ELK RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Neighbors of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s vacation home had seen suspicious cars on the road out front and suspicious boats on their lake in recent weeks.
But never could they have imagined the plot that state and federal agents said was afoot – to kidnap the governor at gunpoint, try her for treason somewhere in Wisconsin and execute her.
Or, as an FBI agent later said, strand her on a disabled boat in the middle of Lake Michigan.
Not until the state and FBI announced on Oct. 8 that they had arrested 13 men and had foiled the plot did it all come together for the governor’s neighbors.
“I do know that there were suspicious fishermen on the lake, people that we had never seen going slowly down that way,” said a neighbor, pointing to the governor’s vacation home on Birch Lake, just north of Elk Rapids.
“We keep an eye on the lake, watching it all the time, and you get accustomed to who’s there, what time of day people are there,” he said. “These people were there at night, and we don’t have many night fishermen.”
In affidavits, state and federal investigators describe a plot that was months in the works in the dark corners of the web — encrypted cyber chats — and in secret meetings.
ACCUSED TERRORIST WITH A TRI-CORNER HAT
It included a meeting of a dozen or so like-minded militia on June 6, in Dublin, Ohio.
“They have us hating each other,” an unidentified participant is shown saying on a YouTube video reportedly recorded at that meeting. “They have us harming ourselves.”
“Anybody that wants you to hate yourself or somebody else is your enemy.”
In the corner of the video, wearing a tri-corner hat, is accused terrorist Barry Croft of Delaware. He also appeared as a guest on a YouTube talk show.
“I wear a tri-cornered hat because I feel like we’ve forgotten our past and our history,” Croft told the talk show host.
Croft is a single father, a truck driver, who was pardoned last year by Delaware’s governor for a 1990s felony firearm conviction.
“All the people in the United States of America’s rights are being trampled by a tyrannical government,” he tells the YouTube talk show host.
At that Dublin, Ohio, meeting, the FBI said an informant recorded discussions on creating a society that followed the U.S. Bill of Rights, claims that Gov. Whitmer was violating the constitution, and talk about murdering tyrants or taking a sitting governor.
Also at the Ohio gathering, according to investigators, was Adam Fox, a 37-year-old employee and temporary basement tenant of a Grand Rapids vacuum cleaner shop.
The feds accuse Fox of being a ringleader.
“He’s changed in the last eight months,” said Brian Titus, who owns the Vac Shack, located at 3601 South Division Ave. in Wyoming, where Fox was living.
Titus said Fox was angry over the forced lockdown of Michigan in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Wearin’ a mask… he believes his constitution rights were taken away from him,” Titus said. “He was afraid if the Democrats come in, they’re going to take our Second Amendment rights away.”
Titus had been letting Fox live in the store’s basement, but said he was kicking him out, scared about his employee’s militia ties and growing gun and ammunition collection. Titus said he knew nothing of the Whitmer kidnapping plot.
“That’s what happens when you try to help out people,” Titus said. “He broke up with his girlfriend a week ago and he had nowhere to go with his dogs.”
This week, Fox’s mom showed up at the shop to pick up her son’s belongings. She refused to comment.
On June 14, in a recorded phone call, Fox allegedly told a confidential informant he needed “200 men” to storm the Capitol building in Lansing and take hostages, including Gov. Whitmer.
A RALLY AND BOOGALOOS
Four days later, on June 18, at the very Capitol building the feds say he wanted to storm, an armed Fox attended a gun-rights rally, where he met up with two more accused terrorists: 42-year-old Pete Musico and Musico’s 26-year-old son-in-law, Joseph Morrison. The two are co-founders of the Wolverine Watchmen militia.
The feds said the two hosted field training exercises for the group at their home in Munith, near Jackson.
“Beautiful country out here,” said their neighbor, Pam Karschnock. “Then all of a sudden, out of the peace and quiet, you hear ‘Bam, bam, bam, bam!’ for hours.”
