Opening arguments begin after 2 days of jury selection in Whitmer kidnapping plot trial




  • In US
  • 2022-10-05 16:32:04Z
  • By Detroit Free Press
Joseph Morrison, Paul Bellar and Pete Musico wait for their hearing to start in the courtroom of Judge Thomas Wilson at the Jackson County Circuit Court in Jackson on Wednesday, Feb.
Joseph Morrison, Paul Bellar and Pete Musico wait for their hearing to start in the courtroom of Judge Thomas Wilson at the Jackson County Circuit Court in Jackson on Wednesday, Feb.  

In opening arguments in a Jackson trial in which three men are accused of plotting to help kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer from her northern Michigan vacation home two years ago, the prosecutor said the defendants' formed a dangerous gang, the Wolverine Watchmen, to commit terrorism, which they planned to carry out.

Joseph Morrison, Pete Musico, and Paul Bellar are charged with providing material support for terrorism, a felony punishable by up to 20 years, and additional related felony charges. Their participation, prosecutors said, was part of a larger scheme that was broken up by the FBI in 2020.

"These guys were serious, ladies and gentlemen," Assistant Attorney General William Rollstin, who went first, told the jury. The prosecutor added that the "story is simple" and he would describe what unfolded in the defendants' own words and writings.

The defendants, he said, planned to kill police, start violence and spark an anarchist movement.

After two days of jury selection, Rollstin began opening arguments in one of the nation's highest-profile domestic terrorism cases.

In many ways, the state's case is an extension of the federal case that resulted in four convictions and two acquittals. It also shows what appears to be increasing distrust of government and the advent of what authorities are calling violent extremist groups in Michigan - and nationwide.

It is "not a crime to be dangerous," Rollstin said, but it is indicative of their motives.

The three men, the assistant attorney general said, believed in an ideology called the boogaloo, a word he said might sound cute, but meant civil war, which they planned to start. The prosecution compared them to the mujahedeen, fanatical Muslims intent on a spiritual war.

Defense's opening statements

Paul Bellar's attorney, Andrew Kirkpatrick, said in his opening to the jury that he's there to tell "the rest of the story."

Kirkpatrick said his client may have said things they might disagree with and upset them, but he didn't break any laws, and in the end, the prosecution would fail to meet its burden of proof. He did not support terrorism, he was not a member of the gang, and did not use a firearm during a crime.

The defense lawyer added that the two men who were responsible for the plot - Adam Fox and Barry Croft - already have been convicted in federal court.

And any plot that may have been hatched, he said, was just a lot of talk and his client wasn't even a part of it.

Kirkpatrick said that after meeting Fox, Bellar decided that he was crazy, and said so; he left the Wolverine Watchman, and more than that, he even left the state, moving to South Carolina. "Did he materially support terrorism?" Kirkpatrick asked, adding: "Give me a break."

Attorneys for the other defendants were expected to give their opening statements after lunch.

Starting a 'boojahedeen'

"Why is this going on?" Rollstin asked, noting that the defendants were upset that during the pandemic, the governor had shut down businesses and schools, and the group intended to start a civil war in connection with a larger national network organized with "like-minded people" to coordinate attacks.

The men, Rollstin said, were not loyal to a political party, but an ideology, and even used a word, combining boogaloo and mujahedeen, "boojahedeen," among themselves. They planned, the prosecutor added, to kill police, or anyone, who got in their way.

This Wolverine Watchman, Rollstin said, planned to kidnap Whitmer and kill her security detail.

In audio clips, photos, and other glimpses of evidence that had been collected during a police investigation, the prosecution outlined its case, telling the jury that the men were dangerous, and serious, about their cause. They had training, and they had hatred toward the police and others in positions of authority.

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They recruited others through social media, vetted candidates, and communicated through Wire, an encrypted digital chat, to "keep police out of the group" and prevent others from seeing and recording what they were doing, but "what they didn't count on" was an informant, who the prosecution referred to as Dan.

Dan, Rollstin said, had been in the Army, contacted the Wolverine Watchman on Facebook, but became concerned when he saw the group was trying to get addresses of police officers and target them, and then went to the FBI and became a confidential source, the "eyes and ears" into the group.

"There is no upside for Dan to do this," Rollstin said, and, in fact, he risked his own life to get the FBI the story.

Contact Frank Witsil: 313-222-5022 or fwitsil@freepress.com.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Opening arguments begin Michigan's Whitmer kidnapping plot trial

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