On a cold afternoon in March 2011, three militiamen were arrested by the FBI while purchasing hand grenades and silencers in a snow-covered industrial yard in Fairbanks, Alaska. The men were charged with conspiring to kill federal officials as well as illegal possession of firearms and other weapons.
In an Anchorage courtroom Monday, a jury convicted Schaeffer Cox, 28, Coleman Barney, 37, and Lonnie Vernon, 56, of most of the charges in the 16-count federal indictment. The trial, with 75 witnesses and 900 exhibits, lasted more than a month.
The case at times seemed more like comedy than drama. Jurors heard about a shadow government that met in a Denny’s restaurant and a militia leader who cited Mohandas Gandhi, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela as role models.
But the proceedings also raised a question: Just how dangerous and widespread is the American militia movement?
The government’s case against Cox, Vernon and Barney was buttressed by audio and videotapes made by informants who infiltrated the Alaska Peacemaker Militia, a paramilitary group that, like right-wing militias in other states, insisted its members were following a venerable American tradition of armed citizens ready to protect their homes.
The group’s leader, Cox, was the home-schooled son of a Baptist minister. Vernon, a career truck driver, joined the group after the Internal Revenue Service went after him for failing to pay his taxes for several years. Instead of working with the IRS to settle the debt, he purchased weapons, became a sergeant in Cox’s militia and prepared for war with the government. Barney, a Mormon with a sterling reputation as an electrician, a family man and a church member, was the least likely of the militia recruits. Yet Barney helped formulate the militia’s 2-4-1 plan. If violence came, the militia would take out two government officials or agents for every one militiaman lost.
Vernon had what prosecutor Steven Skrocki called “a quasi-arsenal” in his home: semiautomatic weapons, pistols and ammunition in every room, not to mention body armor, helmets and knives. Vernon and his wife wrote what prosecutors called “goodbye letters” to be read by their friends after they died — presumably violently at the hands of the government. The letters summarized their grievances and their contempt for the government. In recorded conversations played during the trial, Lonnie Vernon could be heard ranting about killing judges. In a lighter moment, he told an informant he believed there was a secret government time-travel tunnel between Washington, D.C., and New Mexico that allowed travelers to make the trip in seconds.
The men hunted, but when they discussed weapons, they mostly talked about ones designed to kill human beings, including hand grenades, grenade launchers and combat rifles. They had three weapons caches in the Fairbanks area.
Cox, the militia’s self-appointed commander, liked to quote or allude to Washington, Jefferson, Sam Adams, John Locke, Moses and various biblical characters. On the witness stand, he quoted three men he said he identified with: Gandhi, King and Mandela.
Cox rejected legitimate institutions and attempted to create his own. He bragged to a Montana audience that he had established his own government. He renounced his citizenship on a form he made and modified his driver’s license to show he was a “sovereign citizen.” He drew up a document with sonorous 18th century language announcing that he was his own country.
Cox and Barney also organized a Common Law Court, which met in the back room of the local Denny’s. There, a jury of more than 20 men and women found Cox innocent of two misdemeanors that had brought him grief from Alaska law enforcement and issued a judgment in favor of Cox against the city of Fairbanks for $32 million.
Cox and his men were certainly dangerous. They had so many weapons and were so angry and paranoid that they could have produced a violent confrontation more or less by accident. But their attorneys argued that the men’s greatest offense was that they talked too much — they engaged in hyperbole protected by the First Amendment.
In that, they weren’t alone. Numerous U.S. militia groups talk about the evils of the federal government, about a patriot’s duty to protect the Constitution, about the coming economic chaos that will force men to protect themselves.
But Cox went far beyond that — so far that he alienated many of his sympathizers, who quit the organization or refused to associate with him. By the time of his arrest, Cox was down to a handful of supporters.
Cox’s “movement” was unsustainable, which perhaps tells us something about the prospects for a militia like his to become a national menace. Yes, there are Americans willing to make violent war on their own government. The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing confirms that. But the number of men — and they are almost all men — who are willing to go to war is probably small. They are dangerous largely because of the damage that even a few determined men can do with modern weapons.
It takes a toxic diet of anger, frustration, ideology, belief and denial to do what the Alaska Peacemaker Militia did. It also takes a measure of delusion. The writer Peter De Vries once described reality as that which will not go away no matter how much one would like it to. Schaeffer Cox, Coleman Barney and Lonnie Vernon could not make the federal government go away, and today, they are prisoners of the federal government.
Michael Carey is an Anchorage Daily News columnist and the host of “Alaska Edition,” a weekly public affairs program on Alaska Public Television. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.