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State court trial begins for Michigan trio charged in plot to kidnap governor

Prosecutors said the three defendants aided a man who sought to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer, but their attorneys argued an FBI informant was their main connection to the man.

(CN) — Trial began Wednesday for three of the 14 men arrested in connection with a 2020 plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, with opening statements painting disparate pictures of the defendants’ relationships with alleged plot leaders Barry Croft and Adam Fox and with an FBI informant. 

Fox and Croft were convicted on charges of kidnapping conspiracy and conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction in Grand Rapids federal court earlier this year. Wednesday’s trial, in a semirural county court just south of the state capital of Lansing, involves charges against Fox’s fellow militia members Joe Morrison, his father-in-law Pete Musico and their friend Paul Bellar. 

The Jackson County, Michigan-based trio face three charges each, including providing material support for a terrorist act. Morrison, Musico and Bellar, prosecutors argued, were high-profile members of an anti-government militia that called itself the Wolverine Watchmen and associated with the far-right Three Percenter national militia group. 

Through those associations, Assistant Attorney General Bill Rollstin said in his opening statement, the trio provided training to Fox before his arrest in October of 2020. Fox visited Morrison and Musico in Jackson County, where they were known to provide training to militiamen, earlier that summer. 

“Their goal was to target law enforcement,” Rollstein said of the group, adding they sought to develop “quick reaction forces” to respond to vaguely defined threats around the state. “They didn’t want anybody with law enforcement within their group, because they knew what they were doing was wrong and illegal."

Throughout his statement, Rollstein played audio clips of the defendants recorded by FBI informant Dan Chappel. In one, Musico asserts that the group “was my fucking idea.” In another, a militia member said a meeting pertained to “starting Fallujah in the United States.” 

He also noted that one of the group’s frequent questions to vet prospective members was, “How do you feel about being called a domestic terrorist in the near future?”

Prosecutors have alleged that Fox later took steps to obtain explosive devices and other materials in furtherance of a plan to take Whitmer from her summer vacation home before Election Day, and that Morrison and Musico assisted him by surveying bridges, one or more of which Fox hoped to blow up in an effort to distract law enforcement and delay their response to the proposed kidnapping. 

“Everyone in the Wolverine Watchmen shared a very common ideology, in that they hated our government, they wanted to kill law enforcement, police officers,” Rollstin said. “The gang gave them motive, means and opportunity to train Adam Fox, knowing that he was going to commit an act of terrorism.”

Defense attorneys for all three men took issue with the idea that their clients were in a gang, and took time in their opening statements to cast doubt on Chappel’s motives and conduct while he informed for the FBI. 

Chappel joined the Watchmen’s private chat on the encrypted chat app Wire, and soon reported threats against law enforcement in the chat to local police. He then became a confidential informant for the FBI, participating in and recording in-person meetings and trainings with group members including Fox, Morrison, Musico and Bellar. 

From there, the parties’ perceptions of Chappel’s role diverged. 

“You’re going to hear from people that my client is the leader of this group,” Morrison’s attorney Leonard Ballard said. “But you are also going to hear that there was an election held to identify the leader, and it was Dan.” 

Chappel, Ballard said, manipulated Morrison into bringing Fox in for training by calling Morrison’s wife and convincing her that Fox would be a good person to work with. 

Bellar’s attorney, Andrew Kirkpatrick, said his client had told Chappel that Fox was “crazy,” and that he had directly refused Fox’s offer to join the Three Percenters. 

The final opener came from Musico’s attorney, Kareem Johnson. Comparing the case to “one of those Marvel movies,” requiring the introduction of dozens of characters before reaching a dramatic conclusion, Johnson said that Rollstein had distorted the story by playing clips from Chappel’s recordings out of order and out of context. 

“If you mix up the order, you can mix up the intent,” he said. He also criticized the government’s argument that the defendants used code words to duck Facebook monitors, and that words like “patriot” and “Boogaloo” could be replaced with “terrorist” and “civil war.” 

“You’re going to see them put up the exhibits, and cross out the words and tell you the words they want to use,” he said.

Opening statements were followed by testimony from Chappel’s handler, FBI special agent Henrik “Hank” Impola. Prosecutors examined him for a little over an hour before court adjourned for the day. They discussed his recruitment of Chappel and the content of the Wire chat before finishing up, along with payments made to Chappel to reimburse his expenses. 

“He was taking time off work, he was losing money,” Impola said. “He was paying for his own meals, he was using his own vehicle, paying for his own gas. He was using up his own ammunition, which is pretty expensive, and he was trying to maintain his role in the group all on his own at his own expense.” 

Chappel never asked for funds, he said, but Impola took it upon himself to make sure he was paid. Those payments received repeated mention in the defense’s opening statements, with implications that Chappel was luring the militiamen into breaking the law to appease his FBI contacts. 

Militia movements like the Three Pecenters and the older Michigan militias that gave rise to extremists like Oklahoma City bomber and white supremacist Timothy McVeigh have varied ideologies, most but not all of them right-wing. The Watchmen frequently identified themselves as “Boogaloo Bois,” a broad, meme-derived term used to describe people preparing for or attempting to start a second American civil war. 

The year 2020 was a high-water mark for the Boogaloo Bois as a meme and as a movement, with Hawaiian shirt-clad adherents making appearances at Black Lives Matter actions and protests of Covid-19 restrictions around the country. In Minnesota, a handful of self-described Boogaloo Bois have been convicted for unlawful conduct at protests of George Floyd’s murder and for attempting to sell weapons to the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

As in most militias, adherents to the Boogaloo doctrine are predominantly white and often use right-wing rhetoric, but unlike the militias of McVeigh’s day are often not aligned with white supremacist groups. The Watchmen’s Facebook group, Impola said, specifically forbade “Commies,” “ethnonationalists” and “bootlickers” alike.

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