Joseph Morrison is a former U.S. Marine reservist who’s known among the Wolverine Watchmen as Boogaloo Bunyon.
Morrison, Musico and Fox attended that June 18 rally in Lansing wearing Hawaiian shirts, a signature of the extreme libertarian Boogaloo movement.
They denied the shirts had any significance.
Yeah… it’s summertime,” Musico said.
John Farmer Jr.’s center at Rutgers University sounded the alarm nationwide in early 2020 about the boogaloo movement that the feds say found a target in Michigan.
“It’s a tremendous threat,” said Farmer, former attorney general in New Jersey. “It was a serious plot. I think they really intended to try to do this, and it is a direct usurpation of the legitimate government of Michigan.”
“Very pro-gun,” Farmer said. “Very anti-police, very anti-authority, period. And, in its most extreme form, they advocate a civil war.”
One of the suspect’s lawyers, Gary Springstead, warned against a rush to judgment.
“We have to let (it) play out in court to find out what is fact from fiction, and what is protected constitutional activity and what isn’t,” he said.
Attorneys have questioned the FBI’s use of informants in the investigation.
The FBI said it paid one of the informants $8,600 and a second $14,800 for expenses, describing them as “reliable” and without a criminal records.
“I’M GOING TO HAVE FUN HUNTIN'”
William Null, also accused in the kidnapping plot, attended a lockdown protest in late April. He was inside the Capitol building, armed. His recording of the event ended up on YouTube.
“Whoooo,” he tells the camera. “Going live at the lockdown protest.”
“Finally, some angry Michiganders in here throwing a fit. This is about time. Wake the f- up, people.”
Null, 38, of Shelbyville, and his twin brother, Michael, from Plainwell, were both charged in the kidnapping plot.
Michael Null has a minor property offense on his record, while William Null has no record at all. They’re both part of the Michigan Liberty Militia.
In the YouTube video William Null shot at the lockdown protest, someone off camera could be heard saying, “Not gonna lie though, if the shootin’ starts happening, I’m heading up north, you know that? “
William Null’s response: “Not me, dude, I’m going to have fun huntin.'”
The Null twins spoke to News 8 earlier this summer, denying any connection to white supremacy.
“Somehow everything we do turns into being a racist, I’m not even sure how,” Null told News 8.
They boasted about providing security at other rallies.
“Some of the events we’re at we don’t actually agree with, but as constitutionalists, you have the right to protest as long as you’re peaceful,” Null told News 8.
A MOLE AMONG THEM
Two days after the rally, on June 20, the Vac Shack was the scene of another clandestine meeting, according to the feds, one where participants put their cellphones in a box upstairs to avoid bugs.
But a mole among them recorded the meeting anyway and the alleged plans to assault the state capitol, and counter law enforcement using Molotov cocktails to destroy police cars.
Eight days later, on June 28, federal agents said Musico and Morrison hosted a field training exercise at their home near Jackson.
Participating in the training that day were three more accused kidnapping conspirators from the state’s east side: Kaleb Franks, 26, of Waterford, Ty Garbin, 25, of Hartland and Brandon Caserta, of Canton.
Before the federal charges, Caserta had a few traffic offenses. Franks and Garbin had no criminal records at all.
Several weeks later, on the weekend of July 10, some of the accused held another field training exercise, this time at a property in Cambria, Wis., where the feds say Fox and others tried and failed to detonate an IED, while Franks shot a rifle with a silencer.
And in late July, the feds were tracking increasingly violent chatter.
Federal agents quoted Fox as saying, in a recorded call: “I just wanna make the world glow,” and “I’m just so sick of it… everything’s gonna have to be annihilated.”
In another recorded meeting, Fox allegedly said their best bet would be to “snatch and grab” the governor at her vacation home or summer residence.
“JUST CAP HER”
And in an encrypted online chat came this alleged suggestion from terror suspect Daniel Harris: “Have one person go to her house. Knock on the door and when she answers it, just cap her.”
