GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Thirteen men face charges for allegedly plotting to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, going so far as to watch her vacation home and build bombs, authorities say.
“When I put my hand on the Bible and took the oath of office 22 months ago, I knew this job would be hard, but I’ll be honest: I never could have imagined something like this,” Whitmer said at a Thursday afternoon press conference, describing the suspects as “sick and depraved.”
A court document filed Tuesday identifies the suspects in a federal case as Adam Fox, Barry Croft, Ty Garbin, Kaleb Franks, Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta. All the suspects except for Croft, who is from Delaware, are from Michigan.
“The FBI and state police executed 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,” U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Michigan Andrew Birge, who is prosecuting the federal case linked to the plot, said.
Accused of conspiracy to commit kidnapping, all of them face up to life in prison if convicted. Birge said at least some of them have already appeared in federal court.
At a press conference alongside Birge, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel announced her office has filed state-level charges against seven people in connection to the alleged kidnapping plot and for allegedly trying to find out where police lived to threaten them:
- Paul Bellar, 21, of Milford: Providing material support for a terrorist act, gang membership, and felony firearm.
- Sean Fix, 38, of Belleville: Providing material support for a terrorist act and felony firearm. Arraignment is pending in Antrim County.
- Eric Molitor, 36, of Cadillac: Providing material support for a terrorist act and felony firearms. He was arraigned in Antrim County Thursday morning.
- Michael Null, 38, of Plainwell: Providing material support for a terrorist act and felony firearms. He was arraigned in Antrim County Thursday morning.
- William Null, 38, of Shelbyville: Providing material support for a terrorist act and felony firearms. He was arraigned in Antrim County Thursday morning.
- Pete Musico, 42, and Joseph Morrison, 42, who live together in Munith, northeast of Jackson: threat of terrorism, gang membership, providing material support for terrorist acts, felony firearm. They were arraigned in Jackson County Thursday afternoon.
Providing material support for a terrorist act, gang membership and threat of terrorism are all 20-year felonies. A felony firearm conviction carries a two-year sentence.
Nessel said a coordinated effort led officers from multiple agencies to execute search and arrest warrants over the previous 48 hours all over the Lower Peninsula:
Charges may change after investigators had time to sort through all the evidence obtained in the raids, Nessel said.
FEDERAL COURT DOCUMENT OUTLINES PLOT
In a 15-page criminal complaint, an FBI agent wrote that talk of targeting the governor surfaced as early as June as Adam Fox, Barry Croft and others who shared the same views met in Dublin, Ohio. They were angry at governors — including Whitmer — who issued mandates that shut down businesses in response to the coronavirus, arguing they were violating the Constitution.
That conversation prompted Fox to reach out to a militia group. While that group was not named in the document, Nessel said the charges she issued were against members or associates of the militia Wolverine Watchmen. News 8 previously spoke to the Nulls, two of the suspects arraigned in Antrim County, as members of the Barry County-based Michigan Liberty Militia.
The AG’s office identified Shawn Fix as the fourth person set to be arraigned in Antrim County, though at last check it had not happened yet.— Lynsey Mukomel (@lynseymukomel) October 8, 2020
Fix faces the same charges. pic.twitter.com/w2m0z6WpEI
The FBI says it had been keeping an eye on the unnamed militia since early in the year after becoming aware of online posts about overthrowing the government. It said a member of the group was worried about plans to kill police and agreed to become an informant. It was through that informant, who was paid $8,600, and another, who was paid $14,800, that the FBI built much of its case, though it also had undercover officers involved.
Officials said the group used encrypted messaging systems and code words to try to hide the plot, but the informants’ access allowed the FBI to see everything.
Authorities allege that as conversations continued over the following weeks and months, sometimes at tactical training sessions at militia members’ properties and at least once at a Grand Rapids store where Fox was living, a firm plan formed.
“Fox described it as a ‘Snatch and grab, man. Grab the (expletive) Governor. Just grab the (expletive). Because that that point, we do that, dude — it’s over,'” the criminal complaint reads in part.
Apparently, the plan was to take her to Wisconsin and try her for treason in a kangaroo court.
According to the document, the militia members talked about storming the state Capitol in Lansing, armed with Molotov cocktails and engaging with police, but Ty Garbin shut that idea down.
Excerpts from court documents. Each face identical charges: one felony count of providing material support to a terrorist or terrorist organization and one count of felony firearm for being armed while committing the first felony. pic.twitter.com/GFCUwC9r0v— Lynsey Mukomel (@lynseymukomel) October 8, 2020
It was then the focus turned to the governor’s vacation home in Antrim County. The suspects allegedly figured out where that house was and went there at least twice — once in late August and once in mid-September — to scope it out.
Antrim County court documents show Fix, Molitor and the Nulls were involved in watching the governor’s vacation house.
