Michigan's Hutaree militia: Band of gun enthusiasts or a threat to the US?

Members of the Hutaree militia were arrested in 2010 for allegedly planning 'war against the United States.' Their trial on 'seditious conspiracy' and other charges opened this week.

Madalyn Ruggiero/AP
A gun leans against a washing machine in the yard in front of a trailer on property in Clayton, Mich., belonging to David Brian Stone, the leader of the Hutaree, in March 2010 after an FBI raid. Nine members of the Hutaree, are facing federal seditious conspiracy charges.

Nine members of the Hutaree, a southern Michigan-based militia, are facing federal seditious conspiracy charges in a trial that is expected to determine whether the group presents a credible threat to the US or if, as defense lawyers maintain, it is merely a small band of gun enthusiasts gathered in a “social club.”

The Hutaree members, whose trial opened this week in US District Court in Detroit, were arrested in March 2010 after FBI intelligence suggested the group was planning to “levy war against the United States,” according to the indictment.

The FBI says the group planned to ambush and kill a local police officer and then use his or her funeral as a stage for further killings using explosive devices.

The group was charged with five counts, including seditious conspiracy, attempts to use weapons of mass destruction, teaching or demonstrating the use of explosive materials, and carrying, using and possessing a firearm with the intention to use for violence.

If convicted, the suspects could face up to life in prison, the maximum penalty for the weapons of mass destruction charge. The trial opened Monday and is expected to continue for six weeks.

Prosecutors say they have over 100 hours of audio and video recordings from an undercover informant that show the group was serious about attacking law enforcement.

David Stone, a Hutaree member, is heard on the recordings, saying the group should “start hunting” law enforcement “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 is heard saying on recordings played this week in court.

The group’s website advocated a “New World Order,” a time in which the militia was preparing to battle an Antichrist. It included a picture of men and women posing in camouflage and brandishing assault weapons as well as videos showed them detonating explosives and running quasi-military maneuvers.

The FBI, in their raids, confiscated machine guns, assault rifles, and explosive devices. In court, prosecutors displayed about 20 of the weapons that were seized, including 148,000 rounds of ammunition.

“These individuals wanted a war,” Assistant US Attorney Christopher Graveline told jurors.

Defense attorneys say the militia’s antigovernment talk is protected under the First Amendment and their actions were not illegal. They described the group as gun and hunting enthusiasts. “Calling this group a militia is pushing it,” attorney Todd Shanker said.

Another attorney, William Swor, said Mr. Stone “was exercising his God-given right to blow off steam and open his mouth.”

The Hutaree surfaced shortly after President Obama took office, a time when most hate group experts say the numbers of armed militias increased in the US.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit civil rights organization in Montgomery, Ala., there were 127 armed militias in the US at the time of the Hutaree arrests, which represents a 200 percent increase over 2008, when there were 42.

Until then, local militias had been largely quiet since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, says Steve Chermak, a criminal justice professor at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

“All of the sudden they fell off the radar. And then [the Hutaree] comes along as the next big thing in such a long time. I think that’s what caught everybody by surprise,” Mr. Chermak says.

The serious attention on the Hutaree is due, in large part, to concerns that the group’s antigovernment ranting is similar to that of Timothy McVeigh, the mastermind behind the Oklahoma City bombing.

McVeigh “was angry at the government, he was angry at what happened at Ruby Ridge, he was angry at what happened at Waco … so that kind of anger at government officials can result in a much more serious event,” Chermak says.

A potential thorn in the prosecution’s case is Dan Murray, the paid informant the FBI used to infiltrate the group. Mr. Murray was convicted in state court last year of firing shots at his wife during a domestic disturbance a month before the Hutaree arrests. He received probation with all charges dropped after pleading guilty.

The defense spent two days this week showing Mr. Murray received favorable treatment due to the intervention of federal authorities in his case. Murray, who infiltrated the Hutaree for 17 months and was paid over $30,000, is expected to testify later in the trial.

Leading the accused is Stone, his wife, Tina Stone, and sons Joshua Stone and David Stone Jr. Also accused are Michael Meeks, Thomas Piatek, and Kristopher Sickles.

Joshua Clough, also arrested and charged, reached a plea agreement in December and faces a five-month prison sentence. He testified that the Hutaree was serious about its intent to target law enforcement officers.

Jacob Ward, a ninth defendant, was declared incompetent to stand trial.

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