Peacemaker’s Militia Trial Gets Underway with Opening Statements and First Witnesses

Portrayals of Peacemaker’s militia members as dangerous men plotting to kill federal employees were juxtaposed with characterizations of the men as hapless big mouths who exaggerated a lot but were harmless – during this morning’s opening statements in day two of the Schaeffer Cox, Lonnie Vernon and Barney Coleman federal trial in Anchorage.

Prosecutor Yvonne Lamoureux said Peacemaker’s leader Schaeffer Cox believed federal agents were plotting to kill his family and take down the militia. She described a dry erase board seized from his home that detailed plans for killing federal agents. She quoted Cox as saying to a state trooper – “We have you outmanned, out gunned and can have you dead in one night.” She said the men wanted to buy grenades from Drop Zone Security, silencers and modified arms to make them automatics. They developed a two- for-one killing plan she said, if a militia member were killed, they would kill two troopers or two judges. She said Coleman Barney had $5,000 on him when he was arrested while allegedly attempting to buy guns, silencers and grenades.

Lamoureux said prosecutors have 100 hours of recordings and planned to call 70 witnesses and introduce 700 pieces of evidence.

Defense attorney Nelson Traverso, representing Cox, said testimony would show Cox was not attempting to overthrow the government, but instead was simply an agitator for civil liberties, a father of two who believed the government would collapse and the militia had to be prepared to defend people. Traverso said Cox’s statement to the trooper that the militia could have them dead in one night, was “distasteful, but within his right to free speech.”

Timothy Dooley represents Coleman Barney and in his remarks attempted to distance Barney from Cox, saying Barney was a Mormon, married with five children and a successful electrical business. Dooley said Barney’s Mormon teachings instruct to prepare for end days. He said Barney had $5,000 in cash that day to cover a check, not buy weapons. Dooley raised the 1992 shooting at Ruby Ridge which raised an objection from the prosecution, Judge Bryan sustained it, instructing Dooley to move on. Dooley closed by saying the federal government was overreaching.

Attorney M.J. Haden said her client Lonnie Vernon just had poor taste in the people he hung out with. She said he was rough around the edges, a loud mouth and a blowhard who told tall tales to try to fit in. But she said a conspiracy is an agreement and there wasn’t one in place to buy weapons or commit murder.

After the statements, prosecutor Steven Skrocki called their first witness, FBI agent Michael Thoreson who oversaw the arrests of first Lonnie and Karen Vernon and about an hour later Schaeffer Cox and Coleman Barney in Fairbanks in March of 2011. Prosecutors entered inert grenades, 22 caliber hand guns equipped with silencers and extra clips into evidence, saying these were the weapons the militia members had allegedly attempted to buy from FBI source JR Olson when they were arrested. The trial continues tomorrow.

The men consider themselves sovereign citizens, above state and federal law.  Washington D.C. based writer J.J. MacNab is working on a book about the sovereign citizen’s movement, and tracks court cases involving them across the country.  McNabb says the difference between ideas and actions is always central.

Schaeffer Cox was facing a weapons charge, and Lonnie Vernon owed back federal taxes, when they and fellow militia member Coleman Barney supposedly hatched a plan to retaliate against court and law enforcement officials.  They were arrested in March 2011, charged with planning violence and stockpiling illegal weapons to carry it out.  MacNab says militia defendants tend not to fare well in court.

MacNab says federal prosecutors pursue cases that are easiest to win, and the Fairbanks militia case is interesting because none of the men have pleaded guilty.

The Fairbanks militia case has gotten a lot of press, but MacNab says the most damaging evidence against the accused has likely been held for the courtroom.

The government’s case is built on recordings made by informants, who infiltrated the group, and MacNab says that can be contentious.

MacNab says she’s keeping special eye on the Fairbanks militia case because Schaeffer Cox has charisma that could make him a leader of the broader sovereign citizen’s movement.  She says the movement is in the midst of its latest outgrowth, with an estimated 300,000 adherents in the U.S., a blossoming that encompasses a broad spectrum of people angry with government. The trial continues tomorrow.

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Lori Townsend is the News Director for the Alaska Public Radio Network. She got her start in broadcasting at the age of 11 as the park announcer of the fast pitch baseball games in Deer Park, Wisconsin. She has worked in print and broadcast journalism for more than 24 years. She was the co-founder and former Editor of Northern Aspects, a magazine featuring northern Wisconsin writers and artists. She worked for 7 years at tribal station WOJB on the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibway Reservation in Wisconsin, first as an on-air programmer and special projects producer and eventually News Director. In 1997 she co-hosted a continuing Saturday afternoon public affairs talk program on station KSTP in St. Paul, Minnesota. Radio brought her to Alaska where she worked as a broadcast trainer for Native fellowship students at Koahnic Broadcasting. Following her work there, she helped co-found the non-profit broadcast company Native Voice Communications. NVC created the award-winning Independent Native News as well as producing many other documentaries and productions. Townsend was NVC’s technical trainer and assistant producer of INN. Through her freelance work, she has produced news and feature stories nationally and internationally for Independent Native News, National Native News, NPR , Pacifica, Monitor Radio, Radio Netherlands and AIROS. Her print work and interviews have been published in News from Indian Country, Yakama Nation Review and other publications. Ms. Townsend has also worked as a broadcast trainer for the Native American Journalist’s Association and with NPR’s Doug Mitchell and as a freelance editor. Townsend is the recipient of numerous awards for her work from the Alaska Press Club, the Native American Journalists Association and a gold and a silver reel award from the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. Townsend was the recipient of a Fellowship at the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting in Rhode Island as well as a fellowship at the Knight Digital Media Center in Berkeley. She is an avid reader, a rabid gardener and counts water skiing, training horses, diving and a welding certification among her past and current interests. ltownsend (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  |  907.550.8452 | About Lori