Plans to kidnap Michigan Gov. Whitmer and overthrow government spoiled, officials say

©The Detroit News

Rey Del Rio/Getty Images North America/TNS

DETROIT — Federal agents said Thursday they thwarted a plot to violently overthrow the government as well as kidnap and harm Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer — a conspiracy that included visits to her home in northern Michigan and training with firearms and explosive devices.

The alleged plot mainly involved six conspirators unhappy in part about Whitmer’s coronavirus restrictions, calling her a “tyrant.” They wanted to create a “self-sufficient” society free from they called unconstitutional state governments and discussed plans to storm the Capitol and take hostages, according to FBI documents filed in court.

Organizers allegedly met starting in June, including at a Second Amendment rally in Lansing and in a Grand Rapids shop basement accessed through a secret door hidden under a rug.

The plot also included at least seven members of a Michigan militia known as the Wolverine Watchmen accused by state officials Thursday of targeting police, making threats to “instigate civil war” and helping to plan Whitmer’s kidnapping, according to state and federal officials.

The federal court filing alleges the conspirators twice conducted surveillance at Whitmer’s personal vacation home in northern Michigan and discussed kidnapping her to a “secure location” in Wisconsin to stand “trial” for treason prior to the Nov. 3 election.

“Several members talked about murdering ‘tyrants’ or ‘taking’ a sitting governor,” an FBI agent wrote in the affidavit. “The group decided they needed to increase their numbers and encouraged each other to talk to their neighbors and spread their message.”

After the charges were revealed, Whitmer slammed President Donald Trump for failing to condemn in strong enough terms hate groups, such as the far-right Proud Boys, whom he told to “stand back and stand by” during the debate last week.

“Hate groups heard the president’s words not as a rebuke, but as a rallying cry, a call to action,” the Democratic governor said.

She also warned those who threatened violence: “We will find you, we will hold you accountable and we will bring you to justice.”

The federal affidavit first reported by The Detroit News was filed hours after a team of FBI agents raided a Hartland Township home Wednesday and comes amid an investigation into the death of a Detroit man killed during a shootout with FBI agents.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel and federal and state officers Thursday detailed charges against the 13 people and what they described as “elaborate plans” to kidnap Whitmer.

The nature of the case is “rather unprecedented,” Michigan State Police Col. Joe Gasper said at the news conference.

“But it does send a very vivid reminder that while we may be in a period of discourse, possibly even divisiveness and fighting across the nation, law enforcement stands united,” Gasper said.

The investigation is the result of months of work that culminated Wednesday night in the execution of a series of search warrants and arrest warrants — both in state and out of state — related to acts of terrorism under Michigan state law.

The conspiracy described by the FBI specifically involved six people, including Ty Garbin, 24, whose home was raided by agents in Hartland Township late Wednesday.

The affidavit filed in federal court details probable cause to charge the six men with conspiring to kidnap Whitmer. Those identified by name are Adam Fox; Barry Croft; Garbin; Kaleb Franks; Daniel Harris; and Brandon Caserta.

Ages and hometowns for some of the men were not immediately available, but officials said all but Croft are from Michigan. Croft is from Delaware.

Fox, Garbin, Franks, Harris and Caserta made initial appearances in federal court Thursday and are being held without bond pending detention hearings. The conspiracy charge each is facing is punishable by up to life in federal prison.

“All of us standing here today want the public to know that federal and state law enforcement are committed to working together to make sure violent extremists never succeed with their plans, particularly when they target our duly elected leaders,” said U.S. Attorney Andrew Birge of the Western District of Michigan.

Through confidential sources, undercover agents and “clandestine” recordings, federal agents tracked the six men during their planning to kidnap Whitmer as they communicated over encrypted messaging platforms using code words and phrases in an attempt to avoid detection by law enforcement, Birge said.

The group also allegedly participated in field exercises that included detonating an improvised explosive wrapped in shrapnel to test its capabilities, he said.

Caserta, 32, of Canton Township, posted several videos on TikTok, including one in which he is wearing a Hawaiian shirt, the trademark clothing of members of the anti-government Boogaloo movement.

“The price of freedom is eternal vigilance,” Caserta said in one video. “And indifference to this notion is the means by which the people can and will secure their own oppression. Wake the f--- up.”

Former U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, a former FBI agent who chaired the House Intelligence Committee, said the conspirators had taken “really extensive steps” to put their plan into action, which was “obviously very, very troubling.”

“I feel for the governor and her family. Politics is bad enough these days. To have to put up with somebody threatening to kidnap and probably kill you for some deranged political cause is over the top for sure. My heart goes out to her and her family,” said Rogers, a Howell Republican.

