Mich. governor kidnap plot: How the FBI spent months tracking down the case

It came down to social media, paid informants and undercover agents who embedded themselves in the groups and secretly recorded what they saw and heard


By Tresa Baldas
Detroit Free Press

DETROIT — They planned and schemed for months — 13 domestic terrorists hell-bent on terrorizing politicians and police, authorities said.

Among their missions was to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer from her vacation home, blow up a bridge, storm the state Capitol and target police, court records show.

The Michigan governor's mansion is seen on October 8, 2020 in Lansing, Michigan. (Rey Del Rio/Getty Images/TNS)
The Michigan governor's mansion is seen on October 8, 2020 in Lansing, Michigan. (Rey Del Rio/Getty Images/TNS)

But the plots were foiled as the FBI was on their track, with the help of social media, paid informants and undercover agents who embedded themselves in the groups and secretly recorded what they saw and heard.

On Thursday, seven members of the so-called Wolverine Watchmen militia group were charged in state court with threat of terrorism for allegedly planning and training for an attack on the Capitol and to kidnap Whitmer. Six others were charged in U.S. District Court with federal conspiracy to commit kidnapping.

They were all part of the same plot, though their conduct was different.

All are behind bars.

According to state and federal court records, the FBI, police and prosecutors, here is how the federal government thwarted a sensational effort to kidnap Whitmer and landed 13 men in jail on terrorism and kidnapping charges.

DISCOVERED ON SOCIAL MEDIA

It was early 2020 when the civil war plot landed on the FBI’s radar.

The FBI became aware through social media that a group of individuals were discussing violent overthrows of the government and law enforcement.

One of the groups was a little-known militia called Wolverine Watchmen – a Michigan-based militia that had been recruiting members on Facebook since November. The goal was to bring as many people together as possible to prepare for the so-called “boogaloo” — a violent uprising against the government or impending politically-motivated civil war.

Their primary targets were those whom they believed were violating the U.S. Constitution.

And they were careful not to get caught.

Once recruited, members communicated through a secret, encrypted messaging platform. They held meetings and training exercises in a remote area at 8008 Dunn Road in Munith.

Together, the militiamen had a plan: to storm the Capitol of Michigan, kidnap politicians, including Whitmer, before the Nov. 4 election.

The ringleader was Adam Fox of Grand Rapids, who led the trainings and the meetings.

Adam Fox, arraigned in federal court in Kent County, Michigan, faces charges related to what the FBI says was a plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

There was talk of bombs, and guns and even a killing.

But none of it came to pass as the FBI lay in waiting.

With the help of social media, a Wolverine Watchmen member who flipped and became a paid informant for the feds, and undercover agents who embedded themselves in the group, the FBI busted the operation, focusing on Fox and his mission to grow an army of like-minded people and stage a revolt.

Fox would forge a relationship with Barry Croft of Delaware. The two agreed to work together, unite others in their cause and take violent action against multiple state governments that they believed were violating the U.S. Constitution.

They recruited members on social media and through friends, conversed in secret chat rooms, and held meetings at peoples’ homes and businesses to discuss how they would carry out their mission — all while the FBI watched.

The FBI had embedded both paid informants and undercover agents in the group, who recorded meetings and reported back about meetings in Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan.

One of the first recorded meetings was in Dublin, Ohio.

On June 6, Croft, Fox and 13 others from several states met in Dublin, where they talked about creating a society that followed the U.S. Bill of Rights and where they could be self-sufficient. 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. Michigan came up, including Whitmer.

Several members talked about murdering “tyrants” or “taking” a sitting governor — a mission they realized would require more members. So they encouraged each other to talk to their neighbors and spread their message.

As part of that recruitment effort, Fox reached out to the Wolverine Watchmen, which had already been on the FBI’s radar following a tip from local police that some members of that militia group were trying to obtain the addresses of local law-enforcement officers as part of a plan to target and kill police officers.

One of those militia members had expressed concern about the plan to kill cops and spoke to the FBI about it, and eventually agreed to become a confidential informant.

That informant helped the FBI build a case as federal agents would learn that Fox and militia members held recruitment meetings, including one at a Second Amendment rally at the State Capitol in Michigan, and field training exercises on private property in remote areas of Michigan. There, militia members engaged in firearms training and tactical drills.

‘MOLOTOV COCKTAILS’ TO DESTROY COP CARS

In an effort to recruit more members, Fox told his associates and the confidential informant that he “planned to attack the Capitol and asked them to combine forces.”

Fox discussed this plan in a June 14 phone call with an informant.

“Fox said he needed ‘200 men’ to storm the Capitol building in Lansing, Michigan, and take hostages, including the Governor,” the affidavit states. “Fox explained they would try the Governor of Michigan for “treason,” and he said they would execute the plan before the November election.”

On June 20, Fox invited members of the group he had met online to a meeting at his business. The group met in the basement of the shop, which was accessed through a trap door hidden under a rug on the main floor. Suspicious of spies, Fox collected all of their cellular phones in a box and carried them upstairs to prevent any monitoring.

