court documents, interviews with militia members and others, it's possible to get some idea of just how much Olson has played a role in the investigation.

In March 2010, Cox had been summoned by a woman via his Liberty Bell Network, a volunteer group that insures a person's rights aren’t being violated by police. Fairbanks police were checking out a house after a 9-1-1 call. At the scene, Cox, failed to tell one of the officers he was armed, leading to a concealed weapons charge that he would ultimately argue didn't apply to him. Instead, Cox chose to skip his trial in  February this year on the charge, prompting the judge to issue a warrant for his arrest and Cox to go underground.

What did Gerald Olson get in return?

Although it's unknown precisely when Olson positioned himself close to Cox, there are indications his involvement was in the works as early as 2010, around the same time Cox had his run-ins with the cops. (Earlier that month, before the Liberty Bell call, Cox was charged with an assault on his wife.)

By April 2010, prosecutors had told the court they needed Olson's probation terms lifted so he could assist in the militia investigation.

"I have been contacted by (Alaska State Trooper) Vance Peronto currently assigned to the AST Major Offenders Unit, which is a division of ABADE, in response to the defendant's continued willingness to cooperate with on-going federal and state investigations," Kerry A. Corliss, an assistant district attorney from Palmer, wrote in an April 2010 motion filed in one of Olson's past criminal cases.

For Olson, a man who was racking up criminal entanglements, it was a familiar theme. Paperwork from a fraud case out of Delta Junction hanging over Olson also showed he was trying to work out a deal. As the case moved forward Olson's attorney, Paul Maslakowski, let it be known in late April that his client was "in Fairbanks working with police" and that Olson was in the process of "negotiating with state."

Two months later the Delta Junction case was dropped, and June 2010 is the first month investigators in the alleged militia death plots acknowledge that their confidential informants were in place.

Why a family man would risk so much -- putting himself shoulder to shoulder for months with armed men who government officials believed were increasingly becoming a dangerous threat -- is murky.

Maslakowski told the court it was because Olson genuinely wanted to be of help. He realized he had gotten himself into a serious situation and it was time to turn his life around, his lawyer said.

For his service to the greater good, Olson was rewarded with the ability to avoid serving jail time. (Had the case gone to trial, he could have found himself spending up to five years behind bars.) He will be on probation for 10 years, but the court left room for the supervision to end early if Olson reimburses his victims.

At the unusual sentencing on Friday, Olson, who called in by phone, was unable to be fingerprinted immediately following his convictions because the state has no idea where he is, according to Fairbanks District Attorney Michael Grey. He also won't have to report his whereabouts to his probation officer.

"I've never seen it work this way," Judge Kari Kriastiansen said at the hearing.

"He is being monitored in a different fashion," Maslakowski responded. "There have been assurances from the FBI that if the court needs Mr. Olson back they will get him here," adding that the agents working with Olson know where he lives and what he's up to.

In exchange for pleading guilty to a felony count of vehicle theft and violating his existing probation, prosecutors dropped two other felony charges filed against Olson -- theft and tampering with evidence -- and the judge signed off on the plea deal.

"This is a very fair resolution to two non-violent, low-level property crimes," prosecutor Michael Grey told the court.

Olson was so thoroughly "under law enforcement's thumb" during his stint as an informant that it was  "equivalent or greater than any sentence that the courts might impose," found Judge Kristiansen when she agreed to accept the deal Olson struck.

Can the government trust a known con man?

Olson's role as a snitch may come back to haunt the government, said Tim Dooley, a defense attorney for accused militia conspirator Coleman Barney, Cox's counterpart who Olson had hung around with.

Referring to Olson as "Mr. Sewage" and as an "agent provocateur," Dooley sat in the courtroom and listened as Olson was sentenced last week in Palmer.

In an interview after the sentencing, Dooley said investigators may have too easily taken Olson at his word, a man with a lot to lose and everything to gain by coming up with wild and violent tales about the people he was hanging out with.

Only one person -- Olson -- was pushing the supposed "2-4-1" deadly retaliation plan, according to Dooley.

"We never threatened to kill anybody. The only guy threatening to kill anybody was J.R.," Dooley said, repeating his client's version of what went on.

More than 130 hours of audio and video exists from the investigation, presumably recorded during many of the interactions Olson detailed for authorities. The recordings, which have not been made public, should shed light on whether Olson's description of what Cox, Barney and the others did was overblown.

Dooley has yet to get through the entire batch, but is optimistic it will reflect his client in a more positive light than has come through in the current accusations.

"This has gotten ratcheted out of control," said Dooley, adding that he thought Olson had gotten a "sweetheart" deal.

Losing faith in the system

Did the government itself get scammed from a skilled con who told tall tales to get himself out of jam? 

Both the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's office declined to comment.

But those who've dealt with Olson in the past are leery, convinced the only person he's ever been interested in helping is himself. They're frustrated and somewhat puzzled by a system that couldn't help them get their money back but is now going out of its way to help Olson.

"Everybody seemed to be out to protect him, and I had no protection at all," said Scott Fredrickson, a homeowner who'd taken Olson to court but eventually gave up because it was too expensive to hire an attorney.

Dooley adds, "I think they screwed up in putting their faith in this guy."

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com

Read Part I, "Alaska militia infiltrator exposed," detailing Gerald Olson's background and criminal past.