He said it seems the authorities appear to have a solid case against the accused.

“They got a level of evidence inside the organization that is going to be hard to deny,” said Rogers, noting information from an undercover agent, informants, as well as bugged phone and intercepted data conversations.

“It looks like the evidence was overwhelming, and they got to a point where they said, ‘OK, we don’t want to take the chance that they actually flip the switch here,’ and went in and did it.

“We should all be concerned,” he added. “We really need to talk about how this stuff needs to be tamped down.”

The criminal charges were filed six days after another so-called Boogaloo Boy, Madison Heights resident Eric Allport, 43, was killed during a shootout with FBI agents at a Madison Heights restaurant.

Allport is not believed to have been involved with any of the people accused of conspiring to kidnap Whitmer or violently overthrow the government, a law enforcement source told The Detroit News.

Allport died of multiple gunshot wounds during a shootout with FBI agents in the parking lot of a Texas Roadhouse Friday afternoon near John R and 12 Mile.

He had a violent, turbulent life. Allport served an 11-year prison sentence for shooting at two police officers, was a Boogaloo adherent and played a minor role in the infamous Ruby Ridge standoff in 1992, one of the darkest chapters in federal law enforcement history.

Separately, Nessel on Thursday announced state charges against the seven other individuals pursuant to the state’s anti-terrorism act, “all of whom are in custody and linked to the militia group Wolverine Watchmen.”

In total, 19 state felony charges for firearms and terror-related acts were filed by Nessel against seven individuals known to be members or associates of the Wolverine Watchmen.

The individuals include Paul Bellar, 21, of Milford; Shawn Fix, 38, of Belleville; Eric Molitor, 36, of Cadillac; Michael Null, 38, of Plainwell; William Null, 38, of Shelbyville; Pete Musico, 42; and Joseph Morrison, 26, who live together in Munith.

The suspects are alleged to have called on the groups’ members to identify the home addresses of law enforcement officers in order to target them; made threats of violence to instigate a civil war leading to societal collapse; and engaged in the planning and training for an operation to attack the state Capitol building and kidnap government officials, including Whitmer, according to a statement from Nessel’s office.

“There has been a disturbing increase in anti-government rhetoric and the reemergence of groups that embrace extremist ideologies,” Nessel said.

“These groups often seek to recruit new members by seizing on a moment of civil unrest and using it to advance their agenda of self-reliance and armed resistance. This is more than just political disagreement or passionate advocacy, some of these groups’ mission is simply to create chaos and inflict harm upon others.”

Musico and Morrison live in Munith in a rural area of Jackson County. Signs saying “private property” and “no trespassing” were in their home’s front yard Thursday evening. What appeared to be a Confederate flag could also be seen near the home, which was located along a wooded roadway and a river.

Pam Karshnock of Munith lives next door to the property. She said she regularly hears the sound of gunfire that disrupts her quiet evenings in the country.

“For months, there’s been gunfire almost daily,” Karshnock said.

“I’m still shaking, knowing that it was that close to me,” she added, “just thinking back to the times I almost approached them to ask them to stop.”

A group of individuals was visible Thursday outside of the home. They appeared to be moving things from the residence into a trailer that was parked outside. A stack of tires, cars and an RV were all located near the home.

The federal investigation dates to early this year when the FBI learned through social media that individuals were discussing the violent overthrow of several state governments and law enforcement.

In June, Croft, Fox and 13 others from multiple states held a meeting in Dublin, Ohio, near Columbus, according to the government.

Those present included an FBI confidential source who recorded the meetings. The source has been paid $8,600.

“The group talked about creating a society that followed the U.S. Bill of Rights and where they could be self-sufficient,” the FBI agent wrote.

“They discussed different ways of achieving this goal from peaceful endeavors to violent actions. At one point, several members talked about state governments they believed were violating the U.S. Constitution, including the government of Michigan and Whitmer.

“As part of that recruitment effort, Fox reached out to a Michigan-based militia group,” the agent added.

The militia group is not identified in the court filing, but members periodically meet in remote areas of the state for firearms training and tactical drills.

The FBI was already tracking the militia in March after a local police department learned members were trying to obtain addresses of local law-enforcement officers, the FBI agent wrote.

“At the time, the FBI interviewed a member of the militia group who was concerned about the group’s plans to target and kill police officers, and that person agreed to become a (confidential source),” the agent wrote.

In late June, Fox posted on Facebook a video in which he complained about the state’s judicial system and COVID-19 restrictions on gyms operating in Michigan.

“Fox referred to Governor Whitmer as ‘this tyrant b----’ and stated, ‘I don’t know, boys, we gotta do something,” according to the court affidavit. “You guys link with me on our other location system, give me some ideas of what we can do.”

