Three of the men accused in October of plotting to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and violently overthrow the government — Paul Bellar, Joseph Morrison and Pete Musico — will no longer face false report or threat of terrorism charges, The Detroit News reported Monday morning. The men will still stand trial for their involvement in the plot, a Monday press release from Attorney General Dana Nessel said.
The three accused, as well as 11 other men, are allegedly part of Wolverine Watchmen, a Michigan-based militia. The group was supposedly involved in orchestrating the plot to kidnap Whitmer and move her to a secure location in Wisconsin to face “trial.”
According to an Inside Edition article, the group previously discussed organizing over 200 men to storm the Michigan Capitol and made threats to instigate a civil war in hopes of creating a “self-sufficient” society. Over the summer they built explosives, trained in combat and firearm drills and surveyed Whitmer’s vacation home.
12th District Court Judge Michael Klaeren dismissed the terrorist threat charges Monday, citing the nature of communication between the group members as justification. They specifically used Wire, an encrypted messaging app, as well as code words in their communications. Klaeren said this communication was “in many respects no different than thinking the thought to yourself,” because it was not visible to the public, according to the Detroit News.
The false report or threat of terrorism charge applies to individuals who communicate a threat of terrorism to another person, or toindividuals who knowingly communicate a false report of terrorism to another person, according to the Michigan Penal Code.
The three men will still stand trial for the three remaining charges of providing material support for acts of terrorism, gang membership and felony firearm, according to Klaeren’s ruling. The former two charges are punishable by up to 20 years in prison, and the latter is punishable by up to two years.
Providing material support for acts of terrorism includes individuals who knowingly gather support or resources to “plan, prepare, carry out, or avoid apprehension for committing an act of terrorism,” as well as those who knowingly provide such resources to another person with plans to commit terrorism.
Klaeren cited the alleged plot, the at least seven training sessions hosted by the group and them “repeatedly exposing their expertise to others” as justification for upholding the material support of terrorism and gang membership charges.
At a press conference in October 2020, Nessel called the plan a terrorist threat, contrary to Monday’s ruling. In her Monday afternoon press release, Nessel announced Klaeren’s decisions on the charges and said her office will “explore all options for reconsideration of the (threat of terrorism) charge moving forward.”
“We must send a clear message that those who seek to do violence against our institutions of democracy and our elected representatives are not patriots, they are criminals,” Nessel said. “My office is pleased to see this case move forward and to have the opportunity to hold these men accountable for their actions.”
During a probable cause hearing earlier this month, attorneys for the three men denied their involvement in the militia group and argued there was no evidence the Watchmen are associated with terrorism or terrorist attacks.
Eight men — including Bellar, Morrison and Musico — have only been charged at the state level, and six others have been charged at the federal level. The federal trials for five men involved in the plot were postponed until Oct. 12 for the defense to adequately examine the extensive evidence and prepare their argument.
Prior to the arrests, Whitmer faced extensive criticism over her extensive COVID-19 restrictions, both from Republican state legislators and some Michigan citizens. In April, hundreds of legally armed protesters gathered for a protest in Lansing against Whitmer’s initial stay-at-home orders and entered the Michigan legislature.
Former President Donald Trump also previously criticized Whitmer and her restrictions, tweeting to his supporters “LIBERATE MICHIGAN.”
University of Michigan Regent Ron Weiser (R), Michigan Republican Party chairman, has also recently come under fire for comments made about Whitmer and political violence. At a meeting of the North Oakland Republican Club Thursday, Weiser referred to presumably Whitmer, Nessel and Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson as “the three witches” and advocated for burning the three at the stake. Weiser also referenced assassination when responding to an audience question about U.S. Reps. Fred Upton, R-Mich., and Peter Meijer, R-Mich., who voted to impeach Trump in January for inciting the attempted January insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Weiser’s comments led four U-M regents to call for Weiser’s resignation and resulted in criticism from six women University deans, University President Mark Schlissel, Provost Susan Collins and various campus groups.
Daily News Editor Emma Ruberg and Daily Staff Reporter Julianna Morano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.