Foiled Plot Against Detroit's Gov. Whitmer Shows Far-Right Domestic Terrorism is a Threat

...and the calls are coming from inside the White House

Oct 19, 2020 at 1:01 pm
click to enlarge Pete Musico (right), one of the men who was charged Oct. 8 for his involvement in a plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, stands in front of the Governors office after protesters occupied the state capitol building on April 30, 2020. - Photo: REUTERS/Seth Herald
Photo: REUTERS/Seth Herald
Pete Musico (right), one of the men who was charged Oct. 8 for his involvement in a plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, stands in front of the Governors office after protesters occupied the state capitol building on April 30, 2020.

It was a plot that seemingly could have been ripped right out of the pages of a Hollywood action movie script — something like Liam Neeson’s Taken, or a Coen Brothers film, perhaps, or even Joker. A group of men, secretly meeting in a hidden basement under a Grand Rapids vacuum cleaner shop, had cooked up a scheme to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, overthrow the government, and start a civil war before the Nov. 3 election.

The men connected on social media, and some had met up at the various protests against Whitmer’s coronavirus pandemic emergency powers, where they brandished guns. But these weren’t just the fantasies of a group of shit-talking internet trolls. According to law enforcement officials, including the FBI, Michigan State Police, and Michigan Attorney Dana Nessel, the men’s talk had turned to action, going as far as meeting up for training drills, making multiple surveillance missions to Whitmer’s family vacation home up north, and even testing bombs. On Oct. 7, a group of the men met in Ypsilanti to purchase explosives and exchange gear, where undercover FBI agents were waiting for their arrest. Across the state and beyond, agents arrested more than a dozen men connected to the plot.

The news, first broke by The Detroit News earlier this month, was stunning, even by the boiled-frog standards of the fourth year of Trump’s America. But if you looked closely, you could see trouble brewing.

It might be tempting to assume the men were enraged because they were harmed by the economic impact of Whitmer’s emergency powers, which shut down much of Michigan’s economy this year and successfully lowered the number of COVID-19 cases in the state, but critics charged were unconstitutional. Indeed, on Oct. 2, Whitmer’s emergency powers were struck down by the Michigan Supreme Court because they did not have Legislative approval.

Nevertheless, the plot against her persisted.

In his criminal complaint, FBI special agent Richard Trask said the bureau became aware of the wannabe insurrectionists from social media chatter in early 2020. In fact, Metro Times reporter Steve Neavling covered a public Facebook group, “People vs Gov. Gretchen Whitmer,” which included calls for violence against the governor, in January. The group was created in March 2019 — long before the word “coronavirus” even entered the vocabulary of most Americans. The page also included calls for violence against other Democratic women, including Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Elissa Slotkin.

In the posts, people — using their real names and profile photos — brazenly talked about shooting Democrats, asked how they could join militias, and even offered to help each other train. When questioned, the creators of the page admitted to Metro Times that the discussion had spiraled out of control, and quickly deactivated it. (Among the nearly 9,000 people who followed the page included state Sen. Peter Lucido, a Shelby Township Republican now running for Macomb County prosecutor. When a Michigan Advance reporter questioned Lucido about his involvement in the group, Lucido said, “The fact that people talk crap back and forth on that page, that’s their crap, not mine. … If those people are talking cowardly and inciting violence, then they should be dealt with accordingly.” The reporter also said Lucido sexually harassed her, creating even more national headlines.)

By May, with Whitmer’s pandemic response efforts now in effect, the calls for violence on Facebook continued. Neavling accessed four private Facebook groups and found dozens of threats targeting Whitmer ahead of a planned protest in Lansing against her emergency powers, including a call for “a good old fashioned lynch mob to storm the Capitol, drag her tyrannical ass out onto the street and string her up as our forefathers would have,” while others talked about hiring an assassin. The four pages had a combined 400,000 members.

After the story ran, Facebook quickly removed the groups for violating its terms of service, which prohibit hate speech, and also told Metro Times they disabled “multiple accounts” linked to the pages. Whitmer responded to the threats by writing a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg pleading for the platform to do a better job enforcing its own policies, and even addressed Metro Times’s reporting in a news conference.

