Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at Lansing Community College, Feb. 16, 2022 | Laina G. Stebbins
Updated, 1:48 p.m., 12/15/22 with comments from Attorney General Dana Nessel
Three men convicted for supporting a plot to kidnap and assassinate Gov. Gretchen Whitmer have been sentenced to prison.
Pete Musico, 44; his son in-law, Joe Morrison, 28; and Paul Bellar, 24, were sentenced on Thursday by a Jackson County judge after a jury convicted the trio in October of providing “material support” for a terrorist act, which carried a maximum term of twenty years behind bars. They were also convicted of membership in a gang and felony firearms counts.
Musico was ordered to serve consecutive terms of five to 20 years in prison on the supporting terrorism and gang charges and two years for felony firearms. Morrison, meanwhile, was handed consecutive terms of four to 20 years on the first two counts and two years on felony firearms, while Bellar was handed five to 20 year sentences on the first two counts, although they would be served concurrently, and then a consecutive sentence of two years for felony firearms.
Assistant Attorney General Sunita Doddamani argued for tough sentences for all three defendants. In Bellar’s case, she noted that he had many multiple statements about wanting to do serious violence.
“We’re not just talking about inappropriate comments, Judge, or concerning comments,” she said. “We’re talking about comments, and these are all admitted evidence, saying things like, ‘I hope the cops put their back plates in tonight,’ you know, because he wanted to shoot cops in the back,” adding that he had also stated, ‘I swear to God, I’m going to f–king Molotov her house,’ in reference to throwing a Molotov cocktail in the governor’s house because he was mad at her pandemic restrictions. These are not just inappropriate comments.”
The sentences followed a recorded victim impact statement from Whitmer, in which she said she and her family had changed as a result of the plot, and asked the judge to impose a sentence that “meets the gravity of what they have done,” adding that “our system is stronger than plots created in basements.”
Defense attorneys had unsuccessfully sought to prevent the statement from being played.
Following the sentencing hearing, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel spoke with reporters, saying she was pleased with the outcome as it sent a clear message as to the seriousness of the crimes.
“I think what the takeaway from these cases that we can certainly glean from the sentences, is that quite simply, acts of domestic terrorism will be treated with the utmost seriousness and gravity by the criminal justice system,” said Nessel. “And for those who think this is a laughing matter, I would beg to differ. I’d ask you to take a look at the sentences that were handed down today and see that these are incredibly serious cases, and these are very lengthy sentences for the defendants that decided it was worth it to engage in this kind of conduct.”
Nessel emphasized that the case was about more than just the effort to kidnap and likely assassinate Whitmer.
“We’re talking about individuals that wanted to murder law enforcement and also to kill other public officials, as well,” she said. “I take you back to April the 30th of 2020 and in what we know was very likely a dry run for the events at our nation’s Capitol on Jan. 6 of 2021.”
Testimony during the various trials connected to the plot focused on the April 2020 rally at the Capitol building in Lansing in which approximately 20 protesters, some of whom were armed with long guns, stood above in the gallery, while roughly 600 more protested on the Capitol lawn and outside the House and Senate chambers.
Musico was among the protestors that day, as were two others; Michael and William Null, who are facing trial in Antrim County for their role in the plot.
“We see through the course of this case just how incredibly close we came to a massacre of epic proportions at our state capitol in Lansing, and how lucky we are, quite honestly, that no lives were lost on that day,” said Nessel. “And I want to go one step further and say this; I want to say, ‘Shame on Speaker Chatfield, shame on Speaker Wentworth, shame on Senate Majority Leader Shirkey,’ who knew what had happened on that date, and made so little in the way of an effort to protect the public at the Capitol, even though they had every means to do so, if they wanted to.”
Following the armed rally, Democrats had sought to ban firearms at the Capitol, but were stymied by GOP leaders, including former House Speaker Lee Chatfield, and current Speaker Jason Wentworth and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey.
Nessel said she has had conversations with Whitmer and those Democrats who are in leadership and are about to take over power in both the House and in the Senate next month.
“I have basically begged them to do something in the way of banning firearms at the Capitol to make sure that we were protecting the public, not just protecting the lives of those who are elected leaders and those who serve us, but protecting law enforcement who are there, protecting the third graders that go to the Capitol every year to see how our state government works,” she said. “The very least we can do is to make sure that that close call that we had on April 30 of 2020 never happens again, and that there is never any such opportunity, as I just want to remind everybody that there are more events that are going to take place.”
Prosecutors said the gang the three were convicted of being part of was a paramilitary group known as the Wolverine Watchmen, which they described as a criminal enterprise that trained to attack Whitmer’s northern Michigan vacation home, open fire on her security detail and then kidnap her.
In all, seven men have either been convicted or entered pleas in the plot, including Adam Fox, 39, and Barry Croft Jr., 46, who were previously found guilty in federal court. They will be sentenced later this month.
We're talking about individuals that wanted to murder law enforcement and also to kill other public officials, as well. I take you back to April the 30th of 2020 and in what we know was very likely a dry run for the events at our nation's Capitol on Jan. 6 of 2021.
– Attorney General Dana Nessel
An initial trial found two others, Brandon Caserta and Daniel Harris, not guilty.
Two other defendants, Ty Garbin and Kaleb Franks, earlier pleaded guilty as part of a deal to testify for prosecutors. Garbin was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison. Franks was ordered to serve four years.
Testimony during the trial indicated the defendants held several practice raids in rural Jackson County alongside Fox, who targeted Whitmer in retaliation for her COVID-19 restrictions early on in the pandemic.
Jurors also were presented evidence that the plotters sought to start a civil war that would create chaos in the days leading up to the 2020 general election.
Defense attorneys argued at trial that the three men had broken away from Fox prior to the plot taking shape and noted they were not among those who traveled to northern Michigan to scout Whitmer’s vacation home nor did they take part in a training session inside a “shoot house” located on property Garbin owned in Lake County.
They also attacked one of the undercover informants used by the FBI, Army veteran Dan Chappel, who said he had joined the group to maintain his firearm skills, but then went to authorities after discussion among the group turned to making plans for attacking police.
Meanwhile, five more defendants in the plot have been bound over to face trial in Antrim County: Shawn Fix, Brian Higgins, Eric Molitor, William Null and Michael Null.
They are due for a pretrial conference on Monday.
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