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Prosecution close to wrapping up at Alaska militia trial

Jill Burke
Jill Burke photos

FBI special agent Richard Sutherland will be the last person jurors hear from before prosecutors turn the courtroom over to the defense teams for Schaeffer Cox, Coleman Barney and Lonnie Vernon. The trio has been in custody for more than a year waiting to vindicate themselves against federal weapons and murder-conspiracy charges.

Cox is the Fairbanks-based militia leader who in recent years declared himself a sovereign citizen and become increasingly vocal about the noble calling of violent resistance to government corruption. Barney and Vernon are two of his followers.

Prosecutors on Tuesday walked jurors through Sutherland's involvement:

• His handling of or knowledge of the informants;

• Cox’s Montana speeches that initially caught the attention of investigators;

• Cox's subsequent arrests and statements boasting of large ranks of men and firepower at the ready, which turned the investigation from a curious inquiry to an active operation.

Before court ended for the day, jurors learned that Sutherland spent seven hours talking to Cox in a post-arrest interview, an unusually long conversation that Sutherland attributed to the volume of information they had to go over -- and to Cox's constant desire to debate and be evasive. Excerpts from the interview were played in court Tuesday.

“I think you're being quite presumptuous,” Cox at one point told Sutherland, as they discussed whether Cox had ordered a “James Bond”-like matched suppressor and pistol set, and made plans to trade another rifle to get other weapons. Sutherland had a lot of surveillance evidence backing up his theory, but asked Cox whether he'd misunderstood, or somehow gotten the situation wrong.

“I hear things. I see things,” Sutherland told Cox

For much of the day, prosecutors offered stark reminders that Cox had publicly stated, more than once, that he had people ready, willing and able to kill in service to his beliefs. And, jurors could witness the violent firepower the men had access to.

Brett Mills, an FBI lab technician from testified that a Sten submachine gun found during a search after the arrests was fully operational on either of its two settings: automatic and repeat, or “A” and “R.” The World War II-era weapon could discharge 30 rounds in about three seconds, a shooting rate captured in a video of the weapon. When the same video was replayed at a quarter of the speed, jurors got a better view of the rapidly discharging shells being expelled as round after round fired from the gun

After the machine gun demonstration, jurors listened as an Alaska State Trooper chronicled Cox's outspoken behavior in state court in December of 2010. By then, Cox was on the FBI's radar. They'd opened a full-blown investigation, and had two paid undercover informants on the case. The trooper didn't say whether he knew this.

At the court hearing on a misdemeanor weapons charge, Cox was disrespectful, according to Sgt. Tim Schoenberg, who was on duty in the courtroom that day. Cox wore a hat inside the courtroom. He refused to enter the well and sit at the defense table, instead choosing to stay behind a railing separating courtroom observers from participants in the hearing. As he stood behind the bar, he intently spoke his mind.

“You are rebellious imposters,” Cox told the state court judge in an amateur video posted to the website YouTube, which has become evidence in the case. During the speech, Cox rattled off several attention-grabbing phrases. “We want peace and friendship --and not war. We will not tolerate harm from anyone. If you continue to harm or threaten us in any way, we have the right to defend ourselves.”

Cox ordered the court to “cease and desist” and described how, if it and its agents did not stop engaging him, there would be deadly trouble. “There are a lot of people out there that would just as soon come and kill in your home at night than come and argue with you in your court by day,” he could be heard to say. “We can spill a lot of blood.”

Although Schoenberg was worried about the statements, and added extra security at the courthouse, he never took action against Cox. It was better to keep the lines of communication open, he told jurors, than to escalate things.

Cox and other militia members flanked the trooper as he exited the courtroom and walked down a stairwell. “We've got you guys out-gunned and out-manned. We could probably have you guys dead in one night,” said Cox, who couldn't seem to leave well enough alone. It was an oddly upbeat conversation, which Schoenberg recorded in the course of his duties. The men laughed. Schoenberg tried to calm things down, telling Cox he wasn't Cox's problem.

Yet for all of the concerns about the things Cox said, Schoenberg didn't write his report about the unusual courtroom happenings until 2012, nearly two years after they took place, Cox's defense attorney, Nelson Traverso, elicited on cross examination.

When asked if he thought Cox was an immediate threat, someone who two years ago was dangerous, Schoenberg said he thought so but couldn't be sure. “On one hand he's indicating we should all be friends,  and on the other hand he's telling us he's going to kill us,” he said. It was more of the dual delivery Cox has been shown to utilize often in a variation of his I-don't-want-to-hurt-you-but-will-if-you-make-me spiel. Although Schoenberg didn't take any action against Cox, he did sleep restlessly that night, and canceled a sleepover his daughter's had planned.

Prosecutors are expected to rest their case Wednesday, after which the defense is expected to mount an unusual offense by calling to the stand one of the two men hired by the FBI to work as undercover informants.

The government has declined to say why it decided not to rely on testimony from Bill Fulton, also known as “Drop Zone Bill” -- a reference to the military supply store he once owned in Anchorage. He'd worked the case as a weapons dealer and militia sympathizer. But the defense is clearly interested in whether Fulton contributed to or created a culture that unfairly set Cox and his associates up, a complaint they've repeatedly lodged.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com