“The violent, racist, extreme rhetoric that … was reported in the Metro Times today, I think is — concerning isn’t a strong enough word,” Whitmer said. “And yet, this could be avoided, if Republican leadership in the Legislature would step up and denounce that kind of activity — if there was anyone on the other side of the aisle that would do that.”

She added, “I would appreciate it if others would do their part to try to lower the heat. There are a lot of hot tempers right now, and I understand that. In America, we respect people’s right to speak out. Their freedom of speech is something I respect. But they have a duty to do it in a way that doesn’t compromise others or threaten others.”

Flash forward five months to October, and Republican leaders have done little to “turn down the heat.” In fact, leaders like President Donald Trump responded to the news by leaning into their criticism of Whitmer, calling her a “dictator.”

In the FBI’s criminal complaint, a man named Adam Fox was described as a ringleader of the group, who was quoted as calling Whitmer “this tyrant bitch” in the documents. The name was familiar.

Looking back at his notes of various comments pulled from the Facebook groups, Neavling found one attributed to Adam Dean Fox, who called Whitmer a “Lying ass Tyrant Bitch!!!!”

The thwarted plan

“These were very credible, and very serious threats to our elected officials and the public in general, and the swift actions taken by state and federal authorities this past week are nothing short of heroic,” Attorney General Nessel said at a press conference the day the news of the alleged kidnapping plot broke.

Those charged at the federal level so far include Fox, 37, of Grand Rapids; Kaleb Franks, 26, of Waterford; Brandon Caserta, 32, of Canton; Ty Garbin, 24, of Hartland Twp.; Daniel Joseph Harris, 23, of Lake Orion; and Barry Croft, 44, of Delaware. Those charged at the state level 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, of Munith; Joseph Morrison, 26, also of Munith; and Brian Higgins, 51, of Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin.

The men face an assortment of charges, including terrorism, conspiracy, weapons possession, and being in a gang, some of which could be punishable by life in prison.

It was not the first brush with the law for some of them. Fox’s ex-wife, who served him divorce papers after less than a year of marriage, said he was a violent drunk when she applied for a personal protection order against him in 2015, according to the Detroit Free Press. (A judge did not grant the request because the alleged incidents occurred several years earlier.) At some point after the split, a friend let Fox and his two dogs live in the basement under Vac Shack, his Grand Rapids vacuum cleaner store, “because he had nowhere else to go,” according to the Free Press.

According to the FBI’s criminal complaint, Fox and Croft began discussing the plan in early 2020, agreeing “to unite others in their cause and take violent action against multiple state governments that they believe are violating the U.S. Constitution.”

On June 6, Fox and about 13 other men met in Dublin, Ohio, to talk about their plan to create a post-government, self-sufficient society. Kidnapping Whitmer was discussed, as well as Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, also a Democrat. But to pull it off, they’d obviously need help. That’s when Fox reached out to the Wolverine Watchmen, which the court documents described as “an anti-government, anti-law enforcement militia group.”

The Wolverine Watchmen had already been on the FBI’s radar since March, however, when the group planned to kill law-enforcement officers by obtaining their home addresses. According to the court documents, this concerned one member of the group enough that they tipped off the FBI, and agreed to become a secret informant.Fox met with the group various times in June, including a Second Amendment rally in Lansing. On June 14, Fox told the informant that he would need “200 men” to storm the Capitol building in Lansing to kidnap Whitmer, who he wanted to try for “treason.” On June 20, Fox invited a group to a secret meeting, held in the basement of Vac Shack, which was accessible only by a trap door hidden under a rug. As an extra precaution, Fox collected everyone’s cell phone in a box.

Fox’s attempt at secrecy was futile, however. Unbeknownst to Fox, the FBI informant was wearing a wire, who captured an audio recording of the meeting, which included plans to target police with “molotov cocktails” and to reconvene for a tactical training exercise in July.

On June 25, Fox livestreamed a video in a private Facebook group, where he complained about Whitmer’s executive order that closed gyms. He again called Whitmer a “tyrant bitch.”

“I don’t know, boys, we gotta do something,” he said, according to the complaint.

