LANSING, Mich. (AP) - Nearly three years after authorities foiled a bizarre plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, the last defendants accused of taking part go on trial Monday.
Eric Molitor and brothers William Null and Michael Null were among 14 men, described by prosecutors as anti-government extremists, charged in the scheme weeks before the November 2020 election. They were angered by Whitmer’s COVID-19 policies, which shut down schools and restricted the economy, investigators said in court filings.
The plotters were members of paramilitary groups and spoke of attacking the state Capitol and police to ignite civil war, the documents said.
Nine men so far have been convicted in state or federal court, including four who pleaded guilty. Two others were acquitted at trial.
Jury selection in the final case is set to begin Monday. Opening arguments are scheduled for Wednesday in rural Antrim County, a tourist haven known for cherry and apple orchards, sparkling lakes and quaint villages. Among them is Elk Rapids, where Whitmer has a vacation home.
Evidence presented in previous trials suggested the plotters intended to abduct the two-term Democratic governor there and blow up a bridge to prevent law enforcement officers from aiding her. But informants and undercover FBI agents were inside the group for months, leading to arrests. Whitmer was not physically harmed.
Molitor and the Null brothers, all from Michigan, are charged with providing material support for terrorist acts — punishable by up to 20 years in prison — and illegally possessing firearms. They have pleaded not guilty.
"These cases are very important in light of the times we live in," said Barbara McQuade, a former U.S. attorney in Michigan. "Acts of political violence have no place in a democracy."
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.
The Null brothers, both 41, have been portrayed as close allies of convicted plot leader Adam Fox, who spoke highly of them during a meeting in the basement of a Grand Rapids-area vacuum cleaner shop, according to authorities.
"Like, they’re willing to go die ... if need be. They don’t want to die in vain though," Fox said, not knowing an FBI informant was secretly recording him.
The Nulls and Molitor attended a training session in Luther, Michigan, where a "shoot house" was constructed to simulate Whitmer’s vacation home, witnesses previously testified. That same weekend, the Nulls joined Fox, Barry Croft Jr. and others on a night ride to Elk Rapids to see the property.
"The assignment for that vehicle was to be a look out for ‘suspicious’ vehicles in Gov. Whitmer’s neighborhood and to interact with the other two vehicles participating in the surveillance by using hand-held radios," prosecutors said in a court filing.
Molitor, 39, participated in daytime surveillance of Whitmer’s home a few weeks earlier, riding with Fox and FBI informant Dan Chappel and recording video, according to evidence.
Molitor said "he was ‘in’ on Fox’s plan for an extraction or ‘snatch and grab’ if it was done ‘professionally,’" according to prosecutors.
Molitor has publicly claimed that he and others were entrapped by undercover FBI agents and informants who played key roles during firearms training and rides to Elk Rapids.
Fox, who is serving a 16-year prison sentence after his conviction on federal conspiracy charges, told state Judge Charles Hamlyn this month he would not testify in the upcoming trial, invoking his right against self-incrimination.
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 ringleaders 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 long prison terms.
Antrim County drew attention from conspiracy theorists when an election night clerical error in 2020 briefly indicated Democrat Joe Biden had carried the staunchly Republican county. The problem was fixed and then-President Donald Trump properly credited with winning. But his supporters unsuccessfully sued to inspect voting machines.