ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Schaeffer Cox carries himself with youthful swagger as he spreads a message to his many admirers of an out-of-control federal government bulldozing individual freedoms.
Federal prosecutors portray him quite differently: as a dangerous Alaska militia leader who with others amassed a huge cache of illegal weapons while plotting a strategy to one day kill judges, state troopers and other government officials.
According to prosecutors, Cox, the 28-year-old head of the Alaska Peacemakers Militia, believed his group would eventually need to take up arms against the government, and "be sufficiently armed and equipped to sustain a take-over of the 'government' or become a new government in the event of a 'government collapse.'" So he and others allegedly hatched a plan intended to kill two government officials for every one militia member who was killed — a strategy known within the group as "241" or "two for one."
The federal trial of Cox and two Alaska men — Coleman Barney, 37, and Lonnie Vernon, 56 — began last week and could last another month. Defense attorneys plan to argue that the government badly overstepped its authority, ensnaring the men via an informant who encouraged weapons purchases and pushed for violence. Their clients are not dangerous men but devout Christians who only intended to defend loved ones in case that ever became necessary, the defense has argued.
Norm Olson, the founder of the Michigan Militia who now lives in the Alaska community of Nikiski and is commander of the Alaska Citizens Militia, is among those who support Cox. He said that any so-called plot against the government was just "testosterone talking." As for the "241" concept, it's about defensive planning, not striking first, Olson said.
"So I don't understand what's going on here," he said. "But the feds want to push it, I think, because Schaeffer is such an outstanding spokesperson for the constitution."
Besides the Peacemakers group, Cox also led a group called the Second Amendment Task Force in Fairbanks and ran unsuccessfully for the state House in 2008. He began to attract notice of law enforcement after the turn of the decade.
In March 2010, he was accused of choking his wife during an argument in a car and convicted of misdemeanor reckless endangerment. He told supporters that he blamed the incident on a bothersome mother-in-law, who never liked his conservative values.
Weeks after that arrest, a Fairbanks homeowner contacted Cox to complain that police were making an unauthorized search of her property. Police said they were responding to a 911 hang-up call.
As a member of a "Liberty Bell" network, Cox sent out mass notifications when people believe their rights are violated. In the Fairbanks incident, he tried to go inside the home while police were interviewing people. An officer noticed a knife in Cox's front pocket, patted him down and found a .380-caliber semiautomatic pistol. Alaska law requires people who come in contact with a law enforcement officer while carrying a concealed firearm to immediately notify the officer.
During a pretrial hearing on the weapons charge, he denied the legitimacy of the Alaska state court system. He believes all people are sovereigns, and no one is required to obey laws unless they directly harm other sovereigns.
"I am a sovereign, a man of peace, but capable of war," he said during a rambling 20-minute speech, as reported by the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.
"There's a lot of people that would just as soon come and kill you in the night than come in your courtroom and argue during the day," Cox told Judge Jane Kauvar during the hearing.
He then stated he wouldn't attend further proceedings.
But Cox did go to one more. At a December 2010 hearing to set a trial date, Cox — who refused to remove his newsboy hat — attempted to serve paperwork on District Court Judge Patrick Hammers. "You're now being treated as a criminal engaged in criminal activity, and you're being served in that manner," Cox said.
Cox also told a state trooper after the hearing the militia had troopers "outmanned, outgunned and we could probably have you all dead in one night," the News-Miner reported.
An arrest warrant was soon issued when he didn't appear for court in February 2011.
Cox told The Associated Press at the time that his absence was in response to a judge's order barring "any discussion of, reference to, or argument with respect to the defendant's position on the validity of, 'sense' of, or constitutionality of the law."
Said Cox: "The judge, by signing an order forbidding all reference to the constitution, has divested himself of all authority vested in him by that constitution and the law requires me to now resist by all means necessary or else be an enabler of lawlessness."
In March 2011, Cox and the other defendants were arrested on charges of conspiring to commit murder, conspiracy to commit kidnapping and weapons charges.
Vernon also faces federal charges of threatening the murder of U.S. District Court Judge Ralph Beistline and a family member of a federal judge. Beistline is overseeing the Vernons' federal tax case. Federal attorneys filed liens on their home in south of Fairbanks.
Cox and the others initially faced state charges as well, but those counts were thrown out when a judge ruled the FBI recordings captured during a six-month investigation were made without a warrant, a violation of the Alaska Constitution. The FBI has wider authority to obtain warrants, and there is greater leeway in federal court.