On June 28, members of the ragtag confederacy met in Munith, where Musico and Morrison lived, to participate in training. They were told “to leave if they were not willing to participate in attacks against the government and in kidnapping politicians,” according to the complaint. Another training meeting was held on July 10-12 in Cambria, Wisconsin, where they attempted — and failed — to detonate improvised explosive devices using black powder, balloons, a fuse, and BBs for shrapnel.

Members of the group met again, on July 18, back in Ohio, where they discussed various plans, including attacking a Michigan State Police building. There, Garbin suggested shooting up Whitmer’s vacation home. The same day, Garbin said he was “cool” with attacking the governor’s home instead of the Capitol, even if it was just to destroy property.

On July 24, the informant and Garbin contacted Fox by phone, where Fox suggested they “make a cake and send it” — code word for sending a bomb to Whitmer’s residence, according to the informant.

“In all honesty right now … I just wanna make the world glow, dude,” Fox said, according to the documents. “I’m not even fuckin’ kidding. I just wanna make it all glow dude. I don’t fuckin’ 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. We’re gonna topple it all, dude. It’s what great frickin’ conquerors [do], man, we’re just gonna conquer every fuckin’ thing man.”

The code words continued on July 26, when Fox told the informant that he had not heard back from the “baker.” “Maybe we should just make a bunch of cupcakes and send them out,” he said.

On July 27, Fox and the FBI informant met again at the Vac Shack.

“Snatch and grab, man,” Fox said, according to the court documents. “Grab the fuckin’ Governor. Just grab the bitch. Because at that point, we do that, dude — it’s over.”

To pull it off, they’d need more help. Fox suggested finding a local real estate agent to help them find the exact location of the vacation home, and even plumbers and electricians to get them blueprints of the property.

Fox appeared to be the member of the group who was most enthusiastic about the plot. Later that day, he asked an encrypted group chat, “OK, well how’s everyone feel about kidnapping?” Nobody responded, according to the court documents.

The plan was moving forward. The next day, Fox posted on a private Facebook group. “We about to be busy ladies and gentlemen,” he wrote. “This is where the Patriot shows up. Sacrifices his time, money, blood sweat and tears . . . it starts now so get fucking prepared!!”

On Aug. 9, the group was back in Munith for more training. According to the court documents, Fox again asked the group about kidnapping Whitmer, but Garbin “expressed reluctance to talk about the plan in that setting.” Later, on Aug. 18, in an encrypted group chat, the group started talking about moving in on Whitmer’s vacation home.

Some became worried that they had become infiltrated by law enforcement — astutely, it turned out — and on Aug. 23, a number of members met, sans Fox, at Harris’s home in Lake Orion, where they were required to bring personal documents to confirm their identities. The group discussed an upcoming surveillance mission to Whitmer’s vacation home, with Harris spending nearly $4,000 on night-vision goggles and a helmet for the occasion. They decided to move their communications to a different encrypted app — which was useless, because the FBI informant was still among their ranks.

On Aug. 29, Fox, the informant, and a third person embarked on their first surveillance mission to Whitmer’s vacation home, where they took photos and slow-motion video of the house as they drove by, and discussed doing additional surveillance from the water at a later date. Meanwhile, the third person looked up nearby police departments, and tried to figure out how long it would take for them to arrive.

“We ain’t gonna let ‘em burn our fuckin’ state down,” Fox said, according to the documents. “I don’t give a fuck if there’s only 20 or 30 of us, dude, we’ll go out there and use deadly force.”

The next day, the group shared photos of their mission in an encrypted group chat. The same day, Garbin asked the informant how the surveillance went. The informant shared a map, which showed a nearby bridge. Using emojis, Garbin suggested they blow up the bridge to slow down the police response.

“If the [bridge emoji] go [hand pointing down emoji], it also [X emoji] the [wave emoji],” he wrote, according to the court documents.The informant later provided the FBI with a photo of Fox drawing a map that included nearby police departments and estimated response times.

