State, local officials block public access to kidnap case documents

Jan. 8—BELLAIRE — A circuit court judge is barring public access to information related to the prosecution of five men facing charges in Antrim County, accused of participating in a plot to kidnap Michigan's governor.

An online register of actions shows 13th Circuit Court Judge Kevin Elsenheimer in December signed a consolidation order, which appears to join the five cases into a single trial.

His order, which extends an earlier action by a lower court judge, is now among a variety of case documents officials have repeatedly declined to provide to the public.

"At this time, the judge has continued the District Court order," Antrim County Clerk Sheryl Guy said Friday in response to a request for a copy of the consolidation order.

District Judge Michael Stepka on Oct. 23, 2020, signed a protective order barring public disclosure of all discovery material in the case, whether produced by the defense or by attorneys with the Michigan Department of Attorney General or the U.S. Attorney's office.

Shawn Fix, Eric Molitor, Michael Null and William Null, all of Michigan, are charged with one count each of providing material support or resources for an act of terrorism and one count each of possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony.

Brian Higgins, a resident of Wisconsin, is charged with one count of providing material support or resources for an act of terrorism.

The men, according to evidence previously presented in court, were angry about the governor's pandemic-related executive orders and objected to federal government restrictions and possible vaccine mandates.

All five have either pleaded not guilty or stood mute as Stepka in December bound the case over for trial following a four-day preliminary hearing in Traverse City in August.

"There is evidence of the five defendants willfully and deliberately engaging in planning a violent felony, which was the kidnapping of the governor at her home in Antrim County," Stepka said in binding the case over for trial, referring to an alleged plot to kidnap the governor from her lakeside summer home near Elk Rapids.

Stepka's protective order lists a variety of material, including emails, text messages, photographs, videos, investigator's reports, witness testimony and subpoena transcripts, but it does not reference orders signed by a judge.

Guy said a clerk with her office received an email from 13th Circuit Court administration, directing them not to release anything filed in the case to the public.

Guy summarized the email, but did not provide it; 13th Circuit Court Administrator Trina Girardin confirmed it.

Guy's staff "confirmed with Judge Elsenheimer regarding this issue. That is correct," Girardin said in an email Friday.

The Traverse City Record-Eagle has been repeatedly rejected in its requests for copies of documents related to the case — including exhibits previously presented in public proceedings in open court during the preliminary hearing — as well as search warrants and search warrant affidavits.

Court proceedings — and the exhibits shared during these proceedings — are generally considered public and Stepka's protection order, filed nine months prior to the preliminary hearing, did not specifically reference these materials.

During the preliminary hearing, prosecutors repeatedly played videos and presented images of documents on a screen turned toward the judge and away from the gallery where members of the public and representatives of the media were seated.

{div}Subsequent media requests to the court seeking copies of these exhibits — including a request by the Record-Eagle — were denied after Stepka said in court he'd consulted with the State Court Administrator's Office.{/div}

The state's lead prosecutor, Assistant Attorney General Sunita Doddamani, then stated in court that exhibits created by the attorney general's office are subject to the Freedom of Information Act, and could be accessed through that office.

"If reporters would like access to those, they can FOIA them and go through the procedures," Doddamani said. "And, under the FOIA law, because they're public at this point, we could release them."

The Record-Eagle and freelance videographer Eric VanDussen filed separate FOIA requests with the attorney general's office and received partial and extensive denials.

VanDussen has since filed a lawsuit against the attorney general in the Michigan Court of Claims. That lawsuit is ongoing, court records show.

The Record-Eagle on Oct. 13, 2022, then filed a FOIA request with the Michigan State Police, seeking related search warrants, search warrant affidavits and tabulations, which are an inventory of any property seized.

Two months later, state police denied the request for affidavits and tabulations, stating those records had been "suppressed" by Jackson County's 12th District Court.

In response to the request for the search warrants themselves, the state police issued a partial denial.

On Dec. 21, officials provided a 39-page document referencing 13 search warrants sought by the MSP from a 12th District Court judge between Oct. 5, 2020, at 9:45 a.m. and Oct. 7, 2020 at 10:10 a.m.

Authorities arrested the men hours later on Oct. 8, 2020.

The document provided referring to the search warrants was otherwise nearly completely redacted.

VanDussen in an interview Friday said he requested copies of the search warrants directly from 12th District Court staff and was told, in a series of conflicting emails, they either did not exist or were "nonpublic."

"This is egregious, absolutely egregious," VanDussen said.

Late in the day on Friday, VanDussen received via email a copy of the AG's motions to suppress the "Wolverine Watchmen" subpoenas issued in Jackson County, dated Oct. 5-7, 2020, and shared a copy of the motion with the Record-Eagle.

State law has provisions for court suppression of search warrant affidavits and tabulations which are generally considered nonpublic for 56 days, but the law does not specifically provide for suppression of the search warrants themselves, copies of which are required to be provided or posted at the location being searched.

In an unrelated case, another district court judge, Stacia Buchanan of Ingham County, confirmed this fact during an Oct. 31, 2021, hearing in which Assistant Attorney General Michael Frezza was seeking to suppress search warrant affidavits related to an investigation of former Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield.

The AG's office announced an investigation of Chatfield after a female relative told police and reporters with Bridge Michigan that Chatfield had sexually assaulted her when she was a teen.

"Firstly, we agree that neither statute actually suppresses the warrant; they only suppress the affidavit, true?" the judge asked Frezza.

"That is true, your Honor," Frezza replied.

Attorneys with the AG's office in November then convinced a circuit court judge to block public release of the records.

Jackson County court was where Doddamani previously prosecuted three other men — Joe Morrison, Pete Musico and Paul Bellar — on state court charges similar to those filed against the Antrim County defendants.

Morrison, Musico and Bellar in October were convicted of providing material support or resources for an act of terrorism, among other charges, and sentenced to between seven and 12 years in prison.

Separately, in federal court in Grand Rapids, where a jury found Adam Fox and Barry Croft Jr. guilty of conspiracy charges related to the plot; Fox received a 16-year prison sentence, while two other men who had pleaded guilty received lesser sentences of between 2 1/2 and 4 years in prison.

Two other defendants, Brandon Caserta and Daniel Harris, were acquitted by a jury.

No trial date has yet been set for the Antrim defendants — a pre-trial conference is scheduled Jan. 23 on Zoom.

"Generally speaking, a pre-trial conference is an opportunity for the prosecution, the defense and the court to meet to discuss matters pending before the court," said Traverse City attorney Michael Naughton, who represents Higgins.

Naughton declined to comment further, citing the ongoing nature of the case.

The preliminary hearing for the men took place in a Traverse City courtroom for the convenience of the defendants and their attorneys, who were traveling from downstate, a court official previously said.

The trial, the official said, will take place in the Antrim County Courthouse in Bellaire.