JACKSON, Mich. (AP) — Three men accused of supporting a plot to kidnap Michigan’s governor were convicted of all charges Wednesday, a triumph for state prosecutors after months of mixed results in the main case in federal court.
Joe Morrison, his father-in-law Pete Musico, and Paul Bellar were found guilty of providing “material support” for a terrorist act as members of a paramilitary group, the Wolverine Watchmen.
They held gun drills in rural Jackson County with a leader of the scheme, Adam Fox, who was disgusted with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and other officials in 2020 and said he wanted to kidnap her.
Jurors 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 jurors in Jackson, Michigan, “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.
Defense attorneys argued that the three men had broken ties with Fox by late summer 2020 when the Whitmer plot came into focus. Unlike Fox and others, they didn’t travel to northern Michigan to scout the governor’s vacation home or participate in a key weekend training session inside a “shoot house.”
“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.
Defense lawyers couldn’t argue entrapment. But they attacked the tactics of Dan Chappel, an Army veteran and undercover informant. He took instructions from FBI agents, secretly recorded conversations and produced a deep cache of messages exchanged with the men.
Whitmer, a Democrat running for 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.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued the following statement in response to the men's convictions:
“Today’s guilty verdicts are further proof that violence and threats have no place in our politics. Those who seek to sow discord by pursuing violent plots will be held accountable under the law.
“This trial is another stark reminder that we must take an honest look at the state of our politics. Politically motivated plots, threats, and violence are increasingly common against public officials as well as everyday citizens. They are the logical, disturbing extension of radicalization, hatred, and conspiratorial thinking that festers in America, threatening the foundation of our republic.
“I love Michigan. I always will. I will not let anyone get in the way of the work we do. No threat, no plot, no rhetoric will break my belief in the goodness and decency of our people.
“I want to thank Attorney General Nessel for bringing this case, as well as her outstanding prosecution team, led by Sunita Doddamani, for bringing it to a successful conclusion. I also want to thank all the law enforcement officers for their work and my family, friends, and staff for their support.
“I will stay focused on the work. Let’s keep getting things done for the people of Michigan.”
Attorney General Dana Nessel held a news conference supporting the jury's decision, saying in part:
"My office will not simply sit idly by and watch well-armed terrorists plan acts of civil unrest with the intent of causing mayhem, or not merely acts of harmless chatter and wishful thinking. These are criminal conspiracies to conduct dangerous acts. And it's incumbent upon law enforcement to treat this activity as such. Make no mistake. Actions of law enforcement in this case saved lives. And I'm very pleased that the jury clearly understood that. And I want to thank the court, and I thank the jury for their commitment to this process and for their service during the course of the trial. The investigation and successful prosecution are the result of law enforcement agencies working together."