DETROIT — A federal judge on Tuesday gutted the government's case against seven members of a Michigan militia, dismissing the most serious charges in an extraordinary defeat for federal authorities who insisted they had captured homegrown rural extremists poised for war.
U.S. District Judge Victoria Roberts said the members' expressed hatred of law enforcement didn't amount to a conspiracy to rebel against the government. The FBI had secretly planted an informant and an FBI agent inside the Hutaree militia starting in 2008 to collect hours of anti-government audio and video that became the cornerstone of the case.
"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," the judge said on the second anniversary of raids and arrests that broke up the group.
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 tied to the alleged conspiracies also were dismissed.
"The judge had a lot of guts," defense attorney William Swor said. "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 Feb. 13, will resume Thursday with only a few gun charges remaining against militia leader David Stone and son Joshua Stone, both from Lenawee County, Mich. They have been in custody without bond for two years.
Prosecutors said Hutaree members were anti-government rebels who combined training and strategy sessions to prepare for a violent strike against federal law enforcement, triggered first by the slaying of a police officer.
But there never was an attack. Defense 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 organization."
David Stone's "statements and exercises do not evince a concrete agreement to forcibly resist the authority of the United States government," Roberts said Tuesday. "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."
The FBI had put a local informant, Dan Murray, inside the militia in 2008 and paid him $31,000. An FBI agent from New Jersey also was embedded. 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.
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.
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 had bizarre beliefs: Stone suspected Germany and Singapore had aircraft stationed in Texas, and thousands of Canadian troops were poised to take over Michigan. He said 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."
Swor said Stone is a Christian who was bracing for war against the Antichrist.
"This is not the United States government. This is Satan's army," Swor told the judge Monday, referring to the enemy.
Militia members cleared of all charges were Stone's wife, Tina Stone, and his son, David Stone Jr.; Thomas Piatek, of Whiting, Ind.; Michael Meeks, of Manchester, Mich.; and Kris Sickles, of Sandusky, Ohio.
"It's hard to believe it's over," said Tina 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, Mich., pleaded guilty to a weapons charge in December and awaits his sentence. Jacob Ward, of Huron, Ohio, will have a separate trial.
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