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FBI: Plot to kidnap Mich. governor, overthrow government foiled

At least 12 people were charged in an alleged scheme that involved months of planning and field exercises, officials said


In this photo Sept. 16, 2020 file photo, Gov. Whitmer addresses the state during a speech in Lansing, Mich.

Michigan Office of the Governor via AP, File

By Robert Snell and Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

DETROIT — The FBI says it thwarted what it described as a plot to violently overthrow the government and kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. The alleged plot involved reaching out to members of a Michigan militia, according to a federal affidavit filed Thursday.

The 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.”

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

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, federal and state officers on Thursday detailed charges against more than 12 people and what they described as “elaborate plans” to overthrow the government and kidnap Whitmer.

The nature of the case is “rather unprecedented,” Michigan State Police Col. Joe Gasper said at a 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 at least 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 include: Adam Fox, Barry Croft, Garbin, Kaleb Franks, Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta.

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

U.S. Attorney Andrew Birge of the Western District of Michigan said if convicted, each faces a sentence of up to life in 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,” Birge said.

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.

Separately, Nessel announced state charges against 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 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, 42, who live together in Munith.

The federal investigation dates to early 2020 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 Governor Gretchen 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 in 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 later 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.

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.

Whitmer’s office did not immediately comment Thursday morning, but the governor is expected to deliver prepared remarks on the investigation at 3 p.m. Thursday on her Facebook and Twitter pages.

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, R-Clarklake, 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.”

© 2020 The Detroit News