Jury hears closing remarks in 3rd trial tied to Whitmer plot
Prosecutors urged a jury Monday to convict three men for assisting the leaders of a plot to kidnap Michigan’s governor, saying they provided land, paramilitary training and inspiration for domestic terrorism in the months ahead of the 2020 U.S. election.
Joe Morrison, Pete Musico and Paul Bellar were not charged with trying to abduct Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. But their role was critical, according to authorities, who said the trio aligned themselves with key players and repeatedly endorsed the “boogaloo,” a term that became a code word for U.S. civil war.
“The plan was hatched, nurtured here in Jackson County,” said state Assistant Attorney General Sunita Doddamani. “It’s really unmistakable what these men in this case did. They promoted terrorism. They sought out terrorists, and they found them and trained them.”
Defense lawyers, however, argued that the men had dropped away from the lead plotters long before the scheme was broken up by the FBI in October 2020.
The trial in state court in Jackson, Michigan, was an offshoot of the main case handled in federal court, where Adam Fox and Barry Croft Jr. were convicted of a kidnapping conspiracy. Two other men pleaded guilty and two more were acquitted.
The main charge is providing material support for a terrorist act, especially gun drills and ambush training with Fox at a rural property controlled by Morrison. Musico, Morrison’s father-in-law, also lived there.
For hours, prosecutors went over evidence from nine days of testimony, much of it captured from social media, text messages and secretly recorded conversations. The goal: to present the three men as dangerous extremists whose disgust with government reached a tipping point when Whitmer, like other governors, ordered restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since jury selection on Oct. 3, defense lawyers have acknowledged rough, profane talk and boasts about violence. But in closing arguments, they said Morrison, Musico and Bellar were protected by the First Amendment.
“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. “These individuals never did anything wrong, never committed any crime.”
Morrison’s lawyer, Leonard Ballard, picked up on that theme, acknowledging that the men were loud, opinionated and eager to appear at Michigan Capitol protests while legally armed but broke no laws.
“We have taken the Constitution in this case and just basically shredded it,” Ballard said of prosecutors.
An Army veteran, Dan Chappel, was a star witness for prosecutors. He joined Morrison’s paramilitary group, the Wolverine Watchmen, but was alarmed to hear about attacking police. He notified the FBI and agreed to stay in the group as an informant.
No one disputes that Fox participated in gun drills with the Watchmen. Prosecutors said Bellar was in charge of medical training, even spending hundreds of dollars on supplies.
“The Wolverine Watchmen taught (Fox) how to attract, organize and train a group of operators,” Doddamani said.
Defense lawyers say the three men stopped associating with Fox by late summer when the kidnapping plot was accelerating. They also pointed out to jurors that the men didn’t travel with Fox, Croft and many others to see Whitmer’s vacation home in northern Michigan September 2020, a key piece of evidence in the federal trial.
The defense was barred from arguing that Morrison, Musico and Bellar were entrapped. But Bellar’s attorney, Andrew Kirkpatrick, told jurors to recall that Chappel, under the direction of the FBI, was the “common denominator” at many key events.
Bellar, facing financial problems, had moved to South Carolina to live with his father, two months before authorities broke up the plot with 14 arrests. Kirkpatrick said he could have stayed in Michigan under a freeze on evictions during the pandemic.
“He could have hung in that apartment like a tick and not paid a nickel if this is really what he wanted to do. … He didn’t,” Kirkpatrick said of aiding the kidnapping scheme.
Undercover FBI agents and informants were embedded in the group for months. Whitmer was never physically harmed.
The jury will get the case Tuesday after a last round of arguments by prosecutors.
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