MILFORD, Mich. (WXYZ) — The summer of 2020 will be remembered for a lot of reasons, but residents at Childs Lake Estates mobile home park in Milford will remember it as the summer with their neighbor, who was hard to miss.
“He was walking around with a backpack, with rifles in his hands, just walking around saying 'I’m protecting our neighborhood,'” said neighbor Rebecca Timmerman.
The neighbor she's referring to was 21-year-old Paul Bellar. He was one of 13 men arrested and accused of being involved with a plot to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer and attack Michigan’s capital.
“He’s spit on neighbors before, he’s yelled at us all before, we told him to stop walking around (with guns), we called the cops, and they didn't do anything about it,” Timmerman said.
When he wasn’t acting as the self-appointed neighborhood watch captain, investigators say he was acting as Sergeant of the “Wolverine Watchmen,” the anti-government militia group at the center of the state and federal investigation.
“Really interesting to realize that was someone that had something to do with this,” Timmerman said.
According to the FBI and Michigan State Police, it was Bellar who planned the group's tactical training. It’s unclear how Bellar, at just 21 years old, became a leader of the group. However, investigators say Facebook was their main recruiting tool.
“They were using a fairly sophisticated ecology of tools to meet different communication needs that they had,” said Cliff Lampe, Professor at the University of Michigan School of Information.
Lampe studies extremist groups and social media. He says even Youtube Kids has seen radicalized content.
“We see that younger and younger consumers of social media are being targeted for conspiracy theories and extremist groups and things like that,” Lampe said.
Thanks to social media algorithms, similar videos or posts keep coming, filtering out other viewpoints and leading people into extremes.
“People are seeking information that comforts them or makes them feel justified in their opinions," Lampe said. "As you do that, it's easier and easier to get more extreme in that search.”
Bellar’s now-former neighbors in Milford say he was evicted a few months ago. In a year full of surprises, they say news of him being involved with an extremist militia isn’t one of them.
“Now that I see all the pieces fitting together, no it’s not surprising,” Timmerman said.
Bellar was not arrested in Milford, but instead was arrested in South Carolina. He is currently in the process of being extradited back to Michigan.