The trial of three Fairbanks militia members opened in U.S. District Court Tuesday with prosecutors describing them as dangerous armed terrorists plotting to murder Alaskans in authority, and defense attorneys saying their ideas may seem wacky, but they are not threatening.
In her opening statement before a jury in Anchorage, Assistant U.S. Attorney Yvonne Lamoureux listed the weapons and weapon components seized from the three men when they were arrested 14 months ago -- 30,000 rounds of ammunition, black powder, machine guns, pistols, 19 jars of Tannerite explosive powder, sting grenades and grenade launchers, tear gas canisters. Then she told the jury:
"Those were some of the items that these defendants had on March 10, 2011, and they were trying to get more weapons. This case is about why they had those weapons: They were preparing to kill officers and employees of the United States," she said.
But the defense painted a completely different picture.
Schaeffer Cox, the militia leader, is a "young, idealistic man" who may have railed against the government and who challenged authority at every opportunity, but he armed himself out of defense, not aggression, his attorney, Nelson Traverso, told the jury when it was his turn.
"The testimony in this case will show that this is not about Francis Schaeffer Cox the domestic terrorist whose aim was to obtain firearms and grenades to overthrow the government," Traverso said. "You don't need to gun down the beast -- you need to let it fall or collapse on its own," he said, quoting from one of Cox's speeches.
Cox was a family man who believed the economy was on the verge of collapse and that the government would soon follow, leaving people defenseless unless they had an armed militia to protect them, Traverso said.
Co-defendant Coleman Barney, a major in Cox's Alaska Peacemaker Militia and a successful electrical contractor, is a devout Mormon who also believed the clock had about run out on organized society, said his attorney, Tim Dooley.
"The men who formed the Alaska Peacemaker Militia were almost all devout Christians and of the type that believe the end of the world was near," Dooley said. Barney and Cox might have "bizarre ideas," Dooley said, but that's not illegal.
Dooley started to tell the jury about Ruby Ridge, the deadly 1992 confrontation in northern Idaho between a family of Christian survivalists and federal authorities, but was stopped by the judge after Lamoureux stood with an objection -- a unusual interruption of an opening statement. Dooley started to say that Barney, like many other right-wing militia members, was deeply affected by the deaths in Idaho of Randy Weaver's son, Sammy, and wife, Vicki.
The attorney for the third defendant, Lonnie Vernon, a sergeant in the militia, described her client as someone who shot off his mouth to look more important, but who wasn't the threat portrayed in the charges. Attorney M.J. Haden said Vernon "was just a warm body in Mr. Cox's organization, someone who Mr. Cox could call on when he needed somebody to show up and no one was available."
While the evidence may portray Vernon as a man who's "rough around the edges," he was far from being a leader in the militia or a member of a conspiracy, Haden said.
"Lonnie's a hard-working truck driver and he tends to be a little bit of a loudmouth, he's a blowhard, he tends to exaggerate," Haden said. "There was no agreement between Lonnie Vernon and Mr. Cox or Mr. Barney to possess destructive devices or possess silencers. There was no agreement between Lonnie Vernon and Mr. Cox or Mr. Barney to murder anybody."
After the opening statements, prosecutors opened their case by calling a series of FBI agents to describe what happened the day the three defendants were arrested, March 10, 2011. The witnesses established for the jury of 16 -- there are four alternatives -- how Cox, Barney and Vernon came to be sitting in the courtroom and how the authorities seized the boxes of evidence stacked in the courtroom.
Aside from weapons, agents also seized a whiteboard from Cox's home that talked about security planning for an interview at the religious television station KJNP-TV in North Pole (the call letters stand for King Jesus North Pole) on Nov. 23, 2010. Cox was convinced that the FBI was sending a hit team to Alaska to kill him, and the security plan was his response.
His militia pals were first to use tear gas and sting grenades in the event of a confrontation, the white board said. Reading from the whiteboard she seized, FBI Agent Jolene Goeden described the second option written there: lethal force -- "lead poisoning."
Goeden also found a printed document in Cox's house listing 17 "Acts of War." Among them: firearm restrictions, "child control," checkpoints and "circumvention of jury," a possible reference to Cox' adherence to the "sovereign citizen" movement that rejects state and federal courts.
The trial on a 16-count indictment is expected to last six to eight weeks. The visiting judge hearing the case, U.S. District Judge Robert Bryan of Tacoma, Wash., is holding full-day sessions but recessing every Thursday so he could return home and hear matters in his own courtroom on Fridays.