FBI agent details digital threats, decodes Whitmer kidnap suspects' messages

Judge Thomas Wilson listens to the first witness, FBI agent Henrik Impola testify during the Gov. Gretchen Whitmer kidnapping plot at the Jackson County Circuit Court in Jackson on Feb. 23, 2022.
Judge Thomas Wilson listens to the first witness, FBI agent Henrik Impola testify during the Gov. Gretchen Whitmer kidnapping plot at the Jackson County Circuit Court in Jackson on Feb. 23, 2022.

The FBI agent who a day earlier told Jackson County Circuit Court jurors how an investigation into three members of a paramilitary group unfolded described on Thursday dozens of threatening digital posts that the defendants had made over several months before being arrested in 2020.

Among the posts, images that said: "I want to commit violence," "By bullet or ballot, restoration of the republic is coming," and "One, two, I'm coming for you," which tagged Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who the prosecution said was a target of a kidnapping plot.

Joseph Morrison, Pete Musico and Paul Bellar are on trial, charged with assisting a larger kidnapping scheme targeting Whitmer. The prosecution also accuses the trio of belonging to a dangerous gang, the Wolverine Watchman, and using weapons while committing a crime.

The prosecution had told jurors it aims to use the defendants' own words against them.

For much of the morning, prosecutors projected posts onto a screen as Special Agent Henrik Impola described them. In the afternoon, Impola described audio recordings of conversations among the men that had been obtained through a confidential informant.

The trial is expected to continue for at least another week.

The agent testified about how the defendants recruited and vetted new members, viewed themselves as patriots and bragged about getting recognition.

The defendants, Impola said, often chatted in coded language, using phrases such as "vibe check," which meant shooting police in the back, and "3 a.m." In some states, the agent explained, police make "red flag" arrests at 3 a.m. to confiscate guns and, in a poetic twist, that's when the defendants wanted to kidnap officials.

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While public online access to the courtroom has been available on YouTube, a chat commentary feature — which was on the day before — had been disabled.

Other evidence included was a flagged Twitter post by Musico, Impola said, that was removed from the social media service. The post blamed the governor and other politicians for budget problems and called for Whitmer to be hanged "from a noose in a tree for treason against the American people."

There were other posts, too. Some celebrated the Oklahoma City bombers, domestic terrorists who used a truck filled with explosive materials, to attack the Murrah Federal Building in 1995. The blast destroyed a third of the structure, killed 168 people and injured more than 680 others.

Posts also described detailed tactics to commit violence, how to select targets, and showed weapons. Several other posts referenced the boogaloo, a word the federal agent said extremists used that meant that they intended to spark a civil war.

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But as Assistant Attorney General Sunita Doddamani built the state's case against the trio in court, the defense objected, arguing that she was presenting evidence out of context and out of order. Judge Thomas Wilson, however, disagreed and allowed her to continue.

The defense is seeking, as attorneys signaled in their opening statements, to plant seeds of doubt that the men who did the plotting already have been convicted for their crimes in federal court. The federal case resulted in four convictions and two acquittals.

The men on trial in Jackson are charged with providing material support for terrorism, a felony punishable by up to 20 years, and related charges, but not with participating in the kidnapping scheme involving Whitmer. They are accused of assisting others who did.

Both sides aim to capitalize on the convictions in federal court.

Jurors may be swayed that the defendants' affiliation with two men who prosecutors said were the ringleaders — Adam Fox and Barry Croft Jr. — and have already been convicted and that it's reasonable that the trio joined with them and were part of their plans.

They also could conclude, as the defense attorneys said in their opening, that the suspects are not charged with plotting because they did not break the law, but exercised their rights to associate with others and voice views that might be upsetting but were not criminal.

Contact Frank Witsil: 313-222-5022 or fwitsil@freepress.com.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: FBI agent details digital threats by Whitmer kidnap plot defendants