A Michigan county judge on Monday dismissed the terrorism charges against three men accused in a plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D).
Jackson County Judge Michael Klaeren ruled to drop the terrorism charges against Paul Bellar, Joseph Morrison, and Pete Musico — three of the seven men charged after being linked to the militia group that allegedly planned to kidnap the governor.
“There has to be some form of intent here to incite mayhem,” Klaeren said, according to The Detroit News.
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 seven charged with state crimes, along with Shawn Fix, Michael Null, William Null, and Eric Molitor. In total, these seven men face 19 felony charges.
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 Detroit News.
Klaeren will still determine if the three men will face charges, including gang membership, felony firearm, and providing material support to terrorism.
In the case, 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 Detroit 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 prosecutors argue that the three men “advocated for political violence” and “trained for it,” according to The Detroit News.
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.