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Friday, December 8, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Two weeks in, Wolverine Watchmen trial finally touches kidnapping plot

The first two weeks of a state-court trial have crawled toward the plot to kidnap Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, with prosecutors battling defense allegations of entrapment.

JACKSON, Mich. — The first full week of testimony in the trial of three Michigan militia members for their alleged involvement in a plot to kidnap the state’s governor got off to a slow start but worked its way toward prosecutors’ argument that the trio trained and helped prepare for the kidnapping.

Meanwhile, defense attorneys advanced their own contention that their clients were swept up in the case because of their links to an FBI informant. 

Prosecutors brought several law enforcement officers and a few acquaintances to the stand in their efforts to prove Pete Musico, his son-in-law Joe Morrison and their fellow “Boogaloo Boi” Paul Bellar guilty of providing material support to a terroristic act, as well as gang-membership and firearm charges. Morrison and Musico were founding members and leaders of a militia known as the Wolverine Watchmen, of which Bellar formed a splinter group in the summer of 2020. 

Bellar, Musico and Morrison were three of the 14 people arrested in connection with a plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Six of those men were arrested for direct involvement in the plot; Bellar, Musico and Morrison were not in that group. 

The week was largely taken up with testimony from FBI agents and the informant, Dan Chappel. They outlined Chappel’s discovery of the Wolverine Watchmen Facebook group and its organizers on an encrypted chat app called Wire, the training and gun buys for which he joined the group, and the connections he helped foster with Fox and Croft, who were convicted of kidnapping conspiracy and conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction in August following a mistrial in April. 

Friday brought the first witnesses not affiliated with law enforcement: a property manager who checked Bellar’s rental unit after he was evicted and left the state and Joshua Miller, a “Boog Boi” in his early 20s who joined the group for a few months but left when Bellar raised alarms about the police the manager called to the unit. 

Chappel, along with two officers who surveilled the Watchmen at a series of public outings, dominated Friday’s testimony after taking the stand on Thursday. A veteran of the Iraq War and a part-time firearms instructor, Chappel said he’d first looked into the Wolverine Watchmen as an opportunity to practice his marksmanship with people who shared his pro-Second Amendment views. 

He became concerned, he said, when Musico posted a link in the group’s encrypted chat to an app he said would allow them to look up the home addresses of police officers. He showed it to a friend in law enforcement, who passed his information on to the FBI. 

Over the following months, Chappel said, he attended military-style trainings and meetings with a shifting cast of Wolverine Watchmen members and other militiamen, including Fox and, to a lesser degree, Croft. At some of these meetings, members were asked to ditch their electronic devices, and Fox pitched a number of ideas for “arresting” Whitmer and holding their own trial, and asked the Wolverine Watchmen whether they were “ok with making high-asset people fall off the face of the earth.” 

Prosecutors also implied that Fox drew inspiration from what Musico called his “Three Plan,” which involved entering the homes of law enforcement officers and politicians at 3 a.m., a reversal of law enforcement’s own practice of making pre-dawn raids on potentially dangerous targets. 

Throughout the week, defense questioning sought to center the case on Chappel. The informant, attorneys Leonard Ballard, Kareem Johnson and Andrew Kirkpatrick pointed out, had been a driving force in getting Fox in with the Watchmen, even going to Morrison’s wife in an effort to get him on board with training Fox. 

“The only common denominator in this entire case is you, right?” Ballard asked Chappel. 

“Following the group, yes,” Chappel conceded. 

A hot point in the trial came when Kirkpatrick and Ballard called Chappel’s service record into question. Chappel, who is partially disabled by a number of injuries, testified early on in the trial that he’d been injured in Iraq by explosions near a rooftop he was stationed on. 

He hadn’t mentioned, they said, that he had been in an ATV accident after he left the Army and that he’d never received the Purple Heart, an award customarily granted to soldiers injured in combat. The issue devolved into a series of shouting matches over “stolen valor” both in and out of sight of the jury, between Kirkpatrick, Ballard and Assistant Attorney General Bill Rollstin. 

Chappel’s handler, FBI Special Agent Henrik “Hank” Impola, took the stand on Oct. 5 and completed his testimony almost a week later on Oct. 12. Impola laid out the timeline of events leading to Musico, Bellar and Morrison’s arrest in October 2020, beginning with the day Chappel reported the group. 

Impola’s testimony stressed the Watchmen’s hostility toward law enforcement and the government in general, expressed through memes and screeds anticipating a “boogaloo” — slang for a second American civil war. He also sought to counteract defense attorneys’ arguments that Chappel pushed their clients to work with Fox and Croft when they didn’t want to. 

“What I tasked Dan with was to follow the violence,” Impola said, explaining his decisionmaking. “He’s supposed to go in the direction of attack planning …. If Adam Fox was the violence, I tasked Dan to go towards that violence, see if he could be where Adam Fox was.” 

That didn’t mean, both Impola and Chappel said, that the trio was unwilling to work with Fox. Morrison and Musico went along happily with Chappel’s suggestion that they invite Fox to their trainings, they said, and while Bellar said at one point that Fox was “crazy,” Chappel said he hadn’t interpreted that as an insult. 

Trial is expected to start again Monday morning, continuing with direct examination of Miller.

Categories / Criminal, Government, Trials

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