Courts & Crime

Alaska militia defendants facing more federal charges

The three Fairbanks militia defendants were in a federal courtroom in Anchorage on Monday, using attorneys to assert their constitutional rights before a presidentially appointed judge, a far cry from the Denny's restaurant that their leader once declared to be his sovereign citizen courtroom.

The occasion for Schaeffer Cox and the co-defendants from his militia band, Barney Coleman and Lonnie Vernon, was a series of hearings in which their lawyers hoped to throw out evidence and charges ahead of their trial on weapons violations, originally scheduled for February.

The hearings got under way, but with a twist: As they shuffled into the courtroom in leg irons and handcuffs, the defendants were learning that a grand jury in Anchorage had significantly upped the ante last week. The grand jury handed up a new indictment in their case that added six additional charges, including one carrying a life sentence: conspiracy to murder.

It was another sign that the Justice Department was taking them much more seriously than just a bunch of crackpots with recreational firepower. Instead, it was treating them as homegrown terrorists.

One of the FBI agents who testified Monday, a 12-year veteran of the bureau, is the supervisor of the joint terrorism task force in the Anchorage field office; the other serves on her squad.

The revised indictment accused all three men of conspiring to kill "officers and employees of the United States, including law enforcement officers." Another new count, carrying a 20-year maximum prison term, accused Cox, 27, of soliciting the other two "and others known and unknown to the grand jury" to murder a federal officer.

The new federal charges, an outgrowth of the original investigation, restore part of a state case that was also filed against the three plus several other members of the Fairbanks based Alaska Peace Makers Militia. The state case named the alleged murder targets as state judges and troopers, though otherwise was similar to the federal murder conspiracy charge, which only cites federal officials.

The Alaska attorney general's office dismissed the conspiracy case in October when a state judge ruled that hundreds of hours of conversations recorded by federal informants could not be used in a state court because the right kind of warrant wasn't obtained.

Among the matters under consideration in the current series of federal court hearings is whether those same recordings can still be used in a trial in U.S. District Court, where the standards aren't as narrow as Alaska's.

But first, the defendants had to be arraigned on the new charges. Asked how he pleaded to Count 1, Cox declared, "Innocent." The judge, Robert Bryan, from the Tacoma, Wash., bench, reminded him that pleas are customarily "guilty" or "not guilty."

Cox proceeded to follow that direction, declaring himself not guilty of the remaining charges until the judge got to Count 16, the solicitation to murder charge.

"I'm not guilty -- and totally innocent," Cox said.

About a dozen supporters from Fairbanks were in the courtroom, and Cox smiled and occasionally mouthed a word to several of them. He's grown a "soul patch" under his lower lip since his arrest March 10 and the start of his confinement without bail, but he was devoid of his trademark brimmed cap.

The wives of all three men were also in the courtroom, Marti Cox and Rachel Barney in the audience, Karen Vernon in the dock in a prisoner jumpsuit. She's charged in another federal case with her husband, accused of plotting the murder of a federal judge in Alaska who presided over a tax case that they lost. A thin woman in her 60s with thick gray hair who had difficulty walking in leg irons and hands cuffed behind her back, Karen Vernon attended the hearing because the two cases share some evidence and witnesses.

After the men entered their not guilty pleas, they and prosecutors asked the judge to delay the trial because of its complexity and the new charges. He agreed and set a date in May. The Vernons, originally scheduled to be tried right after the militia case, will now face a jury in September.

On the more substantive matters, Cox lost a bid to throw out one of his charges on the grounds that the weapon he's accused of possessing, a "Hornet's nest" anti-personnel round and its launcher, didn't need to be registered because it released nonlethal rubber pellets. In secretly recorded conversations, Cox called the device a grenade, and the judge agreed it was indeed a weapon.

Vernon tried to get the judge to strike a statement he made to the FBI and a Fairbanks police detective after his arrest. Vernon had told them he didn't want to "waive his rights," but wasn't specific. Then, after the agent read him his right to remain silent or to have an attorney present, he signed a waiver after all and talked.

His attorney, M.J. Haden, suggested that Vernon might not have quite the mental capacity to understand what he was doing. He believes that extraterrestrial creatures are in Arizona, that the government has built a tunnel from Arizona to New Jersey to secretly transport illegal aliens, and that the government is selling children into child pornography rings, she said.

The judge ruled that Vernon had average intelligence even if he maintained a few odd ideas, and understood full well what he was doing when he made his statement.

The hearing continues today with testimony on whether a post-arrest statement he made to an FBI agent and a trooper was coerced.

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