Michigan judge drops terrorism charges for 3 men accused in alleged Gov. Whitmer kidnapping plot

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A judge in Michigan on Monday threw out terrorism charges against three men allegedly involved in a plot to kidnap Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Jackson County District Court Judge Michael J. Klaeren dropped the terrorism charges for Joseph Morrison, 26, and Pete Musico, 43, both of Munith, Michigan, The Detroit News reported. He also denied a request from prosecutors to add the terrorism count to charges against Paul Bellar, 22, of Milford, Michigan.

The three men were ordered to stand trial on the remaining charges against them: providing material support for terrorist acts, gang membership and using a firearm during a felony.

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“The defendants are joined at the hip here,” Klaeren said before announcing his ruling. “The prosecution did a good job in establishing who knew what and when.”

The threat of terrorism, providing material support for terrorist acts and gang membership charges each are 20-year felonies. Felony firearm charges carry two-year maximum prison sentences.

According to a court affidavit, Musico and Morrison are founding members of the Wolverine Watchmen, which authorities described as “an anti-government, anti-law enforcement militia group.” 

The Watchmen have met periodically for firearms and tactical training in remote areas “to prepare for the ‘boogaloo,’ a term referencing a violent uprising against the government or impending politically motivated civil war,” state police Det. Sgt. Michael Fink wrote in an affidavit.

From left to right: Joseph Morrison, Paul Bellar, and Pete Musico. (Jackson County Sheriff’s Office/ Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center)

Addressing the court Monday, Klaeren said that Bellar, Musico and Morrison “individually and collectively wanted to precipitate the violence associated with ‘boogaloo.’”

“Pretty much from day one, it’s pretty clear the numbers of the Wolverine Watchmen believed in the ‘boogaloo,’ believed in civil war, believed it was coming,” the judge said.

But the judge dismissed the terrorism charges because, after members of the group recruited through Facebook, their discussions moved to an encrypted communication network not accessible to the general public, which was “in many respects no different than thinking the thought to yourself.”

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“One does not need to participate in all acts of a conspiracy,” Klaeren said, according to The Detroit News. “One does not even need to know all the co-conspirators.”

During Monday’s hearing, Bellar’s attorney, Andrew Kirkpatrick, argued that 2020 protests in U.S. cities against police brutality may have prompted Bellar to participate in training for a “potential civil war.”

“He got into this because 2020 has been like no other,” Kirkpatrick said. “People were concerned. They were concerned about what may happen in their hometown. There was training.”

Musico, Morrison and Bellar are accused of aiding six others who are charged in federal court with conspiring to kidnap Whitmer. Five more people are also charged in state courts.

The FBI announced in October that it broke up a plot to kidnap Whitmer by anti-government extremists upset over her coronavirus restrictions. About a dozen of the men facing federal and state charges were among armed demonstrators who entered the Michigan Senate gallery on April 30, 2020, following a larger protest outside the Capitol against Whitmer’s stay-at-home order.

“To compare that to what happened on Jan. 6 is highly improper,” Musico’s attorney, Kareem Johnson, told the court Monday. “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.”

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Following arrests tied to the kidnapping plot, Whitmer said rhetoric from then-President Donald Trump had been a “rallying cry” for extremists. She said the Republican president had spent months during the coronavirus pandemic “denying science, ignoring his own health experts, stoking distrust, fomenting anger and giving comfort to those who spread fear and hatred and division.”

At the time, Trump claimed Whitmer had done a “terrible job” and should lift restrictions aimed at slowing the virus’ spread.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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