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Alaska militiamen slapped with new federal murder-conspiracy charges

Jill Burke
Jill Burke photos

As a two-day-long hearing began Monday to determine whether the evidence and charges against three Fairbanks militiamen would hold up in federal court, the trio was handed bad news. In addition to the laundry list of weapons charges they're accused of, they are now also accused of plotting to murder federal officials.

The murder-conspiracy charges expose the men to potential life sentences. Alaska Peacemakers Militia leader Schaeffer Cox is also accused with soliciting two of his followers, Coleman Barney and Lonnie Vernon, to kill.

By lunchtime Monday, it was clear to all of the parties that they wouldn't be ready for the scheduled start date in February, so the trial was pushed back to May.

Cox, Barney, Vernon and two others were arrested in March following a joint state-federal investigation into Cox's activities. Investigators allege Cox had swayed his followers to help him avoid prosecution in other matters, and had convinced them to participate in kidnapping and killing of government officials -- state troopers, a judge, U.S. Marshals, TSA officials, and personnel with the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security -- as retaliation in the event any of them attempted to apprehend Cox. 

Plans included staging armed patrols in public places and acquiring and making illegal weapons, according to prosecutors.

"I am innocent. I am not guilty," Cox said to the Washington-state based judge overseeing the cases when asked to enter a plea to the new charges. 

U.S. District Court Judge Robert J. Bryan was called in since Vernon is accused in a separate case of plotting to kill a federal judge in Alaska.

Early in the day the defense failed to convince Byran to drop some of the weapons charges. Attorneys for Cox and Barney had argued that allowing grenade launchers and canisters loaded with bullets to be called "destructive devices" was unconstitutional. They reasoned if guns are legal, a less-lethal form of self defense must be legal, too? 

Judge Bryan nixed the motion, saying it had "no merit" because the definition of a weapon included anything that could be used as an instrument of offensive or defensive combat, and the items in question expel projectiles and are used as anti-personnel devices.

Another Cox attorney, Robert John, then argued that the whole case should essentially be thrown out, because one of the government's informants, a militia infiltrator named J.R. Olson, basically kept Cox kidnapped in Fairbanks in the weeks leading up to his arrest. Consequently, John said, none of the evidence should be allowed.

Olson's undelivered promise to whisk a destitute Cox and his family out of state by helping him catch a ride with an interstate trucker ended up keeping Cox in town and amounted to "duress" and "coersion," John told the judge. 

"If it is tantamount to kidnapping, that's outrageous," he said. "What right to the government have for not allowing Cox to leave?"

Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Skrocki countered that Cox, far from destitute, was "weapons wealthy." If Cox needed cash, he could have sold his weaponry -- much of which was later discovered stockpiled in a trailer -- to raise the money, but chose not to. "He could have had a heck of a garage sale with that trailer," Skrocki said.

It wasn't Olson who kept Cox stuck hiding in a friend's house, Skrocki said. Cox himself spent the time talking about acquiring more illegal weapons, refining plans for lethal retaliation while also looking to get out of Alaska without having to buy a plane ticket. "He wanted to go because it would get him out of Dodge quietly and covertly and he wouldn't be apprehended.

The pre-trial hearings are expected to continue through Tuesday.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com