ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - Three members of a pro-gun Alaska militia plotted to kidnap or kill two law enforcement officers for every militiaman arrested or killed, in tough talk that included discussion about hanging bodies from lamp posts, a federal prosecutor said on Tuesday.
Schaeffer Cox, a fixture in the Fairbanks political scene who founded the “Alaska Peacekeepers Militia,” is on trial in Anchorage along with fellow members Coleman Barney and Lonnie Vernon on weapons and murder-conspiracy charges linked to the plot, dubbed “2-4-1.”
The men have pleaded not guilty. They face terms of up to life in prison if convicted of the most serious charges.
Evidence of the plot and the illegal weapons acquired to carry it out lay in 100 hours of recorded conversations obtained through informants, Assistant U.S. Attorney Yvonne Lamoureux said in opening statements in U.S. District Court in Anchorage.
“You’ll hear Schaeffer Cox say he wasn’t opposed to drastic and shocking things, like mailing a head to someone,” she said of the militia founder who unsuccessfully ran for the state legislature in 2008.
There was also talk of hanging bodies from lamp posts to serve as deterrent to other government officials, she said, adding that the trio became criminals when their talk turned into a detailed plot.
“What you’re not going to hear are the defendants’ own words saying any of this is a bad idea and they shouldn’t go forward,” Lamoureux said of the men, arrested in March 2011.
Authorities said at the time of their arrests that the men had collected an arsenal of illegal weapons including grenades and machine guns and were hatching a plan to kill Alaska state troopers and federal law enforcement agents.
Defense attorneys, in their opening statements, described their clients as nonviolent activists whose colorful talk has been misinterpreted. Any violent plots were instigated by government informants, not the defendants, defense attorneys said in their opening arguments.
“The testimony in this case will show an incredible over-reach by the government,” said Nelson Traverso, Cox’s attorney.
Before his arrest, Cox, 28, was an up-and-coming young Fairbanks Republican, an eloquent spokesman for conservative ideals and an idealistic outdoorsman and mountain climber, Traverso said.
Cox’s militia focused on gun rights and opposition to what members considered to be intrusive government regulation. Traverso said the militia was “not a revolutionary, armed front but an organization that tries to get government to listen.”
Law enforcement officials have described the militia as a loosely organized group with a small number of members, although Cox at one point claimed to have 3,500 followers in Alaska.
Barney’s attorney, Timothy Dooley, conceded there was some planning to kill federal agents but said that was a defensive contingency for fear of a repeat of the 1992 Ruby Ridge case, in which federal agents raiding the home of a white supremacist in northern Idaho killed two of the suspect’s family members.
”You will hear that not all killings are murder, not all killings are wrong,“ Dooley told the jury. The Alaska militia members did not have the mental framework to carry out murder, but to defend.”
Vernon’s attorney, a federal public defender, portrayed her client as an unsophisticated “loudmouth” and “blowhard” who fell in with the wrong crowd.
“I would submit that Lonnie Vernon is here because he has very poor taste in the people he associates with,” M.J. Haden said of the third defendant. The trial is expected to last until at least mid-summer.
Vernon and his wife, Karen, are due to go on trial in September on charges of conspiring to murder U.S. District Court Judge Ralph Beistline, who presided over a federal tax case that the Vernons lost.
Editing By Cynthia Johnston and Mohammad Zargham