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'241' militia trial witness list could include 75 people

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Posted: Saturday, March 31, 2012 10:35 pm | Updated: 1:52 pm, Wed Jan 16, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — Prosecutors may call as many as 75 witnesses next month in the trial of three members of the Fairbanks-based Peacemaker’s Militia accused of plotting to kill government employees, according to a pre-trial letter filed this week by U.S. District Judge Robert Bryan.

The three defendants, militia leader and Fairbanks resident Schaeffer Cox, North Pole area resident Coleman Barney and Lonnie Vernon of Salcha, have been in jail for more than a year awaiting trail.

Their trial is scheduled to begin in early May, with a pre-trial conference scheduled April 30. The trial is being held in Anchorage despite an attempt by the defense to move it to Fairbanks.

A fourth defendant, Vernon’s wife Karen Vernon, also is in federal custody. Both Vernons are scheduled to go to trial in the fall on separate charges that allege they threatened the life of a federal judge when he did not rule in their favor in a tax dispute.

An earlier government estimate for the length of Cox, Barney and Vernon’s trial was two weeks. But that was when the defendants faced comparatively minor charges that they had illegal weapons. A new indictment handed down in January alleged the defendants had a hit list of U.S. Marshals, TSA officers and other officials they planned to kill. The new indictment raised the stakes by adding the new charge of conspiracy to murder, which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.

The proposed 75 witnesses mentioned in Bryan’s letter does not include an additional 14 witnesses that could be used to vouch for the authenticity of physical evidence or any additional witnesses the defense team chooses to call.

“That is an extraordinary number of witnesses to manage and will require maximum efficiency in having them ready to go,” Bryan wrote.

A Washington state-based judge, Bryan suggested a trail schedule divided into four-day weeks so that he can take care of business in Tacoma, Wash., on the fifth day.

In previous court documents, prosecutors have said evidence against the defendants is based in part on the work of two informants including one who infiltrated the Peacemaker’s Militia between the summer of 2010 and the arrests in March 2011.

Last fall, an Alaska judge ruled hundreds of hours of secret recordings made by informants without a search warrant were inadmissible in Alaska Superior Court on state constitutional grounds, which led to the dismissal of a related Alaska Superior Court murder conspiracy case.

Thus far the recordings have withstood pre-trial challenges in federal court.

Contact staff writer Sam Friedman at 459-7545.

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