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Moving testimony brings Alaska militia leader Schaeffer Cox to tears

Jill Burke
Jill Burke photos

For a brief moment inside a federal courtroom Thursday, Schaeffer Cox let his emotions get the best of him. In recent years he's been confidently defiant to judges, smiling, and expressive to reporters witnessing the proceedings. Throughout the federal case against him involving weapons violations and a murder conspiracy, he has been perky, attentive and generally even-keeled. But watching a former acquaintance break down and cry on the witness stand was too much.

He and two followers, Coleman Barney and Lonnie Vernon, are in custody and standing trial for what prosecutors have called a violent, murderous plot to harm federal employees.

TSA employee Trina Beauchamp was one of three mothers, including Cox's mother-in-law, whom prosecutors called to testify against Cox, Barney and Vernon. Their status as mothers isn't what made them relevant. Prosecutors wanted to know what they had seen and heard during various run-ins with Cox and his militia. And they collectively cast a wave of powerful emotion through the courtroom Thursday. They wanted safety for themselves and their children.  And the extreme sovereign citizen rhetoric of Cox's Alaska Peacemakers Militia scared them.

At first, Beauchamp offered straightforward testimony chronicling her association with Cox over the years. They attended the same church, where Cox's father served as a pastor. She'd had Cox over for lunch a few times when she hosted gatherings featuring home-cooked meals for college students. 

Over time, Beauchamp had had two odd encounters with Cox. He'd come to her last student lunch wearing body armor, which perplexed her. And he'd once called her to find out whether he was on the TSA's “no fly” list. Beauchamp declined to help him obtain that information. If he wanted to find out, he'd have to go to the airport and see whether he was allowed to board a plane.

Hit list?

As Beauchamp spoke of the lunches she hosted, Cox smiled intently -- a large, beaming grin that seemed awkwardly misplaced. It was distracting enough that prosecutors asked Beauchamp if they knew why he was doing it. At the time, she was explaining her “pay it forward” philosophy of life, the motivation behind the student lunches she hosted. The question from the prosecutor came immediately before he asked her to identify notes scrawled on a yellow legal pad that were displayed on a projector for the jury to view.

Rattled, the TSA trainer from Fairbanks had to compose herself before continuing, reaching for a tissue to wipe away tears. On the bottom of the page, which contained a crudely drawn map and a few names, appeared the words t-r-i-n-a b-o-w-c-h-a-m-p. A co-worker of hers and state trooper acquaintance also appeared there. It was part of the catalogue of names of law enforcement and judicial workers that prosecutors suggest comprises a “hit list” -- the people Cox's militia would supposedly aim for if provoked.

Through sniffles and a broken voice, Beauchamp explained that when she learned about the list including her name the night before, she felt betrayed, and frightened. In the hours between that revelation and her appearance on the stand, she'd bought herself a gun. Watching Beauchamp's pain was too much for Cox. His smile was gone, replaced with a face flushed with color and a wrinkled, wincing brow as tears flooded his own eyes.

At that moment, he let slip from his lips: “Trina, I love you! I would never hurt you!”

The mother-in-law

Beauchamp's appearance added emotional weight to what jurors previously heard from Janice Stewart, Cox's mother-in-law. The Anchorage school teacher admitted her relationship with Cox is uncomfortable, long fraught with tension and mutual dislike. She'd been around the couple during Thanksgiving 2010 and again in early February 2011, visiting the Coxes in Fairbanks, first for the holiday and then for the birth of her granddaughter. Both times people came and went from the house and Cox seemed to be non-stop busy. Household conversations often centered on government corruption and the need for citizens to retake their rights.

Stewart had felt it was the culmination of Cox's “gradual move to a more radical view,” one that had been escalating ever since he lost an election to serve as in the Alaska Legislature. Where being a part of the political process had failed, Cox had developed a belief that outright rejection of established government was a better way. She was distressed by Cox's “radical mentality,” but never reported the substance of his tirades to police, feeling it was better to remain neutral. If her daughter, Marti, ever needed a safe place, she could provide it.

Later, Stewart's full feelings for her daughter's husband emerged. On cross examination, Traverso asked whether Stewart ever turned Cox into authorities -- either related to a domestic violence incident or fearing for the safety of the couple's young son. She hadn't. She trusted her daughter's ability to keep the kids safe. She also hadn't felt that although Cox's rhetoric had become increasingly laced with violence, he wasn't an immediate threat with specific plans.