Harris, 38, of Lake Orion, is a former Marine. He and Joseph Morrison were among three with military connections.
Terror defendant Paul Bellar, 22, of Oakland County, reported to U.S. Army basic training, but the Department of Defense said he failed to complete requirements for enlistment.
Still, federal agents said, Bellar was able to provide fellow terror suspects with plans for tactical maneuvers at trainings and coded language for covert communications.
“One of the alarming aspects of some of these groups is their attempt to recruit a former or active law enforcement and military and to the extent that they’re able to do that, then they have on board people who know the tactics, who know how to do this, and that makes them dangerous,” said Farmer, the Rutgers professor.
THE PLOT MOVES NORTH
The plot to kidnap the governor eventually led the militia members to the tiny harborside village of Elk Rapids, but first they gathered outside the village of Luther about 80 minutes south.
“It’s all good people here in Luther,” Lake County Sheriff Rich Martin told News 8. “It’s one big family, everybody kind of works together.”
Luther is a village that relies on deer hunting season in a county that draws retirees from downstate.
“The reason for that is to get away from populated areas and the hustle and bustle of the big city,” the sheriff said. “People come up here to relax.”
Three Mile Road is just a few turns outside of Luther, a dirt road where tracks left by deer co-mingle with those left by pickups.
Off Three Mile, a two-track runs about a quarter mile west to a trailer hidden in the woods.
Confederate flag stickers on the window are the first sign you’re in the right place.
Then, there’s the rickety lookout post on top of the trailer.
Behind the trailer, piles of old tires form the back wall of what the federal government is calling a field training facility for militia members.
Shell casings and shotgun shells litter the ground.
Two human silhouettes are crudely painted in red on a wooden wall. The silhouettes are peppered with holes.
This, according to state and federal affidavits, is where 10 of the militia members — Fox, Croft, Garbin, Franks, Harris, Caserta, Eric Molitor, Sean Fix and the Null brothers — met the weekend of Sept. 12.
Molitor, 22, lived in Cadillac. Earlier this year, Molitor’s mother led the charge to make Wexford County a Second Amendment Sanctuary County.
Fix, 38, of Wayne County, was reportedly a truck driver by trade, who helped identify the governor’s house, investigators said.
With them were an informant and an undercover agent secretly audio recording everything.
The feds said that Garbin owns the property, but local records don’t show any record of that.
The Lake County sheriff said he was unaware of any of this until the feds told him just last week. None of the men were from his jurisdiction.
“There are several militia groups in the area,” the sheriff said. “I’ve talked to a few of the people that are involved with that. There are some that are primarily in the Luther area. I don’t think this actual sect was part of that organization.”
“There’s ways to go about things and there’s ways to not going about things, and when we have this fanatical approach to something like that, because it didn’t only involve the governor, it involved law enforcement, so obviously that’s near and dear to my heart,” the sheriff said.
It was Croft, the tri-corner wearing man from Delaware, who brought what he called a “chemistry set,” the feds said. Bomb components. He removed the cap from a commercial firework, added more black powder, then wrapped the device in pennies and electrical tape for shrapnel.
Neighbors heard a blast from a half-mile away.
“There was a big explosion, big boom, and I know what bombs sound like from the military,” neighbor Cliff Demos said.
But they didn’t report it.
“You hear a lot of gunfire here. Where we live it’s so rural,” Demos said.
“It’s pretty serious when you’ve got a group of people that are going to kidnap your governor. That’s serious and that’s scary.”
“A PERFECT F-ING SETUP”
At the camp, Fox picked Croft, Garbin, Franks, Fix, the Null twins, the informant and undercover agents for the 80-minute drive to the governor’s vacation home just outside Elk Rapids.
The traveled in three separate cars.
Fox called it, quote, “a perfect F-ing setup.”