The affidavit describing the thwarted plot reports two occasions when the alleged conspirators conducted surveillance on Whitmer’s vacation home — during the day on Aug. 29 and at night over the weekend of Sept. 12-13.

Fox and two other individuals located Whitmer’s home and shot video and took photos of it as they drove by on Aug. 29. One of the individuals then calculated how long it would take local and state police to respond to an incident at the property.

“We ain’t going to let ’em burn our f---in’ state down. I don’t give a f--- if there’s only 20 or 30 of us, dude, we’ll go out there and use deadly force,” said Fox during the surveillance operation, according to an audio recording quoted in the affidavit.

In an encrypted group chat, Garbin later suggested that demolishing a nearby bridge would hamper a response by police to the governor’s home, according to the court filing.

The September surveillance followed a field exercise at Garbin’s property in Luther, Michigan, where the conspirators allegedly detonated an improvised explosive device made from a commercial firework wrapped in shrapnel “to test its anti-personnel effectiveness.”

After a briefing on the plan to kidnap Whitmer, a larger group of the men drive from Luther to the vacation home in three separate vehicles while armed.

They stopped to check the underside of a highway bridge to check for places to attach an explosive charge, and discussed detonating explosive devices to divert law enforcement officers from the area of the governor’s home.

“She f ---ing goddamn loves the power she has right now,” Fox said during the surveillance operation, according to the affidavit. “I can see several states takin’ their f ---in’ tyrants. Everybody takes their tyrants.”

The group later returned to Garbin’s property, where they discussed destroying Whitmer’s vacation home. “Kidnapping, arson, death, I don’t care,” Franks said, according to the affidavit.

The group made plans to conduct a final training exercise in late October but then decided that was too close to the November election, so they moved forward with raising money to procure explosives and other supplies including an 800,000-volt taser. It’s unclear when the kidnapping was planned for.

FBI and state police executed the arrests of several of the conspirators when they were meeting on the east side of the state to pool funds for explosives and exchange tactical gear, Birge said Thursday.

Garbin and Franks appeared in federal court shortly after Thursday’s news conference announcing the charges in the alleged kidnapping plot.

In a brief court hearing in Grand Rapids that took about five minutes, Garbin, 24, and Franks told a judge that they would need court-appointed attorneys based on their financial status. The two also were given their next court date of Oct. 13 for a bond hearing. The pair will remain in the custody of the U.S. Marshals.

The criminal case comes after months of state restrictions on travel and business during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The lockdown has been a lightning rod for anti-government extremists in this country, and Gov. Whitmer has been on the forefront of their targeting,” said Seamus Hughes, deputy director of George Washington University’s Program on Extremism.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, a Clarklake Republican, tweeted Thursday afternoon: “A threat against our Governor is a threat against us all.”

“We condemn those who plotted against her and our government,” he said. “They are not patriots. There is no honor in their actions. They are criminals and traitors, and they should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

House Speaker Lee Chatfield tweeted that violence “has no place in politics.”

“Ever. It’s never a solution to disagreements. The people who targeted @GovWhitmer and police officers are un-American. Justice should be swift and severe. It’s time to send a message that violence will not be tolerated,” he wrote.

U.S. Rep. Paul Mitchell, a Republican and Whitmer critic, also condemned the threats against her and praised law enforcement. “I wish Governor Whitmer and her family well.”

In recent weeks, the state-owned Michigan governor’s residence received security upgrades, including the construction of a new perimeter fence.

The “perimeter security and other safety upgrades” were planned out last year, Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said in early September. They were scheduled to start in the early spring but were delayed until recently because of the pandemic, she said.

The cost for the “maintenance” projects at the Lansing residence, which was recommended by the Michigan State Police and the state Department of Technology, Management and Budget, was about $1.1 million, Brown said.

“As a matter of practice, we’re constantly reviewing security protocols and adjusting as needed,” said Shanon Banner, spokeswoman for the Michigan State Police, in early September.

“We don’t comment on specific threats against the governor nor do we provide information about security measures.”

———

(Staff writers Craig Mauger, Beth LeBlanc, Francis X. Donnelly and Christine Ferretti contributed to this story.)

———

© 2020 The Detroit News

Eric Seals/Detroit Free Press/TNS
Eric Seals/Detroit Free Press/TNS
Eric Seals/Detroit Free Press/TNS
Eric Seals/Detroit Free Press/TNS
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks during the Aretha Franklin Memorial Highway dedication ceremony in Detroit, Monday, August 24, 2020. - Junfu Han/Detroit Free Press/TNS