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Judge slashes bonds for two charged in plot against Michigan Gov. Whitmer

A sign for Munith, Michigan, is seen on October 9, 2020. Two men from Munith face charges related to allegations of a plot to harm Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

RYAN GARZA/DETROIT FREE PRESS/TNS

By MIKE MARTINDALE | The Detroit News | Published: November 14, 2020

DETROIT — Two members of an alleged anti-government group charged with plotting to storm and set fire to the state Capitol or, alternatively, to kidnap Michigan's governor both had their bonds dramatically reduced Friday by a judge in 12th District Court in Jackson.

Defense attorneys for Paul Bellar, 21, of Milford and Joseph Morrison, 26, of Munith, described their clients as "weekend warriors" without criminal histories, any drug abuse problems or mental illness.

Their advocates said both men may have passionately talked about their anger toward Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and other officials but never committed any violent acts and deserved to be released from jail pending trials.

District Judge Michael Klaeren heard arguments from defense attorneys and the State Attorney General's Office before declaring he believed their initial $10 million bonds were too high. Klaeren reduced Morrison's bond to $150,000 and Bellar's bond to $75,000, with conditions including GPS tethers, no contact with co-defendants and an order not to come within 500 feet of Whitmer's office or residences.

Last month, bond for Morrison's father-in-law, Peter Musico, 42, was slashed from $10 million to $100,000 by Klaeren. All three are part of a group that authorities allege plotted to ignite a "civil war." Some face federal charges.

Klaeren stopped just short of agreeing that both men present serious threats to the community or elected officials because of their political opinions, tactical training and associations. He reached back to one of the darkest days in modern American history.

"I go back to Lee Harvey Oswald and John F. Kennedy," Klaeren said, referring to the assassination of the nation's 35th president 57 years ago this month. "It only takes one person, one gun and one time for something to happen. But for intervention (from authorities making arrests) something more serious might have happened here."

Morrison's defense attorney, George Lyons, said his client was an ex-Marine who had served his country and was simply exercising his freedom of speech.

"You might not like some of the things he said, but that doesn't make it illegal," Lyons said.

Attorney Andrew Kilpatrick said his client, Bellar, left Michigan months before any abduction plans were developed or surveillance of Whitmer's home, telling other members of the Wolverine Watchmen that he planned to go live with his father in South Carolina, "get out of debt and become a paramedic."

He was working in South Carolina with Door Dash, making food deliveries, Kilpatrick said, telling how Bellar had come upon a woman in a car accident, pulled her from the vehicle at his own personal risk, and provided CPR.

"He came home to his father soaked in her blood," Kilpatrick told Klaeren. "That doesn't sound like someone who presents a danger to the community."

Bellar surrendered to authorities and cooperated during a three-hour interview with investigators, Kilpatrick said.

Assistant attorney general Gregory Townsend disagreed about Bellar's character.

"Do I consider him still a danger?" Townsend told Klaeren. "I certainly do."

Townsend said the first call Bellar made was back to Michigan to warn others that authorities knew of their plans and they may have been compromised.

Assistant attorney general Sunita Doddamani told Klaeren that Morrison — the acknowledged commander of the Wolverines who conducted surveillance and armed training exercises on his property — "may be the most dangerous defendant."

"He facilitated the training and provided ways to act out their plot," she said. "Five days after he got a sweetheart deal on a CCW stop in Macomb County — one day in jail and no probation — he was training others on his property.

"There's no telling what he will do once he is out."

The cases have focused attention on anti-government extremism in Michigan amid fallout from lockdown orders aimed at stemming the spread of COVID-19. Members of the alleged conspiracy voiced displeasure with the lockdown, some protested at the Capitol and discussed "taking out" another state leader, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam.

Morrison is charged with one count each of threat of terrorism, a 20-year felony and/or $20,000 fine; one count each of gang membership, a 20-year felony that may be served as a consecutive sentence; one count each of providing material support for terrorist acts; and one count each of felony firearm, which carries a two-year mandatory prison sentence.

Morrison, 26, was a lance corporal and served in the Marine Corps Reserve from 2015 until the day he was arraigned on state charges earlier this month. The Marine Corps said his departure from the reserves is "unrelated to (his) current situation."

His last assignment was with the 4th Marine Logistics Group in Battle Creek.

Townsend described the militia as a "type of terrorist" group "that was committed to violence before the election" and had contact with other similar groups in Ohio and Wisconsin. The defense objected to the "terrorist" terminology.

The Wolverine Watchmen had attended an armed political protest at the Capitol on April 30 "for surveillance," Townsend argued.

Morrison and Bellar will be back before Klaeren for a probable cause hearing on Dec. 18.

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Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC