ANCHORAGE— An Anchorage jury of seven men and nine women will hear opening arguments this morning in the case against Schaeffer Cox and two members of his Peacemakers Militia accused of making plans to kill government employees.
The trial officially began Monday morning at the Federal Courthouse in downtown Anchorage, but it took most of the day to winnow down the jury from a diverse pool of 88 potential jurors that included an Anchorage toy store employee, a King Salmon barista and baker, a retired Valdez police administrator and a Sand Point harbor employee.
The three defendants — Cox, Coleman Barney and Lonnie Vernon — are charged with conspiracy to commit murder as well as assorted weapons charges for allegedly owning weapons including pistols with silencers and grenades. Prosecutors say the group targeted law enforcement agencies as part of their “sovereign citizen” ideology that does not recognize the authority of the U.S. government.
During Monday’s jury selection, about three-quarters of the jurors raised their hands when asked if they had previously heard of the case.
Many questions dealt with weapons because of the nature of the case. Again, about three-quarters of the jury pool members raised their hand when asked if they had been to a gun show. About half said they were members of the National Rifle Association or other gun rights advocacy organizations. The few who had said they had biases against guns or against gun registration laws did not make it onto the jury.
Also during jury selection, jurors heard a list of possible witnesses in the case. Notably absent from the list was Bill Fulton, one of two FBI informants who recorded the activities of Cox and the others in the months leading up to their March 2011 arrest.
Earlier court hearings and documents have identified Fulton, the former owner of the Anchorage military surplus store Drop Zone and owner of a private security firm by the same name, as an informant who met with some of the defendants in Anchorage and was allegedly asked to supply them with illegal weapons including pistol silencers and grenades.
Prosecutors have said in recent court filings they were not planning to call Fulton but would make him available at trial if the defense wanted to call him as a witness.
The witness list did include Gerald “JR” Olson, a second FBI informant who infiltrated Cox’s militia and recorded meetings in exchange for leniency in his own criminal case. Olson previously pleaded guilty to stealing construction equipment and defrauding customers of a business that promised to install septic systems.
The charge of conspiracy to commit murder has a maximum sentence of life in prison, but despite the severity of the charge, the tone of the jury selection phase of the trial was relatively light. U.S. District Judge Robert J. Bryan, who lives and usually works in Tacoma, Wash., cracked jokes during questioning that got laughs from jurors, attorneys and even the defendants.
At one point Barney’s attorney Tim Dooley recognized a possible juror as a man who employed him long ago raking manure at the Fairbanks Experimental Farm. The juror was dismissed after recognizing his former employee.
One of few contentious moments in jury selection came when Cox’s attorney Nelson Traverso told the jury panel they might encounter contradictory evidence at trial and ask panel members what they look for to tell if someone is lying. U.S. Attorney Steve Skrocki objected, saying that this question amounted to Traverso pre-trying his case, but Bryan let a juror answer the question.
All three defendants have been in jail since their arrest in March 2011. But because they were in the presence of a jury, they were not dressed in prison uniforms. Barney and Cox wore suits — Cox with a pink necktie — while Vernon wore a blue dress shirt.
Contact staff writer Sam Friedman at 459-7545