ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - An Alaska couple pleaded guilty on Monday to charges of conspiring to kill a federal judge in what prosecutors said was a revenge plot over income-tax rulings against them.
Lonnie and Karen Vernon, followers of jailed Alaska militia leader Schaeffer Cox, reached a deal with prosecutors to avoid the need for a trial that had been set to begin next month.
The Vernons and Cox were active in the “sovereign citizen” movement, whose adherents believe individuals are sovereign nations and federal, state and local laws do not apply to them.
The Vernons each entered a guilty plea to a single count of conspiracy to commit murder for their plan to kill Alaska-based U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline, who presided over a federal income tax case that ultimately cost the couple their home.
The Vernons also admitted in their plea agreement to planning to kill an Internal Revenue Service official and Beistline’s daughter and grandchildren.
The Vernons bought a silencer-equipped pistol and grenades in March 2011 and told the seller of the weapons about their intentions, according to the plea agreement. But the seller turned out to be a confidential government informant, and the Vernons were arrested immediately after the transaction took place.
Despite entering his guilty plea, Lonnie Vernon disrupted Monday’s court proceedings with a number of defiant outbursts.
“If I’m accused of doing anything, I’m accused of freely exercising my First Amendment rights to the max,” he told Judge Robert Bryan, who was brought in from Tacoma, Washington, to preside over the case.
But Bryan told the defendant that he and others with similar political views are mistaken about their responsibilities to obey the law. “You can’t decide, on your own, that you won’t be part of what the government rules are,” Bryan said.
In exchange for the guilty pleas, prosecutors agreed to drop related charges concerning murder threats and illegal weapons, according to the agreement filed on Monday.
Under the plea deal, Lonnie Vernon, 56, faces a prison term of 21 to 27 years when the couple is sentenced on November 14.
Agreement on a specific sentence for Karen Vernon, 66, was not reached, but prosecutors pledged to recommend a sentence of no longer than 15 years and eight months.
Lonnie Vernon also was a top officer in an organization called the Alaska Peacekeepers Militia, founded and led by Cox, 28.
In a separate case, Cox and Lonnie Vernon were convicted in June of conspiring to murder federal and state government officials and of acquiring illegal weapons to use against their targets. Karen Vernon was not a defendant in that case.
Sentencing for Cox and Lonnie Vernon on the militia-conspiracy case is set for September 14. Both men, along with Karen Vernon, have been jailed since they were arrested last year.
Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis, Steve Gorman and Lisa Shumaker