“‘Have one person go to her house. Knock on the door and when she answers it just cap her… at this point. (Expletive) it,'” the federal criminal complaint says Daniel Harris wrote in an Aug. 19 group chat. “‘I mean … (expletive), catch her walking into the building and act like passers-by and fixing dome her then yourself whoever does it’ (sic).”
The FBI said Fox said the group would need to train for three months and said he was ready to use deadly force.
“‘I just wanna make the world glow, dude,'” the criminal complaint says hhe said in a call. “‘I’m not even (expletive) kidding. I just wanna make it all glow dude. I don’t (expletive) care anymore, I’m just so sick of it. That’s what it’s gonna take for us to take it back, we’re just gonna have to everything’s gonna have to be annihilated man.'”
He went on to rail against what he called tyranny.
The FBI agent said Fox bought a Taser to use in the attack. Authorities say the suspects also looked into blowing up a bridge in an effort to slow the police response.
During one test, according to Birge, the U.S. attorney, the suspects managed to successfully detonate a bomb wrapped with shrapnel.
The criminal complaint said Croft floated actually carrying out the the attack on the night of Sept. 12 and Sept. 13, but the others thought the time was not right, so they held off. They planned a final meeting to train in late October, but the FBI says Fox later said he was worried that would be too late to pull off the kidnapping before the Nov. 3. election.
Fox, Garbin, Harris and Kaleb Franks then set up a meeting with an undercover officer Tuesday to buy explosives and exchange tactical gear. Birge said it was at such a meeting they were arrested.
“All of us in Michigan can disagree about politics but those disagreements should never, ever amount to violence,” U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan Matthew Schneider, who is assisting in the case, said.
FRIEND: FOX RECENTLY ‘CHANGED’
Fox had been staying at the Vac Shack at the intersection of S. Division Avenue and 36th Street in Grand Rapids, which was raided by the FBI Wednesday.
The store’s owner Brian Titus told News 8 he has known Fox since he was a child and was aware he was in a militia, but didn’t know how serious his anti-government opinions had gotten.
“He was anti-police, anti-government. He was afraid if he didn’t stand up for the Second Amendment and his rights that the country is going to go communism and socialism,” Titus said.
He said he was trying to help Fox, who was homeless, but became worried as he learned more about his militia involvement and notice Fox seemed more tense. He told Fox he needed to move by next month.
In Allegan County, William Null’s neighbors told News 8 they were surprised when police showed up there Wednesday night. They said he always seemed like a normal, nice guy.
FORMER AG: VIOLENCE OF PLOT UNUSUAL
Former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Michigan Patrick Miles told News 8 that groups and individuals who oppose the government have been around for many years in Michigan. Miles says they have often harassed government officials but have not planned violence to this extent.
“This group was certainly planning some serious violent acts,” he said. “They wanted to be very disruptive, they particularly wanted to do so before the federal election on Nov. 3. It was their intention to essentially take down the state governor and the state government.”
He said in his experience, there has always been “great cooperation” among law enforcement agencies statewide.
“We all work together well. There aren’t a lot of fights over jurisdiction and boundaries. Everyone in law enforcement in this area really wants to just do the job and do it well and get it done. They don’t care about who gets the credit,” Miles said.
“The nature of this case is rather unprecedented,” Michigan State Police Col. Joe Gasper said during a press conference in Lansing, “but it does send a very vivid reminder that while we may be in a time period of discord, possibly even divisiveness and fighting across the nation, law enforcement stands united. And for those who think law enforcement is distracted, let me assure you, we are very much engaged with taking our responsibility to protect the public very seriously.”
MILITIA EXPERT CONCERNED MORE VIOLENCE COULD COME
Amy Cooter, a senior lecturer in sociology at Vanderbilt University, is considered an expert on Michigan militias.
Cooter wasn’t completely surprised to learn militia members were involved in the alleged plot.
“Given the general political and social climate, I can’t say that it’s shocking to see some groups who were worried enough to be pushed into violent action,” Cooter said.
Cooter said Wolverine Watchmen, the militia group investigators say were behind the plot, is relatively new.
“My opinion of what I can tell about them and my Michigan contacts in the militia groups are telling me is that we think it’s a new group that formed specifically in response to the pandemic and some of Gov. Whitmer’s responses to some of the state regulations,” Cooter said.
According to an affidavit filed by authorities, investigators were able to trace the group back to late 2019.
“The “Wolverine Watchmen” is a militia group who recruited members using a social media platform, Facebook, since November 2019,” investigators stated in an affidavit.
While it’s not often militia groups are charged with crimes of this caliber, Cooter has concerns this incident could cause other extremist groups to act out.
“It can be the case that when one group starts, it can occur in clusters,” she said. “I’m worried a little bit headed into this election that there are some militia groups not just in Michigan, but nationally, that could see this as an illegitimate action… to undermine their efforts to stand up for individual liberty, could similarly be spurred into attempts at violent action.”