Judge sends 3 suspects to trial in Gov. Whitmer kidnap plot; 1 terrorism charge dismissed

Pete Musico and his wife Crystal wait outside to enter the court before the conclusion of the preliminary examination of three men charged at the state level in the plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer on Monday, March 29, 2021 at the Jackson County Courthouse in Jackson.

 (Photo: Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press)

DETROIT – A judge on Monday threw out one of the charges against three men accused in connection with the plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, but the men are still headed to trial court.

Judge Michael Klaeren ruled there wasn’t enough probable cause in the case against Pete Musico, 43; his son-in-law, Joseph Morrison, 26, and Paul Bellar, 22, to send charges forward for communicating a threat of terrorism. His ruling came at the conclusion of their preliminary examination in Jackson, Michigan.

Musico and Morrison were already facing charges related to this, but the Michigan Attorney General’s Office had asked that Bellar face such a charge, too. 

However, charges for providing material support to a terrorist act, charges connected to gang membership, and charges of carrying a firearm in the commission of a felony were bound over to circuit court, marking the end of a multi-day hearing for which testimony was held earlier in March.

Each count is punishable by up to 20 years in prison upon conviction, except for the weapons charge, which is punishable by two years in prison upon conviction for a first offense.

The men are three of the 14 said to have plotted to target Whitmer in response to her coronavirus restrictions. Six of the men were charged federally, and eight were charged at the state level over two counties.

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Judge: ‘The intent is so clear’

Klaeren, in his decision, said the men of the Wolverine Watchmen, described by them as a militia group and by officials as a terrorist group, were speaking in a closed group when they said the comments in question. The situation, in many respects, was similar to someone just having a thought.. 

However, he pointed to the men’s various other acts, such as providing property for training, as examples of their further involvement.  

“The intent is so clear that these individuals were going to do something more than spout off threats to each other,” he said. 

The three men’s three lawyers argued, at various times, that the men had disengaged from those making trouble in the group. 

But Klaeren wasn’t on board with that argument. He said they were never fully disengaged or considered crazy and therefore not listened to by others.

“By analogy, I think these gentlemen are at the top of a mountain – make the snowball, start rolling it down the hill and at various times, maybe their effort diminishes or they leave, temporarily, but they started a very big snowball which wasn’t going to stop,” he said.

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Attorneys push to downplay role of men

The Michigan Attorney General’s Office laid out in early March its case against the men — anti-government social media posts, at least one featuring a grenade, FBI testimony on surveillance of the men and their training and attendance of protests, and eye-witness testimony from an FBI informant.

And the men’s attorneys, Nicholas Somberg for Morrison, Andrew Kirkpatrick for Bellar, and Kareem Johnson for Musico, have fought all along to present those posts as just posts, distance the men from those in the federal case, and call into question the testimony from the FBI and the informant. 

Paul Bellar and his attorney Andrew Kirkpatrick walk to the court before the conclusion of the preliminary examination of three men charged at the state level in the plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer on Monday, March 29, 2021 at the Jackson County Courthouse in Jackson, Michigan. (Photo: Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press)

The attorneys for each man, in their arguments Monday, continued to try to distance their clients from men charged elsewhere and downgrade the testimony.  

Prosecutors had argued that Bellar had military training, planned and led training sessions, and taught first aid. Kirkpatrick offered a different take.  

His client didn’t make it in the Army, he said. It was the FBI informant  who was the trainer, he said. And Bellar wasn’t the appointed medic — it was Eric Molitor, who is charged in Antrim County, Kirkpatrick said.  

Morrison’s attorney, Somberg, kicked off by trying to fight the state’s argument that the men’s group was a gang. They made no profits, he argued. 

He also focused on the threats themselves, saying that the law requires someone else to be scared and the men were only talking amongst themselves.  

In addition, hyperbole doesn’t count as a threat, he argued. 

Johnson, Musico’s attorney, lost a motion about hearsay during the court appearance, so he next tried to argue the conduct focused on by the prosecutor wasn’t illegal.  

On the topic of whether the group was a gang, he said the argument that the Watchmen were a gang would make religious groups and Black Lives Matter also  gangs.  

Musico was specifically excluded from subsets of the group, was called “Crazy Pete,” and was known to make untrue statements, Johnson argued.  

When it came time for Assistant Attorney General Sunita Doddamani to respond, she found herself on occasion sparring with Klaeren on the definition of terrorism.

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Somberg, Morrison’s attorney, said the state is throwing “everything at the board just to see what sticks.” Walking out, he said the trial will be a case of David and Goliath with the state’s level of resources to find every little thing.

Still, he was happy the one charge was thrown out, expected the choice on the other charges, and feels good moving forward to trial, where the state has to prove its case beyond a responsible doubt, he said.

“I feel like this is one of the cases – we’re right,” he said. 

For the upcoming trial, Johnson said the correspondence between members of the group will be presented to show the contrast between Musico’s contributions to the chats. He’d argued his client was excluded from chats. 

“Hopefully they’ll (the jury) see what we see, that this is a guy who’s just airing political grievances and … Hopefully we can show the jury what the bad actors were saying about him and what he was saying about himself. And hopefully, you know, it’d be clear to everybody he was just a mascot,” he said. 

Kirkpatrick took issue with Klaeren calling his client “the loosest cannon” when discussing a possible change in bond, which Klaeren decided against. Bellar’s original bond was $500,000, but it was lowered to $75,000 in November. 

Kirkpatrick, too, noted the difference in standards of evidence required at this hearing versus at the upcoming trial for a conviction.

“You have to realize, I haven’t put my case on yet,” he said.

Follow reporter Darcie Moran on Twitter: @darciegmoran. 

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