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Judge tosses terrorism threat charge against 3 accused in alleged Whitmer plot

A gavel cracks down. (Airman 1st Class Aspen Reid/U.S. Air Force)

Three men accused in an alleged plot to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer will not be tried on charges of false report or threat of terrorism, a Jackson County judge ruled Monday.

“There has to be some form of intent here to incite mayhem,” said Judge Michael Klaeren of 12th District Court in Jackson.

The charges were dismissed against Paul Bellar of Milford and Joseph Morrison and Pete Musico of Munith.

They are among seven men accused of having ties to the militia group Wolverine Watchmen who are charged in the alleged plot. The others include Shawn Fix of Belleville, Eric Molitor of Cadillac, Michael Null of Plainwell and William Null of Shelbyville. The men had faced a total of 19 felony charges for firearms and terror-related acts.

After onboarding new members through mediums such as Facebook, the group’s conversations took place in encrypted chats. The limited nature of those chats is why the threat charge was dismissed, Klaeren said.

Klaeren said an encrypted communication network, not accessible to the general public, was “in many respects no different than thinking the thought to yourself.”

Klaeren is still deciding whether the three men will stand trial on other charges, including gang membership, felony firearm and providing material support to terrorism.

“One does not need to participate in all acts of a conspiracy,” Klaeren said, after hearing arguments from prosecutors and defense attorneys. “One does not even need to know all the co-conspirators.”

The three will stand trial on the three remaining charges, Klaeren said. Each are charged with gang membership and providing material support for terrorism, both punishable by up to 20 years in prison, as well as felony firearm, punishable by up to two years in prison.

The gang membership charge and the felony firearms charge were dependent on the material support for terrorism charge, Klaeren said.

But just as the secret nature of the group’s communications is why the terrorism threat charge was tossed, Klaeren used it as a reason why the gang membership charge could not be, without examining the material support charge.

“Why all the secrecy?” Klaeren said.

He noted the group had a “multi-tiered vetting process, secret means of communication, required training and exclusive membership.”

Klaeren said the three men were “joined at the hip,” and compared them to mountain climbers at a summit.

“They started a very big snowball that wasn’t going to stop,” Klaeren said.

That the kidnap plot never materialized is not “fatal” to the material support for terrorism charge, he said.

“Even something stupid can be a plan,” Klaeren said.

Klaeren called the three men “erratic” and said there’s a reason to believe that a successful kidnapping of Whitmer would “result in injury or death or the commission of other violent crimes.”

Citing the alleged plot, at least seven training events, and “repeatedly exposing their expertise to others,” Klaeren said the trio will stand trial on both the gang membership and material support of terrorism charge.

As for the felony firearm charge, Klaeren cited “direct testimony” that firearms were present at the training sessions.

—Confidential FBI informant details how he infiltrated group accused in Whitmer kidnap plot

—Plans to kidnap Whitmer, overthrow government spoiled, officials say

While the defense has argued that the three men were just talking and had distanced themselves from other plotters by the time of the arrests, the state argues otherwise.

All three are charged under the state’s anti-terrorism law with allegedly plotting to abduct Whitmer or, alternatively, storm and set fire to the Michigan Capitol in Lansing.

“I’m asking the court deny the bind over for my client,” said Andrew Kirkpatrick, Bellar’s attorney. He argued that Bellar “provided no training, no surveillance, no material support” for any act of terrorism and that the state had proven no illegal acts.

“It’s not illegal to be a member of a militia,” Kirkpatrick argued. “Many people in Michigan would be arrested if it were.”

As for the April 30 storming of the Capitol in Lansing, Kirkpatrick argued that carrying guns in the Capitol is not illegal, and that entry was only possible after passing a COVID-19 questionnaire.

The state suggested that the suspects “banged on a door, looking for the governor,” but Kirkpatrick said that’s not illegal either.

“My client stupidly said ‘I’m down for anything,’ but he quickly figured it out,” Kirkpatrick said, and left Michigan long before early August when the alleged plot to kidnap the governor intensified.

Nicholas Somberg, attorney for Joseph Morrison, said his client was not only not a driver of any plot against Whitmer, he was specifically “excluded” from encrypted group chats.

“There’s just nothing there,” Somberg said.

Even the felony firearm charge has no basis, he argued, as carrying long guns at the Capitol was not an illegal act, and the government never proved he possessed a gun while doing anything illegal.

Kareem Johnson, attorney for Pete Musico, argued his client was not taken seriously by the group, comparing him to a fan at a Detroit Lions game, second-guessing the coaching staff, but ignored.

“He didn’t have a military skill set,” Johnson said.

Prosecutors compared the April 2020 storming of the Michigan Capitol to the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol. Johnson argued they’re different.

“To compare that to what happened on Jan. 6 is highly improper,” Johnson said. “How it happened in Michigan is how it’s supposed to happen: you stay in publicly accessible areas, you comply with law enforcement, and you express your grievances.”

After making his ruling, Klaeren again addressed bond for Bellar. He remains jailed on a $150,000 bond and was hoping to have that lowered.

“I think you may be the loosest cannon” of the three defendants, Klaeren said.

“You’re the youngest of the defendants,” Klaeren told Bellar. “You certainly have no money. To an extent you’ve been defanged, so I’m not going to raise the bond.”

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