On the weekend of Sept. 12, a larger group, including Fox, Croft, Garbin, the FBI informant, and others, met at Garbin’s property in Luther, about an hour and a half from the vacation home. They tested what Croft referred to as his “chemistry set,” an improvised explosive device made from a firework with added gunpowder and wrapped in pennies. Here, Fox chose Croft, Garbin, Franks, the FBI informant, and others to go on a second surveillance mission to Whitmer’s vacation home, this time at night.

Before leaving, Croft suggested they just get the kidnapping over with now, but was convinced to wait until a later time.

The group took three separate cars. Fox and Croft stopped under the M-31 highway bridge to devise a way to plant an explosive, and took a photo and sent it to an encrypted group chat. Meanwhile, Garbin, Franks, and another person drove by the home, recording it using a dash-cam. (This wound up being used as evidence against them, as the footage also included shots of Garbin and Frank, as well as GPS data that showed they were in the proximity of the governor’s home — which was then shared with the FBI.) A third car acted as lookout.

Unbeknownst to Fox, by this point the group included two undercover FBI agents and two informants. Nevertheless, Fox appeared to be pleased by his unfolding plan.

“She fucking goddamn loves the power she has right now,” he said, adding, “She has no checks and balances at all. She has uncontrolled power right now.”

“All good things must come to an end,” Croft replied.

Fox also openly fantasized about their actions starting a revolution. “I can see several states takin’ their fuckin’ tyrants,” Fox said. “Everybody takes their tyrants.”

Back at Garbin’s, an FBI informant asked, “Everybody down with what’s going on?”

“Oh no, we’re not kidnapping, that’s not what we’re doing,” Garbin replied sarcastically, eliciting laughter from the group. The group later made a plan for one final training exercise in late October.

With the clock ticking until the November election, Fox scrapped the final exercise, arguing that it was cutting it too close. On Oct. 2, he told the group he purchased a $4,000, 800,000-volt Taser for the kidnapping.Later that day, the Michigan Supreme Court struck down Whitmer’s emergency powers. The men didn’t seem to care. The plan was already in motion.

On Oct. 7, Fox, Garbin, Harris, and Franks planned to meet to make a payment on explosives and exchange tactical gear, which is when the FBI moved in on them.

click to enlarge Gov. Gretchen Whitmer makes an address on Oct. 8 about the foiled plot against her. - Photo: State of Michigan
Photo: State of Michigan
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer makes an address on Oct. 8 about the foiled plot against her.

Militia or terrorists?

Some outlets, like the Detroit Press Press and WDIV, have said that they will use the terms “domestic terrorists” instead of “militia” to describe the Wolverine Watchmen. Just two days before the news of the kidnapping plot emerged, on Oct. 6, the Department of Homeland Security declared in its “Homeland Threat Assessment,” for the first time, that far-right domestic terrorists posed the greatest threat to the U.S., as opposed to foreign groups like ISIS. According to the report, 2019 was the most lethal year for domestic violent extremism in the U.S. since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.

“Some U.S.-based violent extremists have capitalized on increased social and political tensions in 2020, which will drive an elevated threat environment at least through early 2021,” the report stated. “Violent extremists will continue to target individuals or institutions that represent symbols of their grievances, as well as grievances based on political affiliation or perceived policy positions.”

The report also noted that COVID-19 “creates an environment that could accelerate some individuals’ mobilization to targeted violence or radicalization to terrorism,” and “anti-government and anti-authority violent extremists could be motivated to conduct attacks in response to perceived infringement of liberties and government overreach as all levels of government seek to limit the spread of the coronavirus that has caused a worldwide pandemic.”

Additionally, it noted, “Social distancing may lead to social isolation, which is associated with depression, increased anxiety, and social alienation. Similarly, work disruptions including unexpected unemployment and layoffs, can also increase risk factors associated with radicalization to violence and willingness to engage in acts of targeted violence.”

The day the plot was announced, Nessel appeared to acknowledge the findings of the report.

“There has been a disturbing increase in anti-government rhetoric and the re-emergence 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.”

Michigan has long been considered “fertile ground” for domestic terrorism. In the early 1990s, inspired by the bloody standoffs with federal agents in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas, armed groups cropped up around the country, including a group called the Michigan Militia, which was one of the largest. The Oklahoma City bombing perpetrators Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols attended early meetings for the Michigan Militia.

