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After key FBI informant's testimony, trial to resume for Jackson County men accused of helping kidnapping plot

Kidnapping plot evidence
Courtesy U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Michigan
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A training exercise involving the men accused of plotting to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer

A jury in Jackson County will hear more testimony this week in the trial of three men accused of assisting in the plan to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer in 2020.

Prosecutors say Paul Bellar, Pete Musico and Joseph Morrison helped train the leaders of the kidnapping plan.

They’ve been charged with providing material support for terrorist acts, gang membership and possessing firearms while committing a felony.

But their attorneys have argued the three men didn’t support the kidnapping plan, and say they had a legal right to possess guns and be angry at their government.

Prosecutors have shown screenshots from encrypted chat apps and played secretly recorded audio in which the men discussed the kidnapping plans. At one point, prosecutors say Bellar said Whitmer should be “dragged to the streets and hung” over the emergency pandemic orders put in place in 2020.

A key question for jurors will be how serious the men were when they made the comments. In separate trials for other men charged in the conspiracy, jurors have been split. A trial this spring in Grand Rapids ended in acquittals for two men, and a mistrial for two others. Those men — Adam Fox and Barry Croft — were tried again over the summer, and found guilty.

Last week in Jackson County, jurors heard from Dan Chappel, an army veteran who first tipped off the FBI about the conversations about the governor happening on the encrypted chats. Chappel became an informant in the case, giving the FBI access to the chats, and secretly recording audio at meetings. Defense attorneys challenged Chappel about some of the messages they say exonerate their clients.

Andrew Kirkpatrick, the attorney for Paul Bellar, pointed out that Bellar tried to create his own militia group that had different aims than what some of the other men had been talking about.

“And Paul specifically says we are not going to be the aggressors in the state of Michigan, correct?” Kirkpatrick asked.

“Yes,” Chappel said.

“Paul specifically says we are going to train defensively in case we have to defend ourselves, someone else or the Constitution, correct?”

“Correct.”

But Chappel also testified that the men sometimes said things to try to hide their intentions. He said Bellar had already been a part of conversations about kidnapping, and had indicated he was on board.

Chappel has been a key witness in previous trials and hearings against all of the 14 men who’ve been charged over the kidnapping plot, and defense attorneys have been trying all along to attack his motivations and his honesty about his involvement.

Last week, defense attorneys went after him again about injuries he said he received while serving in combat in the Iraq War.

Assistant attorney general William Rollstin objected.

“What he’s trying to do is he’s trying to impeach the witness on a collateral issue as to whether he deserved the Purple Heart,” Rollstin argued.

“No your honor,” said attorney Leonard Ballard. “I’m besmirching him on what he is and what he is doing, and his representation, and their representation that he is this war hero.”

Chappel concluded his testimony on Friday after extensive cross-examination. Trial is scheduled to resume Monday morning. It’s being streamed live online at the Jackson County court’s YouTube page.

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Radio’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Radio since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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