The confidential informant handed over his phone, though his recording device remained hidden.

While being secretly recorded, the group discussed plans for storming the Capitol, countering law enforcement first responders and using “Molotov cocktails” to destroy police vehicles. They also planned an additional meeting for the first weekend of July, when they would conduct firearms and tactical training.

On June 25, Fox took to Facebook. He live-streamed a video to a private Facebook group — again the informant was watching. In the video, Fox complained about the judicial system and the State of Michigan controlling the opening of gyms, and referred to Whitmer as “this tyrant bitch.”

“I don’t know, boys, we gotta do something. You guys link with me on our other location system, give me some ideas of what we can do.” Fox said to the group.

Three days after venting about Whitmer, a tactical training exercise was held at the home of a militia member.

On July 7, another meeting was held at the home of another militia group member. Again, the informant was there. One man said he was “not cool with offensive kidnapping” and that he was “just there for training.”

HOMEMADE BOMBS AND A ‘SNATCH AND GRAB’

In early July came another meeting, this one in Cambria, Wisconsin.

There was firearms training, combat drills and one militia group member trying to build an improvised explosive device using black powder, balloons, a fuse, and BBs for shrapnel. It was a botched job and the devices didn’t blow up as planned — all of which was captured on a video taken by the informant. Members also shared photos and videos of the exercise in Facebook discussions.

On July 18, the group met in Ohio again. An informant recorded the meeting, during which members discussed attacking a Michigan State Police facility. In a separate conversation, one man suggested shooting up Whitmer’s vacation home.

On July 27, the kidnapping came up again. The informant had met Fox at his Grand Rapids business, where Fox said the best opportunity to abduct Whitmer would be when she was arriving at, or leaving, either her personal vacation home or the Governor’s official summer residence.

Fox described it as a “Snatch and grab.”

“ ‘Grab the f—’ Governor. Just grab the b—-. Because at that point, we do that, dude — it’s over,” Fox is heard saying.

After abducting Whitmer, Fox’s plan was to take her to Wisconsin for a “trial.” He also suggested the group get a Realtor to help find the exact location of the vacation home and collect information on the surrounding homes and structures.

Fox discussed the importance of knowing the layout of the yard, homes, and security. He wanted to map out the surrounding property and gates, and plumbers and electricians to help them read blueprints to refine their strategy.

Fox also suggested recruiting an engineer or a “demo guy,” as he put it.

That same day, Fox posed a question to the group in an encrypted group chat: “OK, well how’s everyone feel about kidnapping?”

No one answered.

‘THIS IS WHERE THE PATRIOT SHOWS UP’

On July 28, Fox had narrowed down his attack. In a phone call with the informant, he said that he would target Whitmer’s vacation home and summer residence. The call was not recorded, though that same day, Fox posted this to a private Facebook page:

“We about to be busy ladies and gentlemen … This is where the Patriot shows up. Sacrifices his time, money, blood sweat and tears … it starts now so get f—prepared!!”

Almost two weeks would pass before another tactical training took place in Munith.

It was Aug. 9. Again, the group talked about the kidnapping plot, though this time Fox would discuss destroying the governor’s boat.

An encrypted group chat would follow, with one man stating: “Have one person go to her house. Knock on the door and when she answers it just cap her … at this point. F—it.”

In a follow-up chat, a member told the informant “OK sounds good I’m in for anything as long as its well planned.”

On Aug. 18, in a private chat, one member told the informant the name of the lake in northern Michigan where the vacation home is located, and he said he was looking for an escape route using a boat on the lake.

According to the FBI, the group went to great lengths not to get caught. The members communicated via encrypted online platforms and use “code words” or phrases to describe their plans in a self-proclaimed effort to avoid detection. For example, in a July 24 phone call, Fox said he had researched the governor’s office online, and he believed that the governor kept only a ceremonial office in Lansing.

Fox wondered aloud whether the group just needed to “party it out, make a cake and send it,” in what the informant believed was a coded reference to sending a bomb to the Governor.

Fox then discussed the need to be ready. They would train for the next three months.

“In all honesty right now … I just wanna make the world glow, dude. I’m not even f——- kidding. I just wanna make it all glow dude. I don’t f——- care anymore, I’m just so sick of it,” Fox is heard saying in recorded conversations. “ That’s what it’s gonna take for us to take it back … everything’s gonna have to beannihilated man. … we’re just gonna conquer every f—thing man.”

On July 26, came talk of a “baker.”

In a phone call with the informant, Fox said that he had not heard back from the “baker,” which was understood to mean a bomb manufacturer. Fox also said: “Maybe we should just make a bunch of cupcakes and send them out” — an apparent reference to a more widespread bombing campaign.

One month later came another meeting, this time at a home in Lake Orion. The group was concerned that a rat had infiltrated their group, and everyone had to bring personal documents to confirm their identities. Everyone was cleared.

