DETROIT (AP) — Seven members of a Midwest militia accused of plotting to overthrow the government are set to stand trial, where jurors will decide whether federal authorities prevented an attack by homegrown extremists or simply made too much of the boasts by weekend warriors who had pledged to "take our nation back."
Opening statements are set for Monday once a jury is seated in the trial of members of the Hutaree militia, who are charged with conspiring to commit sedition, or rebellion, as well as weapon crimes.
Following the March 2010 arrests in southern Michigan, Ohio and Indiana, U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade said the time had come for authorities to "take them down." An undercover agent had recorded the group's leader, David Stone, saying the militia needed to "start huntin'" police soon.
But since their capture, only one of nine people charged has struck a plea deal, an unusually low number in a case with so many defendants. Their attorneys have maintained a consistent stance: The anti-government talk was simply colorful yet aimless bluster akin to frustrated pals drowning sorrows around a campfire.
"I'm going to fight it tooth and nail," David Stone's wife and co-defendant, Tina Mae Stone, said during a break in jury selection last week. "It was just a bunch of good ol' boys out to have fun. We did survival stuff. I did it mostly to spend time with my husband. People tell me, 'good luck.' I don't need luck. I've got God on my side."
The militia prepared for survival in case of domestic chaos or an attack on the United States, attorneys Todd Shanker and Richard Helfrick said in a court filing. They noted the group even had a website and promoted its weekend outings.
"Regardless of the charges in the indictment, there is no dispute that the aims of the Hutaree militia included the free exercise of their 1st and 2nd Amendment rights, including freedom of speech, association, assembly and the right to bear arms," said the lawyers, who represent David Stone Jr.
The indictment, however, describes a more sinister band. The government says 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." The defendants are accused of conspiring to someday ambush and kill a police officer, then attack the funeral procession with explosives and trigger a broader revolt against the U.S. government.
"The court will hear testimony and examine evidence concerning this particular group's hatred for, and desire to do physical harm to, law enforcement," Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Graveline said.
The government has more than 100 hours of audio and video, including the recording of David Stone, 47, apparently talking about police.
"I think we gotta just start huntin' 'em here pretty soon. ... They're easy to find, they're sittin' alongside the road and they got these red and blue lights on top of their car," he said.
A co-defendant, Michael Meeks of Manchester, Mich., replied: "It's like a Kmart super special or whatever."
But some conversations were sprinkled with laughter and a mix of subjects, including strippers and drawing Hitler mustaches on photos of state troopers. Agents seized machine guns, unregistered rifles, ammunition and parts for improvised explosive devices.
The government's case got off to a rough start in 2010, when U.S. District Judge Victoria Roberts released the nine until trial under strict conditions. The government swiftly appealed but then agreed that four could go home wearing electronic monitors. An appeals court ultimately ordered the other five to remain locked up, including David Stone.
The government relied on an undercover agent inside the group and an informant. But the informant comes with warts: He pleaded guilty in state court to firing a gun during a dispute with his wife and also attempted suicide. Another witness who was married to a Hutaree member not charged in the case attempted suicide and told a grand jury she's prone to panic attacks.
"How often do American citizens get charged with sedition or inciting discontent and resistance against big government? Heck, most citizens are discontented with the government," said Lloyd Meyer, a Chicago lawyer and former terrorism prosecutor. "In this case, no one pulled a trigger and no one got hurt. ... A jury could believe that the feds went after this group with a meat cleaver instead of a scalpel."
But Alan Gershel, a former prosecutor who teaches at Cooley Law School in suburban Detroit, said the allegations in the indictment seem more than goofy talk.
"There was planning. There was acquisition of firearms. There was training," he said. "Do you have to wait until the first shot is fired? You have to choose the moment of time when things go beyond chatter. That's what the government is aiming at here."
Joshua Clough of Blissfield, Mich., is the only defendant to make a deal with prosecutors. He pleaded guilty in December to illegal use of a firearm, faces a mandatory five-year prison sentence and could be called as a witness to testify against the Hutaree.
Besides the Stones and Meeks, the other defendants are Joshua Stone of Lenawee County; Thomas Piatek of Whiting, Ind.; and Kristopher Sickles of Sandusky, Ohio. Jacob Ward of Huron, Ohio, will have a separate trial. Besides conspiracy charges, all face at least one firearm charge and some have more.