TRAVERSE CITY — Grand Traverse County Prosecutor Noelle Moeggenberg on Friday authorized charges against two men accused of attacking a Record-Eagle reporter while he was covering a meeting of Citizens Liberating Michigan, a group that opposes mask and vaccination mandates.
A misdemeanor “assault or assault and battery” complaint related to a confrontation at the Aug. 26 meeting were separately filed against Michael Francis Adams, 55, of Kingsley and Joseph Michael Welsh, 51, of Traverse City, court records show.
“I look at what are the elements of the people involved in the crimes I’m looking at and does the evidence show something I can prove in court,” Moeggenberg said. “In this case I had more than one witness that talked about what happened and we obviously have the video and the audio.”
Education Reporter Brendan Quealy covered the meeting at the Silver Lake Recreation Area in Garfield Township when, shortly after the event began, he called 9-1-1 to report he had been assaulted after an event organizer pointed him out and told him to leave the public park grounds.
The organizer was Heather Cerone, a member of Citizens Liberating Michigan. She can be heard on an audio recording of the incident challenging the news reporter’s presence and asking attendees to stand in front of him.
Quealy said he was present because he expected the group to discuss potential in-person protests against a student and staff mask mandate at Traverse City Area Public Schools buildings on Sept. 7, the first day of school. School officials later said they’d heard similar rumors.
Information posted on social media shows the meeting, scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m., was organized and promoted by Citizens Liberating Michigan and a private Facebook group, TCAPS our kids our choice!.
Quealy stood outside the open-air pavilion to cover the meeting. He told investigators he was called out by one of the organizers for being present and recording the event on his cellphone, then confronted by two men, who attacked him when he refused to leave.
Quealy immediately called 9-1-1 to report the incident. A sheriff’s office investigator responded to the scene.
Information obtained by the Record-Eagle through a Freedom of Information Act request to Grand Traverse County Central Dispatch shows Cerone called 9-1-1 at 6:28 p.m., on Aug. 26, identified herself to the dispatcher and said a reporter was standing just outside a pavilion where a Citizens Liberating Michigan event was taking place. She told the dispatcher the reporter was not welcome.
The dispatcher informed Cerone the event was being held in a public park and law enforcement officers could not ask the reporter to leave.
At 6:47 p.m. Grand Traverse County Commission Chair Rob Hentschel called 9-1-1 from the event, identified himself to the dispatcher and urgently requested officers be sent to the park.
“We need a cop out here, Silver Lake park, we’ve already called for one, no one showed up,” Hentschel said. “There’s a breach of peace, there’s violence going on.”
“What sort of violence?” the dispatcher asked.
“Get him out here!” Hentschel replied.
Less than a minute later, Quealy called, identified himself as a journalist with the Record-Eagle and said he was physically assaulted. The dispatcher said an officer had already been dispatched. Hentschel said Friday he was under the impression that when Cerone called 9-1-1, she’d indicated to dispatch that an officer was needed to keep the peace, hence the urgent tone in his voice.
“I was a little hot under the collar,” Hentschel said, adding he later sent a note to dispatchers thanking them for their service.
County Commissioners Ron Clous and Brad Jewett also attended the event, as previously reported. They were interviewed by the investigating officer at the scene, but said they were on the other side of the pavilion and did not see what happened. Cerone did not return calls from the Record-Eagle seeking comment, though on Sept. 1 she appeared as a guest on a local radio show and suggested the assault may have been planned by Quealy and the Record-Eagle.
“So just before we got started, I did see him on the phone,” Cerone said, referring to Quealy during an interview with Cristal Frost and Vic McCarty on the Frost and McCarty Show on WTCM NewsTalk 580. The interview was later posted online to the The Cristal Frost podcast show.
“So, he wasn’t recording anymore, whatever, he was on the phone, in the background,” Cerone said. “I was trying to get stuff going and then all of a sudden from nowhere this guy just appears, or whatever, and supposedly he (Quealy) is attacked.”
Frost asked Cerone, “So what are you insinuating with that?”
Cerone responded, “I’m thinking he had no story so he created one,” and later in the interview repeatedly said she finds the report of the assault, “highly suspicious.”
When told of Cerone’s on-air statement, Prosecutor Moeggenberg dismissed it. The prosecutor said she found no evidence of any such plan by Quealy or the Record-Eagle, nor did she see anything in the report by the sheriff’s office to substantiate Cerone’s comments.
“No, I definitely did not,” Moeggenberg said. “The issue is people are so passionate about their feelings about Covid and masks and mandates, it is leading to violence in some cases. By me charging this case, it speaks for itself.”
In a phone interview with the sheriff’s detective, Cerone suggested detractors of the group would send “plants” into meetings like the one that took place Aug. 26 in order to “take the group down,” a GTSO summary report states.
Cerone also told the investigating detective she had seen the photo of one of the men who was suspected of attacking reporter Quealy posted online by the sheriff’s office but could not identify him.
The investigative report on the attack states Adams told the detective he had seen a post for the meeting on social media, saw that it was about the school’s mask mandate and decided to attend.
Adams, who records show is being represented by Traverse City attorney Matthew Benedict, was interviewed by a sheriff’s detective at the law enforcement center on Woodmere Ave. the morning of Sept. 3.
Benedict did not return a call seeking comment Friday.
The sheriff’s office’s investigative report goes on to state Adams said following the death of 13 soldiers in Afghanistan he was feeling patriotic and decided to go to the meeting because it was being held in a park.
Adams told a detective he remembered Cerone stating at previous meetings, “there were spies from the Record Eagle or other groups that were trying to watch their meetings,” adding meetings usually began with the National Anthem and a prayer. At this meeting, however, Cerone instead began by identifying the reporter, said he wasn’t supposed to be taping, then “told people to stand up and block him.”
Adams stated to the detective he’d told the reporter to leave and believed the reporter got pushed into a fence surrounding a dumpster. Adams said he was unsure if anyone else touched Quealy, and that “he realized this was a bad deal and it was dumb.”
Moeggenberg said her office was informed there were two suspects in the attack on the reporter. One was quickly identified by investigators and a second suspect identified by tips from the public in response to photos the sheriff’s office posted on social media.
Investigators secured the posted photos from security video at the roofed pavilion at the Silver Lake Recreation Area.
The Record-Eagle also obtained the security footage, which shows Quealy standing near the front and outside the pavilion, wearing a mask and observing the event.
The security video did not contain audio. Moeggenberg said she was able to merge the audio from Quealy’s cellphone with the security video as part of her review.
This story was updated Sept. 13, 3031 to reflect the radio program where Cerone was interviewed. —Editor