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Prosecutors to get one more shot at closing arguments before jurors decide kidnapping case

weapon in kidnapping evidence from U.S. Attorney's Office
Photo of a weapon submitted as evidence in the federal trial over the alleged conspiracy to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
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U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Michigan

State prosecutors will have one more chance Tuesday morning to make their closing arguments in the trial of three Jackson County men accused of planning to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer.

The trial is the latest test of whether prosecutors can convince jurors that a group of men committed crimes when they discussed kidnapping and possibly killing the governor in 2020.

A total of 14 men were initially charged over the plot. Six of them faced charges in federal court for conspiring to kidnap the governor. A jury found two of those men not guilty in a trial that concluded this spring. Two other men were convicted in August, while two others pleaded guilty on their own.

The Jackson County trial is the first for men charged in state courts. The three men on trial were not central to the planning in the Spring and Summer of 2020. But prosecutors say Paul Bellar, Joseph Morrison and Pete Musico offered crucial assistance to Adam Fox, the ringleader of the plan, who was one of the men convicted in federal court.

As members of the so-called “Wolverine Watchmen” militia, the three men helped train Fox, which prosecutors say amounts to providing material support for a terrorist act.

Defense attorneys have said the trainings were defensive in nature, part of preparing for the possibility of disasters.

But Assistant Attorney General Sunita Doddamani told jurors these were no “preppers,” getting ready for natural disasters.

“They weren’t stockpiling food and water and beans, right?” Doddamani said during her closing arguments Monday. “They weren’t offering classes on first aid, or burns or CPR, or anything like that - skills you might need for the collapse of society. They were preparing for war - war with the government.”

Prosecutors also highlighted a protest at the Michigan Capitol building in 2020 over emergency pandemic orders, in which Bellar, Musico and Morrison went into the building with assault-style rifles and posed outside the governor’s office in the building. A Michigan State Trooper testified Whitmer was not in the building that day.

Kareem Johnson, attorney for Pete Musico, pointed out that the men acted lawfully at the Capitol building.

“As much as they wanted the Wolverine Watchmen to keep their grievances to themselves, the law allowed them to protest in that manner,” Johnson said. “And the law doesn’t say you can only protest if you do so politely. You can yell. You can scream. That’s the point.”

The state capitol commission has since voted to ban people from openly carrying weapons in the building.

Prosecutors have also shown messages between the men in which they called for violence against police officers and politicians, while making fun of other militia groups that they referred to as “Fudds”, a reference to Elmer Fudd.

In one message, Paul Bellar said the governor should be “dragged to the streets and hung” for the orders during the pandemic that closed businesses and schools.

But Bellar’s attorney, Leonard Ballard, said Bellar’s actions told a different story. He distanced himself from Fox, and moved out of state before the kidnapping plans took shape. He later created his own chat group, Ballard said, in which he pushed back at the idea of grabbing politicians.

“His mind is thinking, ‘eh you know we said a lot of crazy stuff,' which they did,” Ballard argued. “‘We put a lot of crazy stuff on the wire,' which he did. 'I said a lot of crazy stuff here and there,' which he did. But he’s not being charged with any of that stuff. None of it.”

Prosecutors will get another chance to rebut the defense attorneys closing arguments when the trial resumes on Tuesday morning. After that, judge Thomas Wilson will give instructions to the jurors on the charges, and jurors will begin deliberations.

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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