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"I am changed," Whitmer says in comments played as three men are sentenced for kidnapping plot

FILE - Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addresses the media after signing the final piece of a $76 billion state budget into law, July 20, 2022, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)
Carlos Osorio/AP / Whitmer For Governor
FILE - Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addresses the media after signing the final piece of a $76 billion state budget into law, July 20, 2022, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)

“I am changed and my family is changed.”

The words, from Governor Gretchen Whitmer, were played in a Jackson County courtroom today as a judge deliberated on the sentencing of three men convicted over their role in the plot to kidnap Whitmer in 2020. The three men, Paul Bellar, Joseph Morrison and Pete Musico were sentenced individually for their role in the plot, after being found guilty in October of providing material support for a terrorist act, being in a gang, and possessing firearms while committing a felony.

Michigan Radio's Dustin Dwyer and Doug Tribou discuss the sentences.

Musico faces a range of 12 to 20 years in prison. Morrison faces 10 to 20 years and Bellar will serve between 7 and 20 years, based on the sentences handed down by Circuit Court Judge Thomas Wilson.

The sentences were imposed after Whitmer’s recorded comments about the plot played over the court’s sound system.

Prior to the sentencing hearing Thursday, Whitmer had said little about the plot publicly as the legal cases for 14 men charged in the plot worked their way through both state and federal courts. But in the recorded comments, Whitmer acknowledged the toll the plot has taken on her personally.

"A threat to democracy itself"

“I want my family to know that their mom, their wife, their daughter, their sister is tough, and stands up for what she believes in,” Whitmer said. “But I cannot tell them honestly that I am unfazed. I now scan crowds for threats. 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. And I’m reluctant to share too much because I worry that it could endanger a loved one, a staff member, a police officer on my security detail.”

But Whitmer added, ultimately the case wasn’t just about her.

“A conspiracy to kidnap and kill a sitting governor of the state of Michigan is a threat to democracy itself,” Whitmer said.

She said the plot to kidnap her was part of a trend of targeted threats and violence against public officials and their families, and warned that the threats could accelerate, causing many people to turn away from seeking public office.

“Unfortunately, these defendants have not accepted responsibility for their actions,” Whitmer said, addressing Judge Wilson. “If you want my advice about what to do with men like this, it’s simple: Impose a sentence that meets the gravity of the damage they have done to our democracy.”

Support for a terrorist act

Bellar, Morrison and Musico were among the leaders of a militia they called the Wolverine Watchmen. In private chats in 2019 and 2020, they talked about killing politicians and police officers as a way to kickstart a civil war in the United States.

“[Y]’’all need to take back your state from tyranny.” Morrison wrote in a private message in November of 2019, according to evidence submitted by state prosecutors.

“Yea the trees in the capital should have bodies hanging from them,” Morrison responded, according to the state.

"I cannot tell them honestly that I am unfazed. I now scan crowds for threats. I think carefully about the last thing I say to people when we part."
Governor Gretchen Whitmer, on what she tells her family about the plot to kidnap her.

In 2020, their anger with the government grew, while Governor Whitmer issued a series of emergency orders in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19. Bellar, Morrison and Musico attended a rally in Lansing to protest the emergency orders, and carried assault style rifles inside the capitol building. At one point, the men posed for a photograph outside the governor’s office within the capitol building.

But while they discussed taking violent action against politicians and police officers, prosecutors say the three men were not the ringleaders of the plot to kidnap Whitmer. Instead, prosecutors convinced jurors that Bellar, Morrison and Musico provided valuable training to Adam Fox in his efforts to carry out the plot.

That amounted to material support for a terrorist act, prosecutors argued during a trial in Jackson County in October. A jury ultimately found all three men guilty on that charge, plus two others.

Fox was found guilty in federal court and faces sentencing later this month, along with Barry Croft, who also had a leading role in the plot to kidnap Whitmer.

Thursday, before hearing their sentence, Bellar, Morrison and Musico each spoke, telling Judge Wilson they regretted their involvement in the plot, and pleading with him for a lighter sentence.

“Your honor, I had a lapse in judgment,” said Pete Musico, choking up. “My wife has health conditions, I have health conditions. I throw myself at the mercy of the court that you don’t sentence me to what could possibly be life.”

“I regret that I ever let hate, fear and anger into my heart in the way I did,” said Morrison, who apologized to the governor and her family.”

Bellar, who received the lightest sentence, apologized to Whitmer as well, and told the judge he meant the governor no harm.

“If I had known about the plot actually being a serious thing, I wouldn’t have been where I was at that time,” Bellar said.

Bellar left Michigan in the summer of 2020, before the kidnapping plot had fully hatched, his attorney argued during trial. The argument wasn’t enough for the jury to acquit, but Wilson handed him the lightest sentence of the three men, and allowed the sentences for two of of the three charges to be assessed concurrently, rather than back-to-back.

A total of 14 men were charged over the kidnapping plot, in both federal and state courts. So far, two pleaded guilty to the charges, two were acquitted and five others were found guilty. The remaining five men are still awaiting trial in a state court in Antrim County.

This story has been corrected to show that Pete Musico and Joseph Morrison's maximum sentence in prison will be 20 years, not 42. Though they were each given three sentences to run consecutively, the Michigan Attorney general's office saidthe sentences max out at 20 years.

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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