TRAVERSE CITY — In one of the nation’s highest-profile domestic terrorism cases, the prosecution began Monday to plead the state’s probable cause against five men accused of helping plot to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer from his vacation home in northern Michigan.
The first day of the preliminary examination – which came less than a week after a jury convicted two men in federal courtringleaders, and about two years after officials said they had foiled a plot to take out the governor following the pandemic security restrictions she imposed — offered some moments of drama, but did mostly recounted what prosecutors in the federal case had already revealed.
Assistant Attorney General Sunita Doddamani began by questioning FBI Special Agent Henrik Impola about the seven-month Operation Coldsnap investigation into the Wolverine Watchmen, a group that Impola said were “self-proclaimed anarchists,” about from which law enforcement had received a report that they may be planning acts of violence.
The investigation, she said, was the “beginning of this story”.
Twins Michael and William Null, who are 40, and from Plainwell and Shelbyville, respectively; Shawn Fix, 40, of Belleville; Brian Higgins, 53, of Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin; and Eric Molitor, 38, of Cadillac – are charged with providing material support to terrorism, which face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
They were all in court on Monday, most dressed in their best Sunday suits.
Throughout the FBI agent’s testimony, the prosecution sought to link the defendants to the convicted ringleaders and link them to the conspiracy. He also twice pointed out that Fix claimed to be a Navy SEAL, a member of the elite special operations force, but he never was.
He also revealed details that, among other things, there were talks of shooting the Governor in the head and blowing up her ‘mafia-style’ boat, after Whitmer’s husband was criticized in the media for asking if his boat could be launched, flouting the stopping rules, in what he said was a “failed attempt at humor”.
The defense, however, frequently interrupted with objections, which were mostly overruled, and questioned the officer’s testimony, the veracity of the audio and video clips, and generally whether the statements made by charge in court were relevant or out of context.
Defense attorneys also called some of the testimony “libel”.
And, just before the lunch break, one of the defense attorneys, who 86th District Judge Michael Stepka suggested was overzealous, became so frustrated that he accused the “bush league” attorney accusation and the FBI agent of being a “puppet monkey”.
“Listen, you’re all professionals,” Stepka said calmly afterwards. “I will order everyone to be respectful.”
At another point, one of the defendants, Molitor, seemed agitated and unable to concentrate and sit still and his lawyer asked for a short break so his client could get up and walk around.
For much of the trial, Impola described how the group was “thinking through ideas”, including storming the capital and shooting at police officers. He also detailed the various steps he said the defendants and others took to carry out their plans.
Impola described how the FBI received a complaint from Flint, from a man named “Dan”, who was friends with the local police and was concerned about the violence. Impola said he met Dan, saw a written communication on his phone about violence against law enforcement, and took pictures of it, kicking off the investigation.
Dan, who was also referred to in the federal terrorism case and the other Jackson state case as “Big Dan”, became a paid confidential informant. The former Army vet agreed to “observe and report” to the FBI and not break any laws, the agent said.
The agent said the FBI provided him with recording devices and paid him about $54,000.
Throughout the testimony, Doddamani referred to the timeline of events, maps and photos of suspects.
On June 6, 2020, Impola said there was a meeting in a hotel conference room in Dublin, Ohio, and the leaders of the Wolverine Watchmen, including convicted terrorists Adam Fox and Barry Croft Jr., and William Null, to plan a boogaloo, or civil war – and a recording was made of it.
At the meeting, Impola said, the group discussed recruiting more members and the success they had in Michigan storming the state Capitol. They called their plans the second American revolution. Impola said that “they talked about how Gretchen Whitmer was a tyrannical governor and something had to be done about her.”
Impola also testified that in addition to William Null’s presence at one of the meetings, the other four defendants in the case were involved in the kidnapping plot by making reconnaissance in person or by telephone. and engaging in what the men called field training exercises, some with weapons.
Before taking the lunch break, Judge Stepka said he would discuss the co-conspirators’ statements with all the lawyers.
Impola, who testified all day, said that as the FBI’s investigation unfolded, the agency recorded conversations involving defendants, checked cellphone Internet searches, and eventually informed the governor’s security service threats against him.
Impola ended the day by testifying to how the group spotted Whitmer’s summer cabin off Lake Birch near Elk Rapids.
A video was released of the group driving down rue du Gouverneur and stopping in front of his house.
Impola described how they then drove through downtown Elk Rapids to the police station so they could see the route of first responders.
In addition to the audio recording, Impola explained how he had an FBI surveillance team following the group and photographs were shown of the group as they visited the hardware store to secure a rope and shovel.
The final audio broadcast for the day allowed the courtroom to hear a discussion the defendants were involved in that described the purpose of the plan: “To send a message…so everyone knows… . to cut off the serpent’s head.”
Testimony resumes Tuesday.
Contact Frank Witsil: 313-222-5022 or [email protected] Annie Doyle at 231-675-0099 or email@example.com