Her beef with Cox, she eventually revealed, started when the couple got engaged. It was a short relationship, they'd made the commitment to each other in secret, and Stewart worried her husband-to-be would bring unhappiness. He'd exhibited signs of extreme possessiveness and was isolating Marti from her family, she said. There were many red flags, and she just didn't like him.

Waco in Alaska?

Witness Sarah Thompson also brought personal connections with her to the witness stand. The alcoholic husband she'd married and divorced was the brother of Coleman Barney, one of the three militia members on trial. In defending herself against her husband, which at times required court visits, the Barney family had enveloped and supported her. When she needed a place to stay, Coleman and his wife, Rachel, took her in, allowing her to rent a unit in the duplex situated on their property. After years of marriage, the couple still seemed madly in love.

She'd always thought highly of Barney. She'd known him to be a man of sturdy character and a great father and husband -- “everything you'd want in a man.” The thought of the princely man and how far he'd fallen -- who she could see seated below her as she pulled her pregnant body into the witness seat -- brought her to tears. He'd always been a “hot dog and apple pie” brand of patriot, but by March 2011, the month of the arrests, something had changed. She couldn't make sense of the sovereign citizen beliefs he fervently espoused. But she did comprehend one thing. She was frightened.

She recalled how the militia held a meeting on the back porch of the Barney home, and how Barney came to her after a meeting she had been unable to attend to talk about Cox's need for protection. When Barney had called her to insistently set the meeting up, she teased him about whether he was trying to sell her Ginsu knives.

What he really wanted was to get her and her husband to commit to helping Cox with a court appearance -- one that predated the Feb. state court date he would later avoid. Barney explained Cox needed a security detail, men to carry weapons outside and man the courthouse exits, and women and other volunteers to sit inside the courtroom during Cox's appearance before a judge. Thompson's current husband was adamant that neither he, nor his wife, would carry a weapon to a courthouse. Instead, they would sit in the courtroom and watch.

At first Cox went on what she called a long, boring tirade. But before long, it took an unexpected turn. Cox, gesturing to his supporters in the audience, made a statement suggesting that they would all rather “kill the judge in her bed at night rather than address her in the courtroom,” she said.

The glaring statement made her extremely uncomfortable. She hadn't known Cox planned to say something like that and she wanted nothing to do with it.

Soon, Thompson began to feel like the situation with Cox and his sovereign citizen followers was becoming reminiscent of Waco, the violent gun-battle that left four ATF agents and six Branch Davidians dead and led to a nearly two-month siege and stand-off that ended with a deadly fire. Seventy-five people died, including women and children.

From admiration to obsession

Thompson said Barney had started talking about how he felt a duty to protect people at any cost from the ills of the U.S. government, which he likened to Nazi Germany, she said. He and Cox and the other radical members of the militia had completely disassociated themselves from the U.S. government, and declared that they were no longer a part of it. Imagine what would happen, he once asked Thompson, if the house burned down and you aren't a U.S. citizen? Who will help you?

At first Thompson thought Barney was impressed by Cox, a young and vibrant orator with big ideas and a rising presence. But then, the admiration became more like obsession, she said.

“Is it your impression Coleman Barney would kill for Schaeffer Cox,” prosecutor Steven Skrocki asked Thompson.

“That's how it got in the end, yes,” she answered. “I didn't understand why he would choose to go into an unnecessary battle for Schaeffer Cox. He (Barney) was a law abiding kind of man.”

Thompson's fears of a bloody, fiery conclusion to the extreme anti-government talk she'd heard came to a head when she spotted Barney and Cox and a third man crossing the lawn carrying what looked to her like machine guns -- without saying a word to her. When she saw Marti Cox in the window of Barney's home, she knew the couple was hiding out there after Cox became a fugitive, and was terrified that the Barney residence would become ground zero to the showdown. Her two sons were living on the property, as were the Barney's four children.

She was so worried that she called her ex-husband and asked him to take her boys somewhere safe. She started looking for a new place to live. “When he (Cox) was on the property with guns, I became alarmed he’d have the shootout with the kids there,” she testified. To her, Cox was Alaska's David Koresh, the cult leader from Waco, Texas who ultimately died in that final fire alongside his believers.

Two days later, hours after she'd gotten her kids to the airport and shuttled the Barney children to school, Cox, Barney and Vernon were in taken into custody. Soon after, investigators descended on the property.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com