Published November 20, 2014
The leader of an Alaska militia who gave speeches claiming Fairbanks was on the verge of having blood in its streets was convicted Monday of nine federal charges, including conspiracy to kill federal law enforcement officers and possession of illegal weapons.
Schaeffer Cox, 28, who his attorney acknowledged was brash and offensive, leaned forward and intently watched jurors as U.S. District Judge Robert Bryant polled them to confirm the verdicts. When he finished, Cox grabbed a microphone for one more brief speech.
"The prosecution withheld evidence from you guys!" he told jurors.
Bryant admonished Cox and he did not speak again.
The seven-woman, five-man jury had 21 verdicts to consider in more than two days of deliberations. They deadlocked on just one: a decision on whether Cox's second-in-command, Coleman Barney, 37, was also guilty of conspiracy to murder.
The jury convicted Barney of conspiring to possess unregistered silencers and hand grenades, and of possessing an unregistered 37 mm projectile launcher loaded with a "hornet's nest" anti-personnel round that contained rubber pellets.
But the jury acquitted Barney of two other charges: possession of hand grenade parts that Cox had loaded into Barney's trailer as Cox got ready to move out of state, and a count of carrying firearms during a crime of violence.
Lonnie Vernon, 56, a foot soldier in the tiny militia, was convicted of conspiracy to murder and conspiracy to possess unregistered silencers and hand grenades. He was acquitted of carrying firearms during a crime of violence.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Skrocki said he expected years of imprisonment for Cox, whose second child was born a month after he was arrested. Skrocki praised the jury for wading through 900 exhibits and 70 witnesses over nearly six weeks.
"We think it was fair," Skrocki said of the verdicts. "We know the jury worked very hard."
Cox is the son of a Baptist minister in Fairbanks and is regarded as an articulate speaker who can draw a crowd.
He was picked as a delegate to the 2008 Republican state convention and made frequent floor speeches during the building of the platform. He tried taking on an incumbent that year in the Republican primary and was defeated.
In more recent years, he led several groups tied to constitutional causes. He helped form the Second Amendment Task Force, which advocated gun rights and displaying firearms in public places. He was a primary member of Liberty Bell, a hotline to call if someone wanted a witness to an interaction with a law enforcement officer. He espoused a sovereign citizen philosophy, claiming the court system and the Alaska Bar Association were corrupt.
He also formed the Alaska Peacemakers Militia, which members claimed would protect families and property in the federal government collapsed, as members believed could happen with the nation's economic problems after 2008.
Cox came to the attention of the FBI in late 2009 after speeches in Montana that claimed the militia had 3,500 members and was armed with claymore mines and other military weapons. The claim was a gross exaggeration as the group only had about a dozen members.
As the investigation unfolded over more than a year, the FBI eventually used an informant to infiltrate the group. He recorded more than 100 hours of conversations.
Cox attorney Nelson Traverso claimed during the trial that the case was an overreach by prosecutors and an attempt to silence Cox and his offensive but protected speech. Appearing before a state judge, Cox said some militia members would sooner murder her than appear before her. He also told an Alaska State Trooper that his militia had the officers outgunned.
Skrocki said that Cox eventually crossed the line separating offhand comments about killing someone to formulation of plans to do so.
The conspiracy to murder, he said during the trial, was manifested by plans Cox made for an armed security details that Cox solicited to protect him from a Colorado-based FBI hit squad. It didn't matter that such a hit squad does not exist, Skrocki said.
Jurors convicted Cox of nine of the 11 counts.
He was acquitted of two counts of carrying a firearm during a crime of violence. Besides the two conspiracy charges, however, he was found guilty of possessing parts to assemble hand grenades, possessing a .22-caliber handgun with a silencer, and of making that silencer.
He also was convicted of two counts connected to possessing an unregistered machine gun and solicitation to commit a crime of violence.
Defense attorneys contend the men were within their rights to carry weapons to protect Cox. Barney's attorney, Tim Dooley, said the decision to convict Cox and Vernon was a surprise and he was expecting acquittals for his client, a self-employed electrician with a wife and children.
"I don't think I've been as blue about a verdict as I am about this one," he said.
Barney, he said, was devastated by the verdicts.
"He's thinking he let other people down," Dooley said. "He's not thinking of himself."
He plans to appeal.
Bryant set sentencing for Sept. 14.