MUNITH, MI—Seven Michigan men were arrested Thursday as part of a sprawling right-wing plot allegedly targeting the state’s government and its embattled Governor Gretchen Whitmer in particular.
The charges against the men, who allegedly called themselves the “Wolverine Watchmen,” came in tandem with federal charges against six other men in an alleged plot to kidnap Whitmer. The group’s involvement—or lack thereof—with those facing federal charges was murky at the time of the announcements. But social media posts and testimony from neighbors of the “Wolverine Watchmen” suggest they had a disturbing relationship with the far-right paramilitary movement.
According to state prosecutors, the “Wolverine Watchmen” group plotted a violent attack on Michigan’s government and sought to incite a civil war this summer, with plans to kidnap elected officials. Some of the defendants, who range in age from 21 to 42, had online presences hinting at violence.
In a Thursday afternoon arraignment, Michigan Assistant Attorney General Gregory Townsend called defendants Joseph Morrison and Pete Musico “founding members” of the Wolverine Watchmen, which he described as a group “committed to violence” against the government and politicians.
Morrison used his property in Munith, Michigan, for militia training, according to Townsend. Members of the militia, according to Townsend, had participated in some of the same activity alleged against the federal defendants, including plotting to bomb bridges and surveilling Whitmer’s home.
“There are multiple members of the Wolverine Watchmen,” Townsend said. “Mr. Morrison was considered the commander.”
The property in question, a blighted home in rural Michigan, flies a Confederate and “Original 13” flag. (The latter has sometimes been adopted by racists, inviting controversy about its intended use in some cases.) Junk—rusted cars, a shop vac, coolers—fill the yard.
Several neighbors of the pair wouldn’t use their names for fear of retribution from the militia. But they told The Daily Beast they’d heard some shooting coming from the property. They described those who had lived at the house as “disrespectful” and said large groups regularly gathered on weekends and “bullets would be flying off their property in all directions.”
The neighbors said they suspected the people were part of a militia because of the number of visitors who would show up on weekends, and the number of high caliber rounds that they fired off, characterizing the household as “a nuisance.”
“I was in the Army,” one neighbor told The Daily Beast. “I’ve got all kinds of guns in my house, some of them high caliber. But I don’t shoot them around here.”
Another neighbor said the household didn’t have many ties to the community. “They were the kind of neighbors you stayed away from,” the neighbor told The Daily Beast. “They were mean. You knew they were involved with the militia. That was obvious from the constant shooting.”
Social media pages for the alleged militia members also suggested less-than-friendly posturing.
A Facebook page for Eric Molitor, another Michigan man who faces state charges in the case, features praise for 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, who’s accused of killing two protesters in Kenosha, Wis. Molitor also posted about conspiracy theories relating to the QAnon movement, posting the QAnon hashtag “Save Our Children” and images about human-trafficking conspiracy theories. Molitor had previously posted images indicating affiliation with “three-percenter” militias, a far-right paramilitary movement.
Defendants Musico and Morrison, both 42-year-olds who lived together, had sparser online profiles, with neither of them liking anything on Facebook besides a Christian broadcasting group. But on YouTube, Musico was more vocal, sharing rambling tirades against taxes, gun control, and the “Deep State”—as well as a rant from 2019 entitled “Gretchen Whitmer Interview” in which he railed against her policies around auto ownership. In the video, he implied that he was going to obtain an in-person interview with Whitmer.
A Pete Musico also has a page on the social media site Gab, popular among white supremacists and the alt-right, on which he promoted the unfounded claim that in South Africa “they are killing white people.” Although many of the posts feature broken images (a hallmark of Gab), one of the user’s favorite accounts was that of Joe Biggs, a Proud Boy organizer who has glorified violence against the left. Biggs and anti-Semitic Infowars personality Owen Shroyer are the only accounts he follows.
A Michigan-based Pete Musico also has a Twitter account with a Tea Party-style “Don’t Tread On Me” banner as the profile image and a number of posts from 2016 voicing support for Trump and calling for the imprisonment of then-Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. It also includes unfounded allegations that former President Bill Clinton fathered an “illegitimate black child” and that vaccines contain dangerous levels of mercury. Another post urges his 14 followers to visit right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ site Infowars.
Michigan has been a hotbed of militia activity for decades, with over a dozen active militia groups. In 2010, members of a militia group called the Hutaree were indicted for sedition and weapons-related charges over an alleged plot to bomb a law enforcement officer’s funeral. They were ultimately acquitted of the most serious charges.
The state’s militia movement surged back into the spotlight during the coronavirus pandemic, with militias joining other far-right groups to protest Whitmer’s coronavirus restrictions.
Molitor is facing charges of providing material support for terrorist acts and carrying a firearm during the commission of a felony. Musico and Morrison each face counts of terrorism, gang membership, providing material support for terrorist acts, and firearms felonies.
Co-defendants Paul Bellar, 21; Shawn Fix, 38; Michael Null, 38; and Wiliam Null, 38, all face charges of providing material support for terrorist acts and carrying a firearm during commission of a felony. Bellar also faces a count of gang membership.
It was not clear whether any of the men charged had retained lawyers.