DETROIT — To federal prosecutors, the members of Hutaree are a dangerous band of cop-haters, who planned to overthrow the government.
But to defense lawyers, the eight defendants — facing possible life prison sentences for an attempted use of weapons of mass destruction — are a bunch of good ol’ boys who liked to play with guns, dress up in camouflage and train in the woods.
“That’s all you have is a lot of talk — guys who like to dress up in fatigues,” Detroit attorney Michael Rataj said after a four-hour federal court hearing that will determine whether the defendants remain locked up until trial. “Absolutely nothing illegal about any of it.”
The lawyers plan to return Thursday to U.S. District Court in Detroit, where Magistrate Judge Donald Scheer could decide whether the defendants will remain in custody.
A ninth defendant, Thomas Piatek, 56, of Whiting, Ind., was denied bond during a hearing today in Hammond, Ind. U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul Cherry ordered Piatek held without bond and transferred to Michigan to face trial.
During the hearing in Detroit, defense lawyers repeatedly objected to Assistant U.S. Attorney Ronald Waterstreet’s decision to narrate a lengthy timeline of events, which he said justified locking up the defendants as flight risks and dangers to the community.
The defense also protested Waterstreet’s decision not to call any witnesses — preventing the lawyers from any cross-examination — and dismissed the allegations as “double and triple hearsay.”
The defense lawyers likened today’s hearings to the initial proceedings against four North African immigrants who were locked up for several years on charges of conspiring to aid terrorism. Although the men were convicted in a 2003 trial, the U.S. Attorney’s Office had the charges dismissed because prosecutors withheld trial evidence.
Hutaree defense lawyers repeatedly expressed concern their clients could be jailed for years, awaiting trial on charges a jury could determine were unfounded.
Charged in the case are Michigan residents David B. Stone, 45, the alleged Hutaree leader; his wife, Tina Stone, 44; his son, Joshua Stone, 21; his other son, David B. Jr., 19; Joshua Clough, 28; Michael Meeks, 40; Kristopher Sickles, 27, of Sandusky, Ohio and Jacob Ward, 33, of Huron, Ohio. They all are charged with seditious conspiracy and attempting to use weapons of mass destruction — bombs — among other firearms charges.
The weapons of mass destruction charge, the most serious, carries a maximum life prison sentence.
Waterstreet said agents seized 300 pieces of evidence during a March 27 raid on David Stone’s two connected single-wide trailers, including explosives, bomb components, shrapnel and guns.
Agents found 46 guns and 13,000 rounds of ammunition during the raid on Piatek’s Indiana home.
Although defense lawyers said the men were all talk and no action — and that the alleged bombs were not biological, nuclear or chemical — Waterstreet said the defendants were dangerous and were planning a war against law enforcement officers.
Waterstreet said Sickles told the group in January he shot his pet cat with a .357-caliber weapon to harden himself for battle.
“I did it to see if I could kill something I had feelings for,” Sickles said.
According to prosecutors, during an aborted road trip to a militia gathering, David Stone pointed out a Hudson, Mich., police officer who had pulled someone over, declaring: “We’re going to pop him, guaranteed.”
Someone else in the van mentioned the Hudson police department was a small force, prompting a reply from Stone: “We’ll pop every one of them,” according to Waterstreet.
David Stone’s lawyer, William Swor, said in court: “He talked, he trained. So what?” He added, “What we heard is that Mr. Stone talked a lot and that Mr. Stone is angry.”
Swor said that’s not evidence of criminal activity.
“All they’re saying is my client has opinions and knows how to use his mouth,” he said.
During one point of the hearing, David Stone Jr. wept as his lawyer, deputy federal defender Richard Helfrick, handed him tissue. Some of the dozen friends and family members also teared up.
But family members, on advice of defense lawyers, wouldn’t talk to reporters, who swarmed outside the courthouse.
“No, I don’t have a comment; neither does anyone else,” David Stone’s ex-wife, Donna Stone, the mother of David Jr., said. “Leave us alone,” she added, swearing at reporters.
Attorney Lisa Kirsch Satawa sought to distance her client, Meeks, from the other defendants, outside the court.
“He had nothing to do with any plot to overthrow the government,” she said. “He was not part of any plot to harm anyone.”
But Waterstreet said Meeks gave Stone a list of names that included law enforcement officials, judges and business leaders that some Hutaree members took to be a “hit list.”
Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm said her State Police homeland security team told her the militia group had been watched for some time by law enforcement officials, and was not formed recently in reaction to health care reform or the election of a black president.
“They are an extremist group; it was not something precipitated quickly. It’s been something in the making for a long period of time,” she said. “Clearly, indicting them and making sure they’re behind bars is good for Michigan and good for the nation.”
Granholm said it’s not a reflection of Michigan.
“I understand there’s a lot of anger out there, but that doesn’t mean people are turning to militias,” she said. “We’ve had a history of militias for a long period of time. It’s not unique to Michigan.”