2011-07-28 "Militia co-defendant: We were set up" by Jill Burke
FAIRBANKS -- There's no way to know what U.S. District Court Judge Robert Bryan thinks about the federal weapons case the government has brought against Coleman Barney, a command major in the Alaska Peacemakers Militia. But statements he made at the beginning and end of Barney's nearly four-hour bail hearing Thursday in Fairbanks may offer a clue.
"There was a lot of stuff seized that is not illegal," Judge Bryan noted as the defense prepared to deliver its opening statement. He wanted to know which of the seized items -- machine guns, silencers, grenades and grenade launchers -- were directly tied to Barney, and of those, which were illegal.
Hours later, after Barney had taken the stand and prosecutors had called an FBI agent as their witness, Bryan commented that he knew a federal judge who owned a larger weapon collection than Barney.
Barney and four other militia members stand accused of plotting to kill state and federal officials. The investigation was carried out jointly between the FBI and Alaska State Troopers who also depended on two paid informants.
Bryan said he'll file his written decision Monday about whether it's safe to let Barney out of jail.
Until then, he has a lot to mull over.
Barney spoke at length about how another militia member, Gerald "J.R." Olson, now known to be a government informant, manipulated him and Alaska Peacemakers Militia leader Schaeffer Cox. He spoke of how he didn't necessarily subscribe to or fully understand Cox's "common law" court and Cox's sovereign citizen notions of law and justice. He explained why a trailer the government describes as a "weapons cache" was dropped off at a public park with children nearby.
And Barney swore there will be not be one scintilla of evidence showing him talking about or planning to kill people.
"It's of course a dangerous thing to have a defendant testify, but I think it's necessary," said Tim Dooley, Barney's attorney, prior to Barney taking the stand.
Yet if Judge Bryan chooses instead to view the situation through the eyes of prosecutors, Barney's chances of getting out of jail may not be so good.
It's not about what weapons are legal, but what they were used for, argued assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Skrocki. "When you intend to kill people it's a real problem," he said.
'Major Barney' takes the stand
On the stand Barney was straightforward, polite and calm. At times he was also surprisingly naive, or so he claimed, to the belief systems espoused by Cox. During his testimony, Barney offered new details about how the government orchestrated his and Cox's arrests on March 10.
According to Barney, Olson -- the informant -- was tasked with arranging Cox's flight from Alaska via a fictitious truck driver known only as "Han Solo." On the day of the arrests, Olson drove Cox and Barney straight into the arms of the FBI, under the guise that the trio was actually on their way to meet the truck driver.
Before they made that ill-fated, final drive, Barney had had a busy day. He was finalizing a contract for an electric job his company was pursuing. He was a designated field trip helper for a visit by his 7-year-old son and his classmates to the Fairbanks ice park; and, according to investigators, also managed to find time to squeeze in an illegal arms deal.
Since he had such a jam-packed morning, Barney tried to get Cox and Olson to themselves handle the arrangements with the mythical driver, but Olson kept putting it off until Barney could join them. When, after the school field trip, Barney had to make a trip to his house, Olson and Cox agreed to go check out the size of the fictitious driver's trailer. They also made plans to return and pick up Barney so the three of them could meet with the driver together.
All photographs by Jill Burke:
Schaeffer Cox, founder of the Alaska Peacemakers Militia, is accused in an alleged conspiracy to kill a state judge and others. He faces conspiracy and weapons charges in state and federal court.
Michael Anderson is accused as a conspirator in an alleged plot to kill a state judge and others. Photographed in Fairbanks on April 5, 2011.
Lonnie Vernon faces multiple conspiracy and weapons charges in connection with alleged plots to murder state and federal judges and others. Photographed in Fairbanks on April 5, 2011.
Karen Vernon faces state and federal conspiracy and weapons charges in connection with alleged plots to murder state and federal judges and others. Photographed in Fairbanks on April 5, 2011.
Coleman Barney, accused in an alleged plot to kill a state judge and others, faces conspiracy and weapons charges in state and federal court. Photographed in Fairbanks on April 5, 2011.
Rachel Barney, charged in state court with helping hide a fugitive, in a Fairbanks courtroom April 5, 2011
Judge David Stewart.