Three men accused of supporting a plot to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer have lost their bid to have the case against them preemptively thrown out of Michigan state court.
The men, Joseph Morrison, Pete Musico, and Paul Bellar, are charged with providing material support to terrorism, gang membership, and felony firearm possession. They claim they were entrapped by an FBI informant who induced them to train with people they would not otherwise have met, creating the conditions for a conspiracy to hatch.
But in a ruling Tuesday, Judge Thomas D. Wilson of Jackson County Circuit Court denied their motion to dismiss the case, saying, “I cannot, in reviewing this matter, see how the government pressured any of these individuals.” That sets a course for the men — all members of the armed militant group the Wolverine Watchmen — to stand trial, which Wilson tentatively scheduled for Sept. 12.
Their defense echoes that of defendants in the parallel federal case, which includes kidnapping conspiracy and weapons of mass destruction charges, crimes that carry maximum penalties of life in prison. In January, a federal judge denied a motion to throw out that case on grounds of entrapment, saying the defendants “fail to carry their burden” of proof.
Two weeks after that ruling, one of the federal defendants, Kaleb Franks, pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with the government, joining another, Ty Garbin, who reached a deal over a year ago. Federal prosecutors have said that when trial begins March 8, Garbin and Franks would testify “that none of the defendants were entrapped by law enforcement.” Nonetheless, the remaining federal defendants — Adam Fox, Barry Croft, Daniel Harris, and Brandon Caserta — are still expected to make the case to the jury that they were pushed into the plot by FBI informants.
An additional five defendants are charged in Michigan’s Antrim County. That case, however, has stagnated in the lower court, without a single evidentiary hearing being held in over a year.
In their entrapment motions, filed more than seven months ago, attorneys for Bellar, Musico, and Morrison focused on the confidential informant known only as Dan, an Army veteran who joined the Wolverine Watchmen in March 2020. The FBI tasked him with secretly reporting on its activities, and he eventually rose to become the group’s second in command.
“This is another example of federal agents infiltrating a First Amendment–protected group,” said Kareem Johnson, attorney for Musico, in court Monday. “They weren’t fighting crime, they were facilitating crime. They weren't even sitting back and letting whatever happened happen.”
But prosecutors countered that the defendants were predisposed to commit crimes of political violence. “They did this all by themselves,” said Sunita Doddamani, a prosecutor from the Michigan attorney general’s office who has been leading the state’s efforts on the case,
Wilson sided with the prosecution, saying of the FBI and its informants that “furnishing a mere opportunity to commit a crime is not entrapment.”
Hank Impola, one of two FBI agents who handled Dan, testified that as part of the investigation, another informant, Stephen Robeson, helped set up Facebook pages in at least seven states for the anti-government group known as the Three Percenters, and that he appointed Adam Fox to be leader of the Michigan chapter of the group.
Robeson, who started working for the FBI in October 2019 and played a central role in the Michigan investigation, has twice been charged with crimes in the past year and has not testified to date. Last month, federal prosecutors dubbed him a “double agent” who secretly undermined the investigation and is not a reliable witness.
Similar concerns have not been raised about Dan, who the government says has no criminal record.
In his testimony Monday — during which the court turned off the video feed and asked journalists to refrain from taking photos — Dan said that a plot to kidnap Whitmer emerged over time, and that at first the Watchmen had been focused on targeting police officers. After a multistate “meeting of the minds” in Ohio in June 2020, focus shifted to specific actions in either Virginia or Michigan that would, Dan claimed, potentially kick off a civil war — which many of the defendants referred to as the “Big Boogaloo.”
By mid-July, the state of Michigan had been identified as the first target for an act of political violence, he testified, and a smaller group of people, some of whom had been in the Wolverine Watchmen, began making plans to kidnap the governor. The idea, Dan said, was a “domino effect. We take our state and others will follow too.”
Musico and Morrison are not alleged to have been part of the smaller group, but because they hosted training sessions and meetings where some of those supposed plans took root, prosecutors claim they were providing support to terrorism. The same is true for Bellar, who left Michigan permanently in late July. His attorney, Andrew Kirkpatrick, took pains to question how he could have provided material support to a plan that hadn’t even been hatched by the time he skipped town.
Wilson’s ruling does not prevent the defendants from raising the question of entrapment at trial, which prosecutors said on Tuesday could last for several weeks, if not longer.