More than 14 months after William Fulton vanished from Alaska, the former Spenard business owner resurfaced in a federal courtroom in Anchorage Thursday. His March 2011 disappearance had come just as his cover as an undercover informant who helped the FBI infiltrate a Fairbanks-based anti-government militia was about to be blown.
Yet for all of the turmoil Fulton subjected himself to, he has emerged in the 2012 federal weapons and murder conspiracy case against Alaska militia members Schaeffer Cox, Coleman Barney and Lonnie Vernon not as a witness for the prosecution -- but for the defense.
It's an unusual position for the man who until now had made his career chasing bail jumpers, selling weapons parts and military surplus goods, protecting politicians, and once, handcuffing an Alaska Dispatch journalist at a public gathering for a political candidate, a move that generated national media attention.
On Thursday, he once again was confronted with a spectacle he'd generated, this time while spying on Cox.
Posing as a militia sympathizer with access to a unique array of paramilitary men and weapons that could be helpful, he found himself nearly coming to blows with one of Cox's loyalists. Rumors quickly spread that Fulton had became so agitated, he threatened to cut the man with a knife if he didn't commit to some sort of bloody government resistance.
Fulton's flight from Alaska in spring 2011 was the latest upheaval in a year in which Fulton found himself rubbing elbows with seemingly separate worlds -- sovereign citizen extremists and aspiring politicians. People who rejected the rules and laws of government and people who were willing to work within its constraints for reform.
But Alaska’s grand terrain can't overwhelm the 49th state's small-town feel, or the often overlapping associations of its residents. Underscoring this point was Fulton's admission on the stand Thursday that he first met Cox in a hotel room in which a budding politician, Joe Miller, and an aide to then-Gov. Sarah Palin, Frank Bailey, were holed up in a strategy session on the eve of Alaska's 2008 GOP convention.
Fulton didn't set out to help the defense. The government, for reasons it won't talk about, chose to leave Fulton on the sidelines during its prosecution.
For Cox, Barney and Vernon's attorneys, it didn't matter that Fulton wasn't a friendly ally to their clients. They were convinced the government instigated the events that led to the mens' arrests, and they needed access to Fulton to prove it.
If the government wouldn't put him on the stand, they would.
Dressed in a dark grey suit and donning a blue tie, dark-rimmed glasses and a close-shaven hair cut, Fulton said he'd taken the plunge as an FBI informant out of a sense of duty.
Unlike the other informant in the case who came tainted with a long list of criminal entanglements, Fulton was clean. He had no legal messes dogging him, had been promised no deals, and had spent far more money on the case than the government reimbursed him. It wasn't the first time he'd worked as an informant. This time, as with the others, he told jurors he did it because as a young Army man years ago, he'd “sworn to uphold the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic.”
He was already working with the FBI on an unrelated case in June 2010 when he was asked if he'd be willing to go to Fairbanks, on assignment, to meet Cox. Fulton described meeting Cox twice during the trip, once at the Pike's Riverfront Hotel and the next day at a military surplus store, Far North Tactical.
Cox's attorney, Nelson Traverso, had a lot of questions about Fulton's Fairbanks visit, centered on whether Fulton instigated the conversations with Cox about impending violent action against the government. Another defense witness had already testified that something seemed off about Fulton, and had said Fulton was willing to resort to physical threats to get Cox and other members of the militia on board with some “plan.”
During an evening meeting at the hotel, Fulton said Cox told Fulton he was in need of Fulton's fugitive recovery skills. Cox had warrants he wanted served, and he wanted Fulton to do it. “Schaeffer was having us arrest and try judges and hang them,” Fulton said.
The warrants Fulton described sounded similar to other sovereign citizen actions from around the country where people have chosen to invert the justice system, turning tables on law enforcement by making them the subjects of criminal and legal actions. Fulton was concerned the warrants were a precursor to government conflict with the militia, a catalyst for a violent clash.
'I'll cut his throat'
Before Fulton testified, jurors heard from Les Zerbe, a large-bellied, deep-voiced ordained minister, pilot and, for a time, second in command of Cox's Alaska Peacemakers Militia. Zerbe told the court Fulton insisted that he needed to know what the militia planned to do after judges were served with warrants and arrested. Surely there would be fallout, and before he was willing to go through with the job he wanted to know how Cox and the militia intended to handle it. Meeting Fulton face to face convinced Zerbe the would-be weapons dealer from Anchorage was not to be trusted.
“I immediately suspected a set up,” Zerbe testiifed. “My answer to him was we had no plan and he came after me with a knife. He assaulted me. I thought that by assaulting me in this particular way...that he was trying to force an answer from us that would prove there was a conspiracy afloat.”
The assault Zerbe described took place at the Fairbanks military surplus store Far North Tactical, where an all-day sale had been held, followed by a meeting with members of the patriot community, including Cox and a few others connected with the Alaska Peacemakers Militia.
Fulton admits he had tense words with Zerbe and that he carried a knife with him that day. But he denies making physical contact or drawing the blade. He felt he had no choice but to make a bold move. He hadn't known that Zerbe suspected him of being a mole, but he had a gut instinct that things could go bad quickly. It was his first assignment with the FBI in the case, and he felt he had to maintain appearances.
“I was in a room full of people that would kill me if they knew why I was there. When he (Zerbe) questioned my integrity, I felt I had moments to deal with it or bad things would happen to me,” Fulton said. “It was as controlled as it could be to make it look real.”
Part of that effort: telling Zerbe he'd “cut his throat.”
