BELLAIRE, Mich. (AP) — Three men accused of aiding a plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer were anarchists who considered themselves “the new founding fathers” and were preparing for bloodshed, a prosecutor told jurors Wednesday.
“They didn’t like the U.S. government. They didn’t like the state government. They all desired to start a civil war, if you can believe it,” William Rollstin of the state attorney general’s office said in his opening trial statement.
“For the average person, it’s almost impossible to fathom how brazen, how bold, how dangerous these individuals were,” he said.
Defense attorneys said their clients had taken part in paramilitary activities and were angry about conditions in the U.S. but had committed no crimes. They accused investigators and prosecutors of cherry-picking evidence to blow things out of proportion.
“They’re reaching, stretching, misrepresenting these facts,” said William Barnett, Molitor’s lawyer.
The defendants were among 14 men arrested weeks before the November 2020 election. Nine have been convicted in state or federal court, including four who pleaded guilty, while two were acquitted.
Investigators described them as members of self-styled “militia” groups angered by Whitmer’s COVID-19 policies, which shut down schools and restricted the economy.
Eleven women and seven men were selected as jurors in the Republican-leaning county, a rural area popular with tourists. Whitmer has a vacation home in the Lake Michigan village of Elk Rapids.
Rollstin told jurors the three defendants supported a plan hatched by ringleaders Adam Fox and Barry Croft to abduct the two-term Democratic governor there and blow up a bridge to prevent law enforcement officers from aiding her.
Informants and undercover FBI agents were inside the group for months, leading to arrests. Whitmer was not physically harmed.
The Null brothers, both 41, were leaders of a group called the Michigan Liberty Militia and supported the so-called “boogaloo” movement that wanted to overthrow the government, Rollstin said. Molitor, 39, was recruited by Fox to join his “civilian army,” the prosecutor said.
Rollstin used audio and video clips, social media posts and snippets of encrypted online conversations to outline the scheme and the three defendants’ alleged roles.
The Null brothers, he said, took part in surveillance of Whitmer’s home and paramilitary training exercises, one at a makeshift “kill house” intended to prepare for an assault on the governor’s dwelling.
Rollstin said Molitor also joined one of the observation missions, shot video of the house and provided an electronic device.
All three defendants “knew what the plan was about,” the prosecutor said. “There was no doubt this was going to be an act of terrorism.”
The targets included not just Whitmer, but also her state police security detail and local officers, he said.
Barnett described Molitor as a bit player who did not initially realize Whitmer’s house was the target of the trip he joined. He said Molitor “felt very scared” and had little contact with the others afterward.
“He had no intent to do anything criminal,” Barnett said. “He was shocked when he was arrested.”
Attorney Kristyna Nunzio, representing William Null, said he “has a healthy mistrust for government and that in itself is not a crime.”
The trial is the fourth — and last — in state or federal court. A major prosecution witness again will be Dan Chappel, an Army veteran who agreed to become an FBI informant and get inside a group called the Wolverine Watchmen. He has said he was simply looking for people who liked training with guns but became concerned in 2020 when the talk turned to attacking police.
Henrik Impola, a Detroit-based FBI special agent, testified Wednesday he met with “Confidential Human Source Dan” and persuaded him to stay with the group and help the investigation.
“They seemed to be escalating toward violence,” Impola said, adding that he feared “an act could happen before we could stop it.”
Two other defendants, Brian Higgins and Shawn Fix, pleaded guilty to reduced charges earlier this year and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.
The main kidnapping conspiracy case was handled in federal court, where four men, including Fox and Croft, were convicted. Two others were acquitted.
Separately, three men were convicted at trial in Jackson County, the site of training for self-styled militia members, and are serving lengthy prison terms.
After the plot was thwarted, Whitmer blamed then-President Donald Trump, saying he had given “comfort to those who spread fear and hatred and division.” Trump called the kidnapping plan a “fake deal” in August 2022.