"Burn the houses down with the cops and their families inside"

Right-wing group with shady ties to Alaska GOP politics heads to prison. The FBI informant tells Salon the details

Published January 11, 2013 1:51PM (EST)

  (<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-212929p1.html'>Robert Davies</a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>)
(Robert Davies via Shutterstock)

"We have a plan: We're going to go to the houses of local cops and burn the houses down with the cops and their families inside," Schaeffer Cox reportedly said in August 2010, months before he would be arrested for plotting to kidnap and kill federal officials -- and just a few years before he would be convicted and sentenced to almost 26 years in prison.

Cox's sentence came down earlier this week, as part of the trial of Alaska Peacemaker Militia members, a right-wing group that was plotting to stockpile illegal weapons and take violent action against the government.

When Cox spoke of his plan in 2010, it was to Bill Fulton, an Army veteran and the owner of DropZone Security, an Anchorage, Alaska, Army surplus store that doubled as a bail bonds agency and tripled as a private security company. Fulton also happened to be working as an informant for the FBI. In an interview, Fulton described to Salon how he infiltrated the twisty world of Alaska's right-wing movement, passed along information to federal agents, and even got involved in a minor political scandal related to his security work for then-senatorial candidate Joe Miller.

Fulton met Cox in 2008 at the state Republican convention in Anchorage, where Fulton was approached about a meeting with a staffer for then-Gov. Sarah Palin. The meeting took place one night in Fulton's hotel room, where he was joined by Palin's chief of staff Frank Bailey and future senatorial candidate Joe Miller, a Republican from Fairbanks who was popular among militia members in the state. (Supporters of his Senate campaign were known to carry guns to political rallies, and Cox himself attended some of those events. Cox also told Salon: “I know Joe Miller pretty well. It’s a small state. I’ve known him, I know his kids,” but added that he had become disillusioned with Miller's politics.)

The meeting concerned a plan to oust the head of the state Republican Party, Randy Ruedrich, on orders from Palin. Fulton told Salon that in the meeting, Miller said that an "up-and-coming politician," who had done a lot of work for Ron Paul and Miller in Fairbanks, would be joining them, and could help.

(Miller spokesman Bill Peck downplayed the incident this week, telling Salon in an email: "Fulton very well may have invited Cox, but Joe does not have specific memory of who invited whom to the meeting. At the time, Joe knew that Cox was the son of a Baptist preacher and a young political activist. Also at the time, there was no known connection between Cox and militias. Cox apparently rejected conventional politics and went down the militia path after this.")

The Ruedrich plan was called off later that night. But, Fulton said, in a strange twist, Miller approached Fulton about providing informal security for him for the rest of the convention, because, "There are people trying to kill me."

At the time of the convention, Cox was just beginning to get involved in state politics, unsuccessfully mounting a challenge to Republican state Rep. Mike Kelly in the same year. Cox was connected to the so-called sovereign citizen movement, a disparate and occasionally violent subset of the right that does not believe the government has legitimate authority over American citizens. In a YouTube video of one of his speeches, Cox says that he’d “kill for liberty” and, "My deepest fear is that our government is not going to hear us until we speak to them in their language, which is force."

Federal officials have said in court filings that Cox first got on their radar after speeches he gave in Montana and Colorado as early as 2009, in which he similarly spoke of violently overthrowing the government.

Fast forward to August 2010, when the FBI asked Fulton about Cox. As Fulton described it, when it opened, DropZone Security almost instantly became a stomping ground for skinheads and militia groups who assumed he was sympathetic to their causes. The FBI "figured out we knew or had relationships with pretty much everybody they knew or were interested in from a right-wing domestic terrorism point of view," including Cox.

Fulton told officials that he and his employees were planning a trip to Fairbanks for a sale to raise funds for the Interior Conservative Coalition, a group founded by Cox, and the FBI asked Fulton to meet with him. "None of us thought that this was that big of a deal at that point," Fulton said, so much so that he also brought his family with him on the trip.

When he arrived, Fulton said, Cox was on edge and frenzied, saying things like, "I'm underground, I'm wearing body armor. I've got a bulletproof vest, I'm laying low," apparently convinced that the state wanted to take away his son, and was going to send law enforcement officials to do it. Cox talked of how if anyone tried it, "We have warrants to arrest these judges and these police officers," and "they wanted DropZone to execute the warrants for them." According to Fulton, Cox said: "We're going to put them on trial after you guys bring them to us. We're going to either find them or hang them," and "We have a plan, we're going to go to the houses of local cops and burn the houses down with the cops and their families inside."

The next day, Fulton attended a meeting of "Interior Alaska Conservative Coalition members, commanders of multiple militias, the general right-wing wacko population." As Fulton put it, "nobody really liked Cox, he was kind of a douche. But there's a lot of anti-government sentiment up there, and nobody had a problem with using Cox as a catalyst." The rest of the militia members were under the impression that Cox was farther along in planning some kind of action, and in the meeting, Fulton began pressing Cox for more details. Fulton started yelling: "I've got people on the way, we've spent money, you told me to bring my people up, we could be arrested for even having this meeting." Les Zerbe, a cohort of Cox, accused Fulton of trying to split up the militia, and Fulton asked if he was questioning his integrity. "Yes," Zerbe said. "If you ever do that again, I'll slit your fucking throat," Fulton replied.

