Ford County militiamen's trial tentatively set for June

Ford County militiamen's trial tentatively set for June

URBANA — Four Ford County men charged with crimes related to a homegrown militia group to which they allegedly belonged are tentatively scheduled to be tried in federal court in June.

Michael Hari, 47, Joe Morris, 22, Ellis "E.J." Mack, 18, and Michael McWhorter, 29, all of Clarence, were arraigned Thursday by U.S. Magistrate Judge Eric Long on an indictment returned last week by a federal grand jury in Springfield.

All four — members of the "White Rabbits" — are charged with possession of a machine gun and conspiracy to interfere with commerce by threats of violence.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Eugene Miller explained to the men, who had separate brief court hearings Thursday, that the penalties for possession of a machine gun are up to 10 years in prison while conviction on the conspiracy charge carries up to 20 years in prison. Fines on both counts can range up to $250,000. The judge has the discretion to decide if sentences should run concurrently or consecutively.

The conspiracy charge alleges that between August 2017 and March 10, the group committed robberies or attempted robberies at Walmart stores in Watseka and Mount Vernon; robbed or tried to rob suspected drug dealers in Ambia, Ind.; tried to blow up Canadian National Railway tracks near Effingham and extort ransom money from the rail company; and planted bombmaking materials on a property in Clarence to deflect suspicion off themselves.

Hari, Morris and McWhorter are also charged with attempted arson for trying to firebomb the Women's Health Practice, 2125 S. Neil St., C, on Nov. 7, 2017. The group's intent — to heavily damage or destroy the clinic where many services, including abortions, are provided — was thwarted when the homemade explosive device lobbed in through a broken window did not explode.

Hari, Morris and McWhorter are also charged in a separate federal court case in Minnesota for the Aug. 5, 2017, firebombing of a mosque in Bloomington, Minn.

Hari alone is charged in the Central District of Illinois with a fourth count of unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon. He is accused of possessing, between October 2017 and Feb. 27, four rifles and four shotguns. Convicted in Ford County Circuit Court in 2006 of child abduction for taking his own childen, the former Ford County sheriff's deputy is not allowed to possess weapons.

The men, whose educational backgrounds range from completion of the eighth grade (Morris) to some graduate school (Hari), each indicated to Long that they understood the charges brought by the government. Hari told the judge he takes medication for hypertension but it doesn't interfere with his ability to understand.

Lawyers for each man entered pleas of not guilty and Long set their pretrial dates for May 25 and their jury trial for June 5 in Urbana.

They were initially charged March 13 and have been in custody since. Given that the superseding indictment was returned May 2, it's unlikely that any of them would actually be prepared for trial next month.

Miller said it is the government's intention to try all four men at the same time. No motions to sever their cases have been filed by any of their court-appointed attorneys.

All four remain in the custody of the federal marshal at area jails.

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