There was more talk of ‘killin’ her’ and surveilling the vacation home. One man advised he had spent almost $4,000 on a helmet and night-vision goggles. Still worried about law-enforcement infiltration, the members moved their group chat to a different encrypted messaging application.

TWICE THEY SPIED ON WHITMER’S HOUSE

It was daytime when the groups conducted surveillance on Whitmer’s home.

The first time was Aug. 29.

Fox, the informant and a third person conducted the surveillance, which was secretly recorded. Fox used his cell phone to attempt to locate the residence, but initially had trouble finding it. He contacted a friend, who sent pictures of the house from the internet and helped lead him there.

Fox and the others took photographs and slow-motion video from their vehicle as they drove by it, and discussed conducting additional surveillance from the water at a later date. Another individual looked up the locations of the local police department and Michigan State Police in the area to estimate how long it would take law enforcement to respond to an incident at the governor’s house.

“We ain’t gonna let ‘em burn our f—state down,’ Fox said during the surveillance. “ 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.”

On Aug. 30, Fox shared photos from the surveillance trip to the encrypted chat group. One man offered to paint his personal boat black to help spy on the vacation home from the lake.

In a text message conversation that same day, the man with the boat asked the informant how the surveillance had gone. The informant shared a screenshot of the area, which showed a bridge in the vicinity.

The man texted back with symbols and emojis, suggesting demolition of the bridge would hinder the police response. One man had brought what he called his “chemistry set” — which included components for building an explosive device, including a commercial firework, black powder, pennies and electrical tape.

During the exercise, the group set the device in a clearing surrounded by human silhouette targets, and one man detonated it to test its effectiveness.

Then came more talk about the kidnapping. It would go down at night. Eight people, including an undercover federal agent and an informant, would conduct a nighttime surveillance of the vacation home in preparation for the kidnapping.

Three others would remain at the camp in Luther.

During the late evening of Sept. 12 and into the early morning of Sept. 13, the group drove from Luther to the vicinity of the vacation home in three separate vehicles.

An undercover agent and informant recorded the operation.

‘SHE HAS NO CHECKS AND BALANCES’

Fox, Croft, two men working undercover an individual from Wisconsin were in the first vehicle. Croft and Fox discussed detonating explosive devices to divert police from the area of the vacation home. They stopped at the M-31 highway bridge on the way, where Fox and the undercover agent inspected the underside of the bridge for places to seat an explosive charge.

Fox took a picture of the bridge’s support structure, which he later shared with an informant in their encrypted chat. From there, they drove to a public boat launch across the lake from the vacation home to watch for the other cars in their group.

Ty Garbin of Hartland Township, Franks and another individual from Wisconsin traveled in the second vehicle. A digital dash camera was mounted in the vehicle and was activated to record the surveillance for later reference, which footage was later shared with the informant

Two others and an undercover agent drove to the lake in a third vehicle. Their job was to drive around and make sure no one was following.

During the surveillance operation, Fox vented about Whitmer.

“She f——- g—loves the power she has right now … she has no checks and balances at all.”

Croft chimed in: “All good things must come to an end.”

The group then started discussing destroying the vacation home.

On the morning of Sept. 13, the group started finalizing plans to kidnap Whitmer.

They reconvened at Garbin’s property in Luther; there were 10 men:

Fox, Garbin, Kaleb Franks of Waterford, Daniel Harris of Lake Orion, Brandon Caserta of Canton, the paid informant, two undercover federal agents and two others.

An undercover FBI agent told Fox that it would cost about $4,000 to procure the explosives that the group wanted to use to blow up the bridge leading to the vacation home.

Fox later shared that information with the group and they agreed to conduct a final training exercise in late October. But Fox objected.

Late October was too close to the Nov. 3 election, Fox posted in a Sept. 14, encrypted chat, stressing the group needed more time to train and execute the kidnapping before Nov. 3.

So the group agreed to use the time until the final training exercise to raise money for explosives and other supplies. On Sept. 17, in an another encrypted group chat, Fox asked the group what it thought of a militia group invitation to participate in an armed protest at the State Capitol.

Garbin advised against it: “there needs to be zero and i mean zero public interaction if we want to continue with our plans.”

Added Caserta: “When the time comes there will be no need to try and strike fear through presence. The fear will be manifested through bullets.”

Fox responded: “Copy that boys, loud and clear!”

On Sept. 30, Fox called the undercover informant and discussed purchasing a taser for the kidnapping operation.

On October 2, Fox confirmed that he had purchased an 800,000 volt taser in an encrypted chat message with the informant.

The plan would go as follows: On Wednesday, the group would meet with an undercover FBI agent to pay for explosives and exchange tactical gear.

Caserta said he couldn’t be there because he would be at work. Croft had returned to Delaware.

The rendezvous didn’t go as planned.

It was a setup.

Instead of meeting with the man who would sell them explosives, the five Michigan suspects were arrested by FBI agents.

A sixth man, Croft, was arrested in Delaware.

If convicted, all six defendants face up to life in prison for conspiracy to commit kidnapping.

©2020 Detroit Free Press

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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