DETROIT (Reuters) - Two members of the Midwest militia group Hutaree pleaded guilty to charges of possessing machine guns and temporarily walked out of jail on Thursday, two days after a judge rebuked prosecutors and dismissed more serious charges that the Hutaree plotted to attack the U.S. government.
David Brian Stone Sr., the leader of the militia and his son Joshua Stone, each pleaded guilty to possession of a machine gun before Judge Victoria Roberts in federal court in Detroit.
They were the last two Hutaree members still in jail of seven arrested two years ago following an undercover operation by the FBI, and charged with plotting a violent revolt using weapons of mass destruction.
Judge Roberts on Tuesday took the unusual step of dismissing all major charges against the Hutaree, saying government prosecutors had failed to prove that they were doing anything more than talking about their hatred for authority.
It is unusual for a judge to take the case out of the hands of the jury and dismiss the charges. The ruling is a setback for the federal government, which has been warning of the growing threat of violence from such groups.
Much of the evidence against the six men and one woman consisted of audio and video recordings made by an undercover agent and a paid informant who infiltrated the group.
In the recordings, David Stone Sr. described law enforcement as the enemy, discussed killing police officers and argued for the need to go to war against the government.
Defense attorneys had argued that what the seven did was just talk, protected by their free speech rights.
On Thursday, David Brian Stone Sr. and Joshua Stone were released pending sentencing on the weapons charges on August 8.
Speaking to reporters, David Stone Sr.’s wife Tina Mae Stone, who was among those acquitted on Tuesday, said: “We weren’t dangerous. We couldn’t overthrow F-Troop.”
David Brian Stone Sr. and Joshua Stone could each face 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. But lawyers on both sides acknowledged in court Thursday that the two faced closer to 33 to 41 months in prison.
Judge Roberts warned both men they can never possess firearms again as a result of the guilty pleas on the weapons charges.
The Hutaree trial was the latest example of the U.S. government prosecuting what it views as a growing threat of violence from home-grown militias.
Until the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington carried out by al Qaeda, the largest such attack on American soil was the 1995 bombing of a government building in Oklahoma City by anti-government zealot Timothy McVeigh that killed 168 people.
The FBI warned in early February that anti-government extremists posed a growing threat to local law enforcement officers.
As of late 2011, there were about 250 active militia groups in the United States, according to the Anti-Defamation League. The Hutaree is classified as a militia, the league said.
Barbara McQuade, the U.S. Attorney whose office prosecuted the case, called dismissal of the more serious charges against the seven defendants “disappointing” but acknowledged that “reasonable minds can disagree on where legal lines are drawn.”
In all, nine members of the Hutaree were arrested in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana in the raids in late March 2010.
Tina Mae Stone, David Stone Jr., Michael David Meeks, Thomas William Piatek and Kristopher Sickles all had faced trial on conspiracy charges. When Judge Roberts ruled earlier this week, she dismissed all the charges against them.
An eighth member of the group, Joshua John Clough, pleaded guilty to a weapons charge in December, and the ninth member, Jacob Ward, was found not competent to face trial.
Additional reporting by David Bailey; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Greg McCune