Three Michigan Men Sentenced to Prison Terms for Aiding Plot Against Whitmer

Three Michigan Men Sentenced to Prison Terms for Aiding Plot Against Whitmer

Three men convicted of aiding a plot to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan in 2020 were sentenced on Thursday to lengthy sentences that could put them in prison for at least seven years.

The three men, Paul Bellar, 24, Joseph Morrison, 28, and Pete Musico, 45, were convicted in October of aiding a plot to kidnap Governor Whitmer, a Democrat, as part of a right-wing backlash over her role in the state’s Covid restrictions. The men, all Michigan residents, were found guilty of providing material support for terrorist acts and illegal gang membership, as well as felony firearms charges.

The trial was one in a series of cases that grew out of a sprawling domestic terrorism investigation into the kidnapping plot. Federal prosecutors have delivered mixed results, with some convictions and other acquittals. As a whole, the cases have been seen as underscoring the rising threat of political violence in America.

Judge Thomas Wilson, the chief judge of the Jackson County Circuit and Probate Court, sentenced Mr. Musico to a minimum of 12 years in prison, including consecutive sentences of five to 20 years for gang membership, five to 20 years for supporting terrorist acts and two years for the firearms charge.

Mr. Morrison was sentenced to a minimum of 10 years in prison, including two consecutive sentences of four to 20 years for gang membership and supporting terrorist acts and another two years for the firearms violation.

Mr. Bellar received a minimum of seven years, with concurrent sentences of five to 20 years for gang membership and four to 20 years for supporting terrorist acts, as well as a consecutive sentence of two years for the firearms charge.

The three men would each serve no more than 20 years in prison at maximum.

In arguments before Judge Wilson, lawyers for the defendants argued that the three men were peripheral to the kidnapping plot and emphasized that there was no evidence that Governor Whitmer had suffered significant psychological injury as a result of the plot.

Sunita Doddamani, an assistant attorney general, urged Judge Wilson to impose consecutive sentences in the top third of the state’s guidelines.

“It is time to hold them accountable with lengthy prison sentences because terrorism’s goal is to engender fear,” Ms. Doddamani said. “And the only way to defeat it is to not give into that fear.”

The men’s conviction on charges of illegal gang membership stemmed from their affiliation with the Wolverine Watchmen, a militia whose members openly discussed violence against politicians and police officers.

During the pandemic, Governor Whitmer became a target of anti-government groups who viewed her Covid-control measures as tyrannical. She was re-elected easily last month, defeating a Republican rival endorsed by former President Donald J. Trump.

In a recorded video, Governor Whitmer said that the kidnapping plot had a distinct, negative impact on her and urged Judge Wilson to “impose a sentence that meets the gravity of the threat to our democracy.”

“I now scan crowds for threats,” she said. “I think carefully about the last thing I say to people when we part. I worry about the safety of everyone near me when I’m in public.”

Mr. Morrison; his father-in-law, Mr. Musico; and Mr. Bellar organized gun training in Michigan’s Jackson County with Adam Fox, the leader of the kidnapping plot. Though the men sentenced on Thursday were not accused of committing a terrorist act themselves, prosecutors told jurors that the defendants’ actions helped support a plot, which amounted to a crime.

Earlier this year, Mr. Fox and his co-defendant, Barry Croft, were convicted in federal court of conspiring to kidnap Governor Whitmer. Mr. Fox and Mr. Croft, who are both facing up to life in prison, are scheduled to be sentenced this month.

“Your Honor, I had a lapse in judgment,” Mr. Musico said to Judge Wilson in a wavering voice. “I’ve been a good citizen, I’ve been a family man, I’ve taken care of my family for a very long time.”

In a statement before the court, Mr. Morrison renounced the Wolverine Watchmen and voiced regret for affiliating with anti-government extremist groups.

“I sincerely regret ever allowing myself to have any affiliation with people who had those kinds of ideas, especially Mr. Fox,” he said. “I regret that I ever let hate, fear and anger into my heart the way I did.”

Before Judge Wilson, Mr. Bellar apologized to Governor Whitmer, saying that he “in no way meant her any harm,” and to his friends and family members in the courtroom.

In a briefing after the sentencing hearing, Dana Nessel, the Michigan attorney general, said that the length of the sentences would serve as a warning against extremist acts in the United States.

“Acts of domestic terrorism will be treated with the utmost seriousness and gravity by the criminal justice system,” she said.

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