Seven members of a Michigan militia have been cleared of plotting to overthrow the U.S. government as a judge dismissed the most serious charges against them.
In a shock defeat for federal authorities, District Judge Victoria Roberts said the group’s expressed hatred of law enforcement did not amount to a conspiracy.
The FBI secretly planted an informant and an agent inside the Hutaree militia in 2008 to collect hours of anti-government audio and video that became the cornerstone of the case.
Remarkable result: From top left, David Brian Stone Sr, 44; David Brian Stone Jr; Jacob Ward, 33; Tina Mae Stone and bottom row from left, Michael David Meeks, 40; Kristopher T. Sickles, 27; Joshua John Clough, 28; and Thomas William Piatek, 46, have been cleared of the worst charges
Senior officials had insisted they had captured homegrown rural extremists poised for war.
But the judge said: ‘The court is aware that protected speech and mere words can be sufficient to show a conspiracy. In this case, however, they do not rise to that level.’
Judge Roberts granted requests for acquittal on the most serious charges: conspiring to commit sedition, or rebellion, against the U.S. and conspiring to use weapons of mass destruction.
Other weapons crimes linked to the alleged conspiracies were also dismissed.
‘The judge had a lot of guts,’ said defence attorney William Swor. ‘It would have been very easy to say, “The heck with it”, and hand it off to the jury. But the fact is she looked at the evidence, and she looked at it very carefully.’
The trial, which began on February 13, will resume on Thursday with only a few gun charges remaining against militia leader David Stone and son Joshua, both from Lenawee County, Michigan. They have been in custody without bail for two years.
Prosecutors said Hutaree members were anti-government rebels who held training and strategy sessions to prepare for a violent strike against federal law enforcement, starting with the murder of a police officer.
Denial: Lawyers for the group say they were prepared for survival in case of domestic chaos or an attack on the United States
Only words: The judge said the Hutaree’s expressed hatred of law enforcement did not amount to a conspiracy
But there never was an attack. Defence lawyers said highly offensive remarks about police and the government were wrongly turned into a high-profile criminal case that drew public praise from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who in 2010 called Hutaree a ‘dangerous organisation.’
Judge Roberts said that David Stone’s ‘statements and exercises do not evince a concrete agreement to forcibly resist the authority of the United States government’.
She added: ‘His diatribes evince nothing more than his own hatred for — perhaps even desire to fight or kill — law enforcement; this is not the same as seditious conspiracy.’
U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade declined to comment. Two years ago, when militia members were arrested, she said it was time to ‘take them down’.
Symbol: This image shows the badge of the Hutaree militia, whose alleged members face trial in alleged plot to kill police officers
Symbol: The badge of the Hutaree militia, who were cleared of plotting to kill police officers
The FBI had put a local informant, Dan Murray, inside the militia in 2008 and paid him $31,000.
They also sent an FBI agent from New Jersey to join the militia undercover.
Steve Haug, known as ‘Jersey Steve’, posed as a trucker and spent months secretly recording talks with Stone. He even served as Stone’s best man at his wedding, a celebration with militia members wearing military fatigues.
Mr Haug repeatedly talked to Stone about building pipe bombs and getting other sophisticated explosives. The FBI rented a warehouse in Ann Arbor where the agent would invite him and others to store and discuss weapons.
Mr Haug told jurors he was ‘shocked’ by Stone’s knowledge of explosives, noting it matched some of his own instruction as a federal agent.
Stone was recorded saying he was willing to kill police and even their families. He considered them part of a ‘brotherhood’ — a sinister global authority that included federal law enforcers and United Nations troops.
He held bizarre beliefs, suspecting that Germany and Singapore had aircraft stationed in Texas, and thousands of Canadian troops were poised to take over Michigan. He also claimed the government put computer chips in a flu vaccine.
He had a speech prepared for a regional militia gathering in Kentucky in 2010, but bad weather forced him and others to return to Michigan. Instead, he read it in the van while a secret camera installed by the FBI captured the remarks.
‘It is time to strike and take our nation back so that we may be free again from tyranny,’ Stone said. ‘Time is up, God bless all of you and welcome to the new revolution.’
Militia: Feds say the Hutaree, based in Michigan’s Lenawee County, was an anti-government group committed to fighting authorities who belong to a so-called ‘New World Order’
Mishandled: Defence lawyers said highly offensive remarks were wrongly turned into a high-profile criminal case after the undercover FBI investigation
Mr Swor said the militia leader was a Christian who was bracing for war against the Antichrist.
He said that, for Stone, ‘This is not the United States government. This is Satan’s army.’
Militia members cleared of all charges were Stone’s wife, Tina, and his son, David Stone Jr.; Thomas Piatek of Whiting, Indiana; Michael Meeks of Manchester, Michigan; and Kris Sickles of Sandusky, Ohio.
‘It’s hard to believe it’s over,’ said Mrs Stone, crying as she spoke by phone. ‘Thank God we live in a country where we do have freedom of speech.’
Joshua Clough of Blissfield, Michigan, pleaded guilty to a weapons charge in December and awaits his sentence. Jacob Ward of Huron, Ohio, will have a separate trial.