Judge dismisses terrorism counts, but 3 will face other charges in Whitmer kidnap plot

A Michigan county judge on Monday dismissed threat of terrorism charges against two men accused in a plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen WhitmerGretchen Whitmer44 military personnel going to Michigan to assist with COVID-19 spike Michigan hospital chiefs plead with public to do its part amid surging hospitalizations Biden must protect Great Lakes from oil spill threat MORE (D).

Jackson County Judge Michael Klaeren ruled in a preliminary examination to drop the threat of terrorism charges against 26-year-old Joseph Morrison and 43-year-old Pete Musico — two of the eight men charged after being linked to the militia group that allegedly planned to kidnap the governor.

The judge also declined to move forward with a threat of terrorism charge against a third man Paul Bellar, 22, which the prosecutors were seeking, according to the Detroit Free Press.

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"There has to be some form of intent here to incite mayhem," Klaeren said, according to The Detroit News.

But Klaeren decided there was enough evidence for other charges, including providing material in support for terrorist acts, gang membership and using a firearm during a felony, to move forward with a trial for all three men, The Associated Press reported

"The intent is so clear that these individuals were going to do more than spout off threats to each other," the judge said, specifically mentioning the allegations that defendants had provided property for training.

The three men had been charged under the state's anti-terrorism law for plotting to kidnap Whitmer or storm the Michigan Capitol building.

The FBI had announced in October that it stopped a plan to depose Michigan's government and abduct Whitmer, charging six members of the Wolverine Watchmen in federal court. 

Bellar, Morrison and Musico were among the eight charged with state crimes, along with Shawn Fix, Michael Null, William Null and Eric Molitor, for allegedly aiding in the plot. 

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Morrison and Musico had been charged under the state's anti-terrorism law for plotting to kidnap Whitmer or storm the Michigan Capitol building.

The judge cited the Wolverine Watchmen's encrypted chat conversations in his dismissal of the terrorism charges, saying talking in those encrypted groups that are not publicly available "in many respects no different than thinking the thought to yourself," according to The News. 

In the case, prosecutors argue that the three men "advocated for political violence" and "trained for it," according to The Detroit News.

The defense attorneys asserted that their clients had only talked in the group and separated themselves from the others charged with the plot.

Bellar's attorney Andrew Kirkpatrick had said his client "provided no training, no surveillance, no material support" for any act of terrorism, according to the News. 

Morrison's lawyer Nicholas Somberg pointed out that his client had been "excluded" from encrypted group chats, and Kareem Johnson, the lawyer for Musico, said his client was not taken seriously by others, noting he "didn't have a military skill set."

But the judge countered the defense attorneys' assertions, saying, "By analogy, I think these gentlemen are at the top of a mountain — make the snowball, start rolling it down the hill and at various times, maybe their effort diminishes or they leave, temporarily, but they started a very big snowball which wasn’t going to stop," according to the Detroit Free Press.

The FBI has previously said it became aware of the group early last year and used undercover agents and confidential informants for months for the investigation. 

Updated at 2:44 p.m. to reflect that two had been charged with threat of terrorism and a third charge was being sought by prosecutors.