Elk Rapids is a village of 1,600 people in Antrim County with a one-screen theater, where the newspaper is still free, where entertainment includes watching storms roll in over the bay.
It’s a summer resort town where colder weather has already sent many south.
“We don’t become a ghost town, but we definitely can tell that the season is over and people have taken off,” said Village Manager Bill Cooper. “But it’s a nice little place. I love it here.”
“We have a bridge, right on the edge of town. It’s our big intersection with our stoplight.”
Fox and an undercover agent inspected the underside of the M-31 bridge in Elk Rapids, looking for a place to set a bomb, the feds said. The plan was to blow up the bridge, creating a distraction and delaying the response of police.
“They were anticipating they were going to blow that bridge as a distraction,” Cooper said. “On one hand, OK, we’d like to make some changes to it. On the other hand, that’s not the way to do it.
“It sounded like they probably had what they needed to cause the explosion. I can’t say how big an explosion, but it probably would have been enough to cripple the bridge.”
The feds say that Fox, Molitor and an informant had been in Elk Rapids two weeks earlier, on Aug. 29, to conduct initial surveillance of the governor’s vacation home, taking photos and slow-motion drive-by video.
They talked about spying on her home from the water, even discussed painting a boat black for the operation. One spoke of having night-vision goggles.
They also scouted the local police department and nearest state police post, the feds alleged, to see how long it would take police to respond to trouble at the vacation home.
On Thursday, police arrested suspect No. 14: Brian Higgins, 51, of Wisconsin Dells, Wis. The state said he helped surveil the governor’s home and provided night-vision goggles for the task.
SUSPICIOUS CARS AND BOATS
For the nighttime trip in September, after stopping at the bridge, according to the affidavit, they drove to the vacation home, using a dashcam to record the neighborhood.
“She has uncontrolled power,” Croft said is quoted as saying. “All good things must come to an end.
Their plan, the feds said, was to kidnap the governor and put her on trial in Wisconsin for treason — or abandon her in a disabled boat in the middle of Lake Michigan.
The governor’s vacation home is a couple minutes north of Elk Rapids, on Birch Lake.
For the most part, lakeside neighbors didn’t want to be identified. Some fear the feds didn’t get all the militia members.
Some neighbors questioned the militia’s plan; some called it dumb.
First, how could blowing up the bridge slow the police response when there’s another bridge a couple hundred yards away?
Second, neighbors hadn’t seen the governor up here all year.
“As far as I know, Gretchen hasn’t been here in weeks and weeks and weeks,” a neighbor said. “She’s never really shown up here during the summertime. Maybe once.”
The governor’s vacation home isn’t hard to find.
Just this spring, protesters with a Trump sign gathered at the end of her street.
“They sat right outside our house, right on the corner there like Gretchen was down there, that she could hear them or something,” the neighbor said.
It was in recent weeks that some neighbors grew suspicious. That includes the police chief, who lives just a few doors away from the governor.
“Just vehicles slowing down in the neighborhood, sometimes strange cars being parked somewhere nearby,” the village manager said.
“Hard to say if it was the militia guys or if it were the feds already in place, trying to keep an eye on what was going on.”
“It’s worrisome,” said a neighbor who had spotted suspicious boats on the lake in recent weeks. “We’ve heard a lot about Michigan militia in the past. To know that it’s right here at your doorstep is kind of worrisome.”
A TASER AND $4,000 IN EXPLOSIVES
The feds said that the day after their surveillance mission, the militia members met back at their spot outside Luther. They confirmed their plot, agreeing to one more training session in October.
Two weeks later, on Oct. 2, Fox confirmed he’d bought an 800,000-watt taser for the kidnapping. They talked about plans to buy tactical gear and $4,000 worth of explosives.
“That’s a little unnerving,” the village manager said. “That’s not what you expect. I don’t care whether you’re trusting or not trusting, you don’t expect something like the militia, heavily armed group, who supposedly have plans to kidnap the governor. We don’t expect that around here.”