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Trial begins for Alaska militia leader

Schaeffer Cox trial offers a window on the evolution of a young political activist with the potential to become the leader of the anti-government 'sovereign citizen' movement.

May 08, 2012|By Kim Murphy, Los Angeles Times
  • Schaeffer Cox is on trial in federal court in Anchorage. He and fellow leaders of the Alaska Peacemakers Militia are accused of conspiring to acquire a cache of illegal weapons and plotting to kill government officials.
Schaeffer Cox is on trial in federal court in Anchorage. He and fellow leaders… (Sam Harrel, Fairbanks Daily…)

ANCHORAGE — With his Boy Scout good looks and schoolboy cap, Schaeffer Cox was known for striding happily through the treacherous backwater between rabble rousing and revolution.

In university auditoriums and community meeting halls throughout the West over the last few years, the 28-year-old Cox has preached the gospel of free will, no taxes and unregulated firearms. He's also warned growing legions of supporters that the dictionary defines "terrorism" as government through intimidation — and that its logical antidote is "horrible rebellion."

"I am not against violence. OK? I am not against spilling blood for freedom," Cox told a group in Hamilton, Mont., in December 2009. "You know, everybody asks, 'Would you die for liberty?' That's not really the question to ask. The right question to ask is 'Would you kill for liberty?' "

Court documents say FBI agents approached the Justice Department in February 2010 and asked whether it wasn't time for somebody to do something about Cox's increasingly belligerent speeches. No, came the reply: Cox had not crossed the line between protected speech and actionable threat.

On Tuesday, as Cox's trial in U.S. District Court here formally got underway, federal prosecutors said Cox and his cohorts in Fairbanks, Alaska, had not only crossed the line, they led an armed militia across it. A federal indictment alleges that the leaders of the Alaska Peacemakers Militia conspired to acquire a cache of illegal grenades, projectile launchers and silencer-equipped firearms, plotting to kill government officials who got in their way.

The FBI in recent months has been zeroing in on violent militias and the increasingly active "sovereign citizen" movement, whose adherents believe they are not required to submit to the legal authority of the government concerning taxes, guns, courts, driver's licenses or anything else. Until now, the cases have rarely involved anyone but cranks, little-known engineers and conspiracy theorists wearing camouflage in the woods.

The testimony that began Tuesday in Anchorage, however, provides an unusual window on the evolution of a charismatic young political activist — one with perhaps unprecedented promise in the world of right-wing militias.

"The sovereign citizen movement has been around since 1970, but … there is no charismatic leader to take the movement, make it cohesive and make it truly dangerous. Schaeffer had the potential one day of maybe being that leader," said J.J. MacNab, who has written widely on the movement and trained police in how to deal with it.

Cox, the devout son of a Baptist preacher, was home-schooled on John Locke and the American Revolution. He claimed to know former Gov. Sarah Palin "pretty well." He mobilized an unofficial group of supporters for the Ron Paul presidential campaign in 2008. That same year, he won 37% of the vote in the Republican primary for a seat in the state Legislature.

"He's a wonderful young man. Brilliant. I would call him a young Patrick Henry," said Norman Olson, who rose to national prominence as the head of the Michigan Militia before moving to Alaska.

But prosecutors say that Cox and two fellow militia members, Coleman Barney and Lonnie Vernon, moved from philosophizing about the need to go back to a "common law" government to actually preparing for violence.

The father of two had run into conflict with authorities by way of his Second Amendment Task Force, which argued against gun control, and through his Liberty Bell network. That email tree called on patriots to assemble at the homes of people whose property was being searched to bear witness to the illegal exercise of federal authority.

Cox was charged with a weapons offense when he failed to declare a gun he was carrying at one such Liberty Bell vigil. He butted heads with authorities further when state child protection workers attempted to do an assessment of his young son; the assessment move followed a charge of domestic violence against him.

"Revolutions are not instigated; they are provoked, OK?" Cox said at a speech in Montana while describing his mounting legal troubles at the time. "I will not bow to Caesar. I will never kiss their ring, and there are thousands more in Fairbanks that will die, not for me and my family, but for the principle, because to violate the principle is to violate every one of us."

Authorities say Cox developed a list of state and federal employees he had identified as "Nazis." Fearing that the federal government might be planning to kill him, Cox allegedly talked with fellow militia members about killing two judges or police officers for every member of the militia who died, a plot known as the "2-for-1" plan.

After a hearing in state court on an earlier weapons charge, federal prosecutors said, Cox approached a state trooper: "We have you outmanned and outgunned, and could probably have you all dead in a night," he reportedly told the trooper.

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