Judge Dismisses Terrorism Charges Against Whitmer Kidnapping Plot Suspects

In this photo provided by the Michigan Executive Office of the Governor, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks during a news conference Friday, May 29, 2020, in Lansing, Mich. Whitmer hinted that she will soon reopen more regions of Michigan, expressing optimism as long as the rate of new coronavirus cases continues …
Michigan Executive Office of the Governor via AP

A Michigan County judge dismissed terrorism charges on Sunday for three suspects in the alleged kidnapping plot of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

In a preliminary examination, Jackson County Judge Michael Klaeren ruled against charges of terrorism for 43-year-old Pete Musico and his son-in-law Joseph Morrison, 26. Judge Klaeren also declined further pursuit of a terrorism charge against 22-year-old Paul Bellar. “There has to be some form of intent here to incite mayhem,” Klaeren said.

The three men stand accused of aiding five others charged in a plot to storm the Michigan Capitol building and potentially kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Their alleged allies include Shawn Fix, Michael Null, William Null, and Eric Molitor, members of armed militia group the “Wolverine Watchmen.”

And while defense attorneys have said the men were merely “big talkers” who would not have enacted their alleged plan, Klaeren said the three were more than just braggarts. “The intent is so clear that these individuals were going to do more than spout off threats to each other,” the 12th District Court judge said.

Even so, Klaeren said the messages exchanged between the men in encrypted chat conversations were “in many respects no different than thinking the thought to yourself,” and not sufficient for the terrorism charges. He will, however, support the pursuit of felony charges, including providing material in support for terrorist acts, gang membership, and using a firearm during a felony.

Bellar’s lawyer, Andrew Kirkpatrick, distanced his client from terrorism, saying he had “provided no training, no surveillance, no material support” for acts of terrorism. Attorney Nicholas Somberg said Morrison was “excluded” from the aforementioned encrypted discussion. Musico’s lawyer Kareem Johnson said his client “did not have a military skill set” and was not taken seriously by his alleged co-conspirators.

“By analogy, I think these gentlemen are at the top of a mountain — make the snowball,” Klaeren responded, “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.”

Klaeren said Bellar, Musico, and Morrison “individually and collectively wanted to precipitate the violence associated with ‘boogaloo,'” and it was clear “pretty much from day one” that “the numbers of the Wolverine Watchmen believed in the ‘boogaloo,’ believed in civil war, believed it was coming.”

In October 2020, then-presidential candidate Joe Biden pointed to former President Donald Trump as “fuel” for such conspiracies. “The words of a president matter,” he said during an Arizona campaign event. “They can cause a nation to have the market rise or fall, go to war or bring peace, but they can also breathe oxygen into those who are filled with hate and danger, and I just think it’s got to stop.”

Whitmer offered a similar opinion just hours after the plot was discovered. She said Trump had offered a “rallying cry” to such extremists. “When our leaders meet, encourage or fraternize with domestic terrorists, they legitimize their actions and they are complicit,” she said. “When they stoke and contribute to hate speech, they are complicit.”

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