ANCHORAGE — Jurors in the trial of three members of the Fairbanks-based Alaska Peacemakers Militia saw evidence Monday that was seized from a fourth member of the militia who was searched but not criminally charged in the investigation.
As the trial began its second week at the Federal Courthouse in Anchorage, prosecutors wrapped up testimony about search warrants executed on the three defendants.
They then called two witnesses to describe — over the objection of defense attorneys — a search done of four school buses lived in by Ken Thesing, who is not listed on prosecutors’ witness list. Prosecutors say it is important to the case because he hosted a militia meeting where the defendants discussed a “two for one” (or “2-4-1”) retaliatory strategy to kidnap two government employees in response to any move to arrest a militia member and to kill two if any militia member was killed in any ensuing struggle.
The three defendants in the case, Schaeffer Cox of Fairbanks, Coleman Barney of the North Pole area and Lonnie Vernon of Salcha, are charged with conspiracy to commit murder as well as assorted weapons charges. They have been imprisoned without bail since their arrest in March 2011.
Thesing is not charged in the case. However, he was charged in Alaska District Court last year for one count of simulating a legal process, the misdemeanor crime of filing phony paperwork in court.
Specifically, he was accused of filing a document on behalf of Cox related to the Sovereign Citizen movement, whose members say the government does not have authority over them. Thesing was not convicted and the case against him was dropped last fall.
According to prosecutors’ witnesses, the search of Thesing’s buses yielded similar materials as searches of the defendants homes, including semi-automatic weapons, body armor and paperwork related to the Peacemakers militia.
A militia “duty roster” reportedly found in one school bus identified Thesing as having the rank of major in the Alaska Peacemaker’s Militia. Cox, the group’s founder, was identified as a colonel. Barney was listed as a major, and Vernon was listed as a sergeant in the group.
On cross examination from defense attorneys, the Alaska State Trooper who testified about the search clarified it’s not illegal to be in a militia or to own body armor or semiautomatic guns.
Also found in Thesing’s home was an iPhone with lists related to the Peacemakers, according to a trooper electronic evidence expert. One list, last modified in the fall of 2010, was vaguely identified as a list of ideas “to do.” Among the items were: Alaska Peacemaker Militia pens, paint ball, a booth at the Midnight Sun Festival, a spaghetti feed, a “hit list,” post cards, a war protest, a trooper protest, militia “tax” bills and pirate radio.
Vernon’s public defender M.J. Haden objected to the use of evidence from Thesing’s home. She said it wasn’t fair for the prosecutors to use information seized from the home of someone who is not charged with a crime and who defense attorneys will not have a chance to cross-examine.
Defense attorneys could call Thesing as a witness, but he would be able to avoid questions by using his 5th Amendment protection against self-incrimination, she said.
Also over Haden’s objection, U.S. District Court Judge Robert J. Bryan let prosecutors present a redacted form of several “goodbye letters” to the jury.
A pile of typed letters were found with written instructions to JR Olson — an FBI informant in the militia — to mail them if both Vernon and his wife Karen Vernon died, according to the trooper who testified Monday that he found it in the Vernons’ truck.
The letter, signed by both Vernons, tells the recipient that they are receiving the letter because the Vernons died in combat, fighting federal troops trying to take their land.
In the handwritten section to Olson, the letter writer appeared to have no knowledge that he was secretly working for the FBI.
“Thank you for you unwavering friendship and brotherhood,” it said. “We were thankful to have had the opportunity to fight for liberty alongside you.”
Haden objected to the letter’s relevance, saying it was really related to a second case against Vernon in which he and his wife are accused of threatening to kill a federal judge and others over a tax dispute.
Bryan agreed to redact the second paragraph of the letter, which dealt most explicitly with the tax case. He also instructed jurors that they could use the letters as evidence of Lonnie Vernon’s perspective, but could not consider it evidence of a conspiracy with Cox and Barney, neither of whom are mentioned in the letter.
Attorneys originally forecast the trial for Cox, Vernon and Barney would run about six weeks, with about four weeks for prosecutors’ case and two weeks for the defense attorneys’ case. Monday afternoon prosecutors said they believed they are about a day behind in presenting their witnesses.
After the jury was excused for the day Monday, Bryan asked prosecutors to get to the point when questioning witnesses.
“We’re drowning in detail,” he said.
Thus far the jury has heard from more than a dozen FBI, ATF and local law enforcement witnesses, mostly to testify about weapons, militia paperwork and other pieces of evidence taken in searches of home and vehicles.