FAIRBANKS — Three Fairbanks-area residents go on trial Monday to face charges that they hatched and tried to carry out a plan to kill government employees.
On paper the charges look much like the ones they were arrested on 14 months ago, but both the case and public knowledge of it have transformed considerably in the intervening time.
In March 2011 there were five defendants in the case: Fairbanks militia leader Schaeffer Cox, North Pole-area owner of Mammoth Electric Coleman Barney, and Lonnie and Karen Vernon who lived in Salcha where Lonnie was a truck driver and Karen worked for a gravel excavation company.
The fifth, mining engineer Michael O. Anderson, of Fairbanks, has since been released with his charges dropped. Karen Vernon meanwhile is being held without bail with the others, although her trial is not until fall.
The defendants were arrested in different parts of the Interior on March 10, 2011.
The arrest was the culmination of an FBI investigation of Cox that went back to spring 2010 after he made speeches in Montana and elsewhere that the agency determined amounted to advocating for government overthrow.
Cox has described himself as a sovereign citizen, a loosely connected movement of people who believe the U.S. government and its laws do not have authority over them.
The FBI classifies the sovereign citizen movement as domestic terrorism movement that has been associated with some violence but is most known for clogging the court system with fraudulent liens and lawsuits.
Cox already was a fairly well-known public figure in Fairbanks when he came under investigation. As a political candidate in a 2008 he won 37 percent of the vote in an unsuccessful Republican primary bid against Mike Kelly’s for a seat in the Alaska House of Representatives. In 2009 he started a gun rights organizations called the Second Amendment Taskforce that held large rallies at Friends Church and the Carlson Center.
Cox’s politics became less mainstream as he got involved in the sovereign citizen movement and began founding groups he said would hold society together if the U.S. government fell, including a trial court that met at Denny’s restaurant and his Peacemakers Militia. In speeches he told audiences his militia was a modern military complete with doctors, engineers, aircraft and a force of 3,500 troops.
In summer 2010, two FBI informants began making secret recordings of conversations with Cox; both have been publicly identified. One, Gerald “JR” Olson is a former Wasilla contractor convicted of defrauding his customers. He received a lighter sentence from prosecutors in exchange for infiltrating Cox’s militia and making recordings.
The second informant, Bill Fulton, is the former owner of an Anchorage military surplus store, Drop Zone, and private security company by the same name. Prosecutors say the defendants ordered illegal weapons from Fulton including grenades and pistols with silencers.
After their March 10 arrest the defendants faced federal weapons charges, but the most serious charges came in Alaska Superior Court where they were accused of conspiring to kill state authorities through a plan called “2-4-1” in which militia members were to kidnap two law enforcement officers if any militia member was arrested and kill two if any militia member was killed in any ensuing fight. Defense attorneys have not denied discussion of this plan occurred but say the plan was Olson’s idea and that it should be classified as a self-defense plan instead of a murder plot.
The state case fell apart last fall after a Superior Court judge ruled that secret recordings made without a search warrant were not admissible in court under the Alaska Constitution’s privacy protections.
Michael O. Anderson, who prosecutors had classified as a “computer guru” willing to look up the home addresses of targets, was released from jail because he faced no federal charges. Anderson was taken into federal custody again for a week in December, this time because federal prosecutors said he was not cooperating with a grand jury subpoena and needed to be compelled to testify.
Cox, Barney and Lonnie Vernon were indicted on their current federal charges in January. The indictment makes broader accusations than the state charging document. It mentions the “2-4-1” plan but also says the defendants targeted other government workers including the TSA and border patrol. The new indictment alleges the conspiracy can be traced back as far back August 2009.
The trial for Cox, Barney and Lonnie Vernon begins Monday. Attorneys estimate it will last into mid-June.
Lonnie and Karen Vernon face separate charges that they threatened a federal judge and his family as well as an IRS employee over a tax dispute. That trial is scheduled for this fall.
Contact staff writer Sam Friedman at 459-7545.