March 12, 2011 / 2:10 AM / 8 years ago

Alaska militia charged in murder-kidnap plot

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - Five Fairbanks-area residents involved in a loose-knit militia group have been arrested in connection with a plot to kidnap or kill Alaska state troopers and a local judge, federal and state authorities said on Friday.

The group includes Francis “Schaeffer” Cox, the 26-year-old leader of the so-called “citizen sovereignty” movement, which considers individuals to be sovereign nations not subject to any state or federal laws.

Cox and his associates had developed an extensive plan to launch their attacks, the troopers said in a statement.

They had already conducted extensive surveillance on Fairbanks-area troopers, locating the homes of two troopers, and acquired a large cache of weapons, some of them illegal, according to the statement.

According to prosecutors, the weapons amassed by the group included machine guns, multiple assault rifles, multiple pineapple grenades, at least one grenade launcher, dozens of high-powered rifles and pistols and thousands of rounds of ammunition.

The five are charged with conspiring to commit murder, kidnapping and arson, weapons misconduct, hindering prosecution and tampering with evidence, the troopers said. They were arrested late on Thursday without incident, the troopers said.

One of those arrested, 56-year-old Lonnie Vernon, was charged with threatening to kill U.S. District Court Judge Ralph Beistline and a member of Beistline’s family.

According to the grand jury indictment issued on February 17 and unsealed Friday, Vernon was seeking retaliation against Beistline for rulings in a case in which Vernon and his wife have been found to owe about $166,000 in back taxes.

Vernon on Friday pleaded not guilty to the two counts facing him, threatening murder of a federal judge and threatening murder of a judge’s family member. He faces up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine if convicted on each charge, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Vernon’s wife, Karen Vernon, was among the five people arrested in the case, but she was not charged in the federal indictment.

The five defendants were arraigned later Friday in state court in Fairbanks. Charges against them were filed under seal on Monday, and bail had been set at $2 million for each.

The investigation and arrests were coordinated by federal, state and local law-enforcement officials.

Cox has become a minor celebrity in Alaska for his outspoken views and flamboyant style.

He ran for the state legislature in 2008, has identified himself as a good friend and associate of unsuccessful Tea Party-supported U.S. Senate candidate Joe Miller and has tangled with law enforcement officers over domestic-violence charges and weapons charges. At the time of his arrest Thursday, he was the subject of a warrant for failure to appear in court on a weapons charge.

Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Greg McCune

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