JACKSON, Mich. (WOOD) — A Jackson County judge says there is enough evidence for three of the 14 militia members accused of conspiring to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to stand trial, but not on one of the terrorism charges they initially faced.
Pete Musico, 42, and Joseph Morrison, 26, both of Munith; and Paul Bellar, 21, of Milford will stand trial on charges of gang membership and providing material support to a terrorist act, as well as a weapons charge, Judge Michael Klaeren ruled. The gang and material support charges are each punishable by up to 20 years in prison and the weapons charge is a two-year felony.
Charges of threat of terrorism were dismissed. Klaeren ruled those charges were not appropriate because the conversations on which they were based happened in encrypted chats and were not accessible to the general public.
“In many respects, it’s no different than just thinking the thought to yourself. It’s not going to be blabbed to the outside world,” Klaeren said. “I’m not minimizing any of the defendants or any of their cohorts; they’re all people, I understand that — but the person must be receiving a threat of terrorism. If it’s not going to get out to the public, how can one take the position that it is designed to create mayhem?”
The Michigan Attorney General’s Office, which is prosecuting the case, said in a statement that it would “explore all options for reconsideration of the (threat of terrorism) charge moving forward.”
The judge’s ruling came Monday during virtual proceedings that wrapped up a preliminary hearing that began weeks ago.
FBI agents on the case testified, among other things, that the defendants trained to carry out their plan to kidnap the governor in “kill houses” and that Morrison said he “wanted Whitmer’s head on a platter.” An informant who helped the FBI testified that the men were serious about harming the governor and other government officials.
“Pete (Musico) said that this was no joke. This was about putting rifles in front of politicians and police officers faces and pulling the trigger,” the informant told the judge earlier this month.
Defense attorneys tried to show that the men’s statements were not literal, pointing out that no one was ever actually hurt. They also said Morrison left the militia before the plot against Whitmer formed.
Musico, Bellar and Morrison are among 14 suspects who were arrested in October. Eight of the men, including the three bound over to trial Monday, face state-level charges. More state-level suspects will appear in an Antrim County courtroom April 14 through April 16 for their preliminary hearing.
Six other men were charged at the federal level. One of them has pleaded guilty in January.
—Araceli Crescencio of WOOD TV8’s Lansing sister station WLNS contributed to this report.