3 men convicted of supporting plot to kidnap Gov. Whitmer

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Paul Bellar awaits the verdict in his trial before Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Wilson on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022, at the Jackson County Courthouse in Jackson, Mich. Bellar, Joseph Morrison and Pete Musico are accused of being involved in a plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. The three were found guilty of one felony count each of gang membership, providing material support for terrorist acts and felony firearms. (J. Scott Park/Jackson Citizen Patriot via AP, Pool)

Three men accused of supporting terrorism in the plot to kidnap Michigan’s governor were convicted of all charges Wednesday in a trial that focused on paramilitary drills and fierce contempt for government ahead of the 2020 election.

Joe Morrison, his father-in-law Pete Musico, and Paul Bellar were found guilty of supplying “material support” for a terrorist act as members of a group known as the Wolverine Watchmen.

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They held gun training in rural Jackson County with a leader of the kidnapping scheme, Adam Fox, who was disgusted with Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and other officials and said he wanted to snatch her.

The trial in state court was an offshoot of the main case in federal court, which produced mixed results: Fox and an ally were convicted of conspiracy, two more men pleaded guilty but two others were acquitted.

Jurors in Jackson, Michigan, read and heard violent, anti-government screeds as well as support for the “boogaloo,” a civil war that might be triggered by a shocking abduction. Prosecutors said COVID-19 restrictions ordered by Whitmer turned out to be fruit to recruit more people to the Watchmen.

“The facts drip out slowly,” state Assistant Attorney General Bill Rollstin told the jury, “and you begin to see — wow — there were things that happened that people knew about. ... When you see how close Adam Fox got to the governor, you can see how a very bad event was thwarted.”

Morrison, 28, Musico, 44, and Bellar, 24, were also convicted of a gun crime and membership in a gang. Prosecutors said the Wolverine Watchmen was a criminal enterprise.

Morrison, who recently tested positive for COVID-19, and Musico were emotional as they watched the verdicts by video away from the courtroom. Judge Thomas Wilson ordered all three to jail while they await sentencing on Dec. 15.

The verdicts “are further proof that violence and threats have no place in our politics,” said Whitmer, who has not participated as a trial witness or spectator in the state or federal cases. “Those who seek to sow discord by pursuing violent plots will be held accountable under the law.”

Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat in a tight race for reelection, hailed the outcome and praised law enforcement. After hearing nine days of testimony, the jury deliberated Tuesday afternoon and for less than two hours Wednesday.

“Jackson County is not known to have, I guess I would say, liberal juries. They tend to be a conservative bunch," Nessel said. “But I think what they saw here was that this is not a political matter. ... These are individuals that didn't align themselves with any party at all. In fact, they were just anti-government all together."

Defense attorneys argued that Morrison, Musico and Bellar had broken ties with Fox before the Whitmer plot came into focus by late summer 2020; Bellar had left the state. They also didn’t travel with Fox to scout the governor’s vacation home or participate in a key weekend training session inside a makeshift “shoot house” in Luther, Michigan.

“In this country you are allowed to talk the talk, but you only get convicted if you walk the walk,” Musico’s attorney, Kareem Johnson, said in his closing remarks.

They couldn’t argue entrapment. But defense lawyers attacked the tactics and motives of Dan Chappel, 36, an undercover informant. He took instructions from FBI agents, secretly recorded conversations and produced a deep cache of messages exchanged with the men.

Chappel, an Army veteran, said he joined the Watchmen because he wanted to hone his gun skills. But when talk turned to harming police, he went to the FBI and agreed to gather evidence for an investigation that eventually revealed a target on Whitmer.

Chappel told jurors it was “absolutely” risky.

“If I was ever compromised,” he said, “it would not be a good day.”

Whitmer, who is seeking reelection on Nov. 8, was never physically harmed. Undercover agents and informants were inside Fox’s group for months. The scheme was broken up with 14 arrests in October 2020.

Fox and Barry Croft Jr. were convicted of a kidnapping conspiracy in federal court in August. Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta were acquitted last spring. Ty Garbin and Kaleb Franks pleaded guilty.

Five of the 14 men are facing charges in state court in Antrim County, the site of Whitmer's second home. A judge there still must determine whether there is sufficient evidence to send them to trial.

In 2020, Whitmer blamed then-President Donald Trump for stoking mistrust and fomenting anger over coronavirus restrictions and refusing to condemn hate groups and extremists like those charged in Michigan. Protesters, including many displaying guns, filled the state Capitol that year and blocked traffic during a series of stormy demonstrations.

Whitmer extended the criticism to her election opponent, Tudor Dixon, telling The Associated Press hours after the Jackson trial that the Republican candidate is “part of the problem.”

“She has made light of a plot to kidnap and assassinate me. She’s made light of other threats to me and my family,” Whitmer said Wednesday.

The governor was referring to Dixon's remarks in September when she told supporters that Whitmer was “good at taking business hostage and holding it for ransom."

Dixon's reaction to the verdicts was more muted: She said she's “glad justice has been served.”


Joey Cappelletti, a corps member for The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative, contributed to this story.


Follow Ed White at http://twitter.com/edwritez

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