Fulton told Nelson Traverso, Cox's attorney, that he'd met with the FBI a few dozen times regarding Cox, sometimes to directly discuss the case and others mentioning Cox only in passing while talking about other assignments.
And where the other informant, Gerald Olson, had gained the trust of Cox and his inner circle, quickly ascending rank with the militia's command structure and getting a lot of face time with Cox and members of the group, Fulton's access was more limited.
Fulton had met with Cox in Fairbanks only a few times during the summer of 2010, and with other milita members in February 2011 at a militia summit held in Anchorage. He gathered information through phone calls, emails and text messages, news articles and through chatter from customers in his military surplus store, Drop Zone. All told, he estimated he put several hundred hours of work into the investigation.
For his trouble -- the missed hours at work, hotels, meals, gas, and eventually giving up his business and relocating his family out of state -- he pulled in about $39,000 from the FBI, leaving him in the red by $100,000, he said.
He'd been criticized by other witnesses as loud-mouthed and pushy, an opinionated drinker who did as much big talking as some would claim Cox did. Surveillance video played earlier in the trial showing Fulton chastizing defendant Lonnie Vernon as he and others drank beer and talked about weapons reinforced the characterization. Traverso wanted to know if it was real, or all for show.
“I was just trying not to get shot, sir,” answered Fulton, who said he had some concern the men might be armed.
As for the over-the-top machismo at Far North Tactical the day he threatened Zerbe? Fulton said he wasn't pushing a plan. His goal was to let Cox know he'd support Cox's agenda, but that he didn't want to put his staff at risk in the process. Knowing what else Cox envisioned would help prepare him for what might come, Fulton reasoned. And behind the scenes, shedding his undercover persona, Fulton knew the more intelligence he could glean for the FBI, the better.
A journalist in cuffs
In October 2010, while already signed on with the FBI as a paid human source, Fulton led a security detail for U.S. Senate tea party candidate Joe Miller.
During a pre-election town-hall event, Fulton falsely arrested and detained Alaska Dispatch editor Tony Hopfinger. At the time, no one knew that Fulton was working a federal case targeting Cox and others. To this day, there remains no known link -- other than Fulton himself -- between the investigation into the militia and Fulton's role for the Miller campaign that Sunday afternoon at an Anchorage middle school.
Fulton has maintained that he did not know Hopfinger was a journalist, and that he perceived Hopfinger as an unpredictable and violent threat. The arrest became a media nightmare for Miller and Fulton alike. Physically detaining a member of the press for doing his or her job hit close to home for the press corps in Alaska -- and around the nation as the tea party rose up in the the 2010 elections.
Miller responded by cutting whatever ties to Fulton he may have had, saying Fulton was not “close” to him or to his campaign, and that Fulton's actions that day occurred without Miller's direction or approval.
Still, Miller has never apologized for the 2010 incident, nor has he publicly reaffirmed the media's right to ask candidates and politicians questions. Hopfinger could still sue Fulton, Miller and others over what he calls a "false arrest and violent act against American journalists."
When informed months later that Fulton was working for the FBI, Miller said that paid government informants have no place in a political campaign. And he attempted to squash speculation that Fulton had some official, informant-related interest in the tea party candidate's Senate race.
“I want to make it explicitly clear that I do not believe that Bill Fulton acted with the intent to harm our campaign during the Anchorage town hall meeting. In other words, I do not buy into any type of federal conspiracy against the Joe Miller for U.S. Senate campaign,” he said in an August 2011 interview.
The politician and the militia commander do share some common ground. They believe government is broken. They see value in its overthrow. They are strict constitutionalists. They are vocal with their discontent. They have at times believed members of existing power structures were out to kill them. They have sought and failed to achieve public office. They defend the right to bear arms. They are resilient in their willingness to fight for what they believe is right.
But where prosecutors allege Cox and his Alaska Peacemakers Militia were ready to pursue violent means to achieve reform, Miller has chosen to work within the existing political structure. Unlike Cox, Miller has gone to war, legitimately. The West Point graduate went on to serve as an Army tank commander during the Gulf War, returning home with a bronze star.
Cox talks a lot about the law, but it is Miller who has the law degree.
Tethering Cox and Miller together, however loosely, is Fulton, a man who'd dipped his toes into Cox's and Miller's worlds during the same tumultuous time frame in 2010.
Both men were taking their respective political agendas to the people of Alaska in speeches. Cox wanted government overthrow. Miller wanted the overthrow of Alaska's GOP, and ultimately, of a Congress and White House he perceived as corrupt, incompetent, too big, too liberal.
This spring, their paths diverged even further. While Cox is fighting to restore his name and regain his freedom, Miller finally saw success in a coup of Alaska's GOP leadership more than four years in the making.
Ironically, it was during a first attempt to oust Alaska GOP chairman Randy Ruedrich that Fulton first met Cox. Fulton was working a security detail for Miller in March 2008 at the GOP's annual convention, held at an Anchorage hotel.
“I was introduced to Mr. Cox by Joe Miller and Frank Bailey (a governor's aide),” Fulton testified Thursday. “We were having a meeting for a strategy session the next day.”
The next day would have been the day of the main convention, when then-Gov. Sarah Palin and Miller unsuccessfully attempted to outmaneuver Reudrich.
The event was so stressful and so high stakes that Miller had gone to great lengths to gain an edge, including using his coworkers' computers to pad a political poll -- the very act he had worked so hard to hide during his 2010 U.S. Senate bid and which Hopfinger was trying to get answers about when Fulton handcuffed him.
Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com