By that time, August 2010, Fulton had become well-integrated in the state's political right. He was even active in the political campaign of Eddie Burke, a right-wing radio host who made an ill-fated run for lieutenant governor. This again put Fulton in the path of Joe Miller, this time in Anchorage the night of the 2010 Republican senatorial primary, when Miller, a Tea Party favorite, beat incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski. "Joe approaches me and goes, 'Do you have some body armor and a team here, because I have some people here who want to kill me,'" Fulton recounted. "As he's finding out that he won the Republican nomination, I was fitting him for body armor in the bathroom of the Egan Center."

Joe Miller acknowledged the claim in a blog post: "What Fulton leaves out is that he followed Miller around at convention central, warning him of threats against him and insisted that Miller put on Fulton’s personal vest."

In the fall, Fulton found himself again crossing paths with Miller, and under media scrutiny, after he agreed to work security for a Miller town hall event at an Anchorage middle school. At the event, Fulton handcuffed and detained Alaska Dispatch journalist Tony Hopfinger as he tried to question and video Miller. When it was revealed, in the course of news reporting on the incident, that Fulton was a frequent poster on a Google Forum for the Alaska Citizens Militia, he was pulled into the media spotlight. The posts, he explains, were part of an effort to drum up business and establish his credibility in the militia world, but the attention "was probably the darkest time for me personally."

Peck, Miller's spokesman, told Salon that at the time Miller had no knowledge of Fulton’s role with the FBI, which Fulton confirmed. But Peck also said that “The only time Fulton’s security team was asked by the campaign to work an event was the Anchorage town hall in October of 2010.” He also suggested there might have been something more nefarious afoot with Fulton's involvement: "Although Joe has not adopted this theory, some have suggested that Fulton may have been used by the federal government to sabotage Joe Miller's campaign."

Amid all of the political intrigue with Fulton and Miller, Schaeffer Cox was still formulating his plans. Leading up to a February 2011 court date for a weapons misconduct charge, Cox had meetings with the "command staff" of his militia, including his second in command, Lonnie Vernon, in which they discussed plans for keeping Cox out of jail. According to the initial criminal complaint, the plan involved using "twice the force" against any attempts to arrest him. "If he was killed, two state targets would be killed. If his house was taken, two state target houses would be burned."

That same month, Fulton organized a militia convention in Anchorage with the help of another militia leader. Cox sent his second-in-command, Lonnie Vernon, and another member of the Alaska Peacemaker Militia, Gerald Olson, to acquire the weapons they needed from Fulton. Unbeknownst to Cox, Vernon and Fulton, Olson was also a confidential informant for the FBI, which was later revealed in court filings by federal officials. Olson had been facing  felony charges, and received a reduced sentence in exchange for his help in the case.

Fulton recounted one anecdote from the convention when he was hanging out and drinking beer with Vernon, Olson and some other militia members at a hotel. At one point, a few members of the group started pulling out their guns and pointing them at one of the walls. It just so happened that on the other side of the wall, federal officials sat listening and watching a video feed of Fulton's room. "All these drunk militia guys pulling out their guns and pointing them at the wall. And [the federal officials] were watching all this through the camera in my room, and I was like, 'Oh shit,'" Fulton told Salon.

The next night, Olson and Vernon returned to Fulton's hotel room to make the weapons deal. As an episode of "Cops" played in the background,  Olson and Vernon requested explosives, grenades, machine guns and silencers, though they later decided machine guns were too pricey. Fulton delivered the weapons to Fairbanks the next month, in March. That same day, federal officials arrested Cox, Vernon and several others, and charged them with plotting to kidnap and kill federal officials. Fulton and his family left Alaska a day later.

Over the course of the trial, Cox's attorneys argued that Fulton had been the one advocating for the attack on federal officials, referring to the incident where he threatened Les Zerbe. In an affidavit filed by Cox in November 2011, he claimed that Fulton "kept pushing and pushing the question ‘what my plan was’ and that his men were being mobilized to attack the government.” He added: "Fulton was extremely angry with me when I told him I had no plan to attack the government. Fulton said that he had spent a lot of money to get his men ready for the war in Fairbanks.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Skrocki told Salon that based on the fact that Cox et al. were convicted last June, it's clear the jury "disregarded any allegations that the defense made against [Fulton]."

This week, both Cox and Vernon were sentenced to almost 26 years in federal prison. Fulton is now writing a book.

Though the Alaska Peacemaker Militia is essentially disbanded, the Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that the number of Patriot groups, including armed militias, "grew by 755 percent in the first three years of the Obama administration – from 149 at the end of 2008 to 1,274 in 2011." NRA-backed Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said this week that in the wake of the Newtown massacre, he is concerned about the number of militias: "I do not know how many of my constituents are in the militia category, but as someone who loves his country and sees the government as a force of good for its citizens, I am clearly alarmed by this segment of our society."

Correction: An earlier version of this post quoted Miller spokesman Bill Peck as saying he did not remember seeing Bill Fulton  the night of the Republican primary in August 2010. Peck has since clarified that he was "blurring" primary night and election night in November. He worked closely with Miller on election night, but "on primary night didn't know Fulton from Adam."

By Jillian Rayfield

Jillian Rayfield is an Assistant News Editor for Salon, focusing on politics. Follow her on Twitter at @jillrayfield or email her at jrayfield@salon.com.

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