“We had representatives of every known right-wing, white supremacist, anti-government group out there. And why Michigan, we just could never tell,” former FBI agent Andrew Arena, who now teaches at Western Michigan University’s Thomas M. Cooley Law School, told the Washington Post. “But obviously you got to deal with it.”

One possible factor could be Michigan Republicans’ — and law enforcement’s — coziness with militia groups.

Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist II told CNN's Don Lemon that he believed the suspects in the kidnapping plot were “emboldened” by President Donald Trump and the “complicity and the encouragement of the Michigan Republican Party, who created the rhetorical space for them to plan these deadly actions.”

Indeed, at least four of the suspects were spotted this year at anti-Whitmer rallies, including twin brothers Michael and William Null, who were among those who stormed the Capitol on April 30. (Despite the increased incidents, the Legislature has still not passed a ban on firearms in the Capitol.) On May 18, speaking to a crowd gathered in Grand Rapids to protest Whitmer, Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf pointed to William Null and said, “This is our last home defense right here, ladies and gentlemen.” Leaf later defended the kidnapping suspects, saying Michigan law authorizes residents to “arrest” the governor for committing “a felony.” (Nessel later called Leaf’s comments “dangerous.” “As Michigan’s top law enforcement official, let me make this abundantly clear,” she wrote on Twitter. “Persons who are not sworn, licensed members of a law enforcement agency cannot and should not ‘arrest’ government officials with whom they have disagreements.”)

State Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, one of Whitmer’s biggest critics in the Republican Party, has sparred with her over her emergency powers. On April 30, when Whitmer extended her emergency powers without Congressional authority, Shirkey took to Facebook to invoke the attack on Pearl Harbor (“a day in our State’s legacy which will last in infamy,” he wrote) and accused Whitmer of being “drunk on the addiction of unfettered power.”

Initially, he condemned the would-be kidnappers. “A threat against our Governor is a threat against us all,” he wrote on Twitter. “We condemn those who plotted against her and our government. 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.”

But mere hours after the kidnapping plot was revealed, both Shirkey and Republican House Speaker Lee Chatfield appeared at an anti-Whitmer rally in Lansing, where they continued to use heated rhetoric.

“This is no time to be weak in our commitment to freedom,” Shirkey said to the crowd, according to Michigan Advance. “We need to be strong … and not be afraid of those who are taking our freedoms away from us.”The next day, Nessel revealed that Whitmer had been alerted of the plot before it went public and said that law enforcement had even taken the step of moving her and her family to keep them out of harm’s way. The following day, Chatfield penned a letter accusing Whitmer and law enforcement of keeping Republicans out of the loop.

“Why weren’t we warned of the plot to take hostages at the Capitol? The plot by these terrorists was against us too,” he wrote. “Why weren’t House sergeants warned? You knew and we weren’t even given a warning. We had people working in the building and their lives matter too.”

“Did @GovWhitmer endanger the state legislature by neglecting to inform them of the plot to ‘storm the state Capitol and take hostages?’” the Michigan Freedom Fund asked on Twitter. But the group, funded by the family of billionaire Betsy DeVos, helped promote the April 16 “Operation Gridlock” rally where armed protesters met in Lansing.

And then there’s Trump.Unsurprisingly, many of the kidnapping suspects were Trump supporters.In 2016, Musico promoted Trump’s candidacy on YouTube and Twitter, according to the Free Press. “Look at what our country has become,” Musico wrote. “Everybody hates Trump so if everybody hates him, wouldn't he be a good thing for our country” and “we need to get away from the controllers of this country and become America again that's what Trump wants.” Croft also tweeted praise for Trump, and Fix had Trump campaign signs in his front yard. (Not all of the members of the group were pro-Trump, however. According to the Free Press, Caserta appeared to have called Trump a “tyrant” on Twitter, while the Nulls reportedly supported Black Lives Matter, suggesting that the men had various and occasionally overlapping ideologies. Many of the men also supported anti-government movements, including the Three Percenters and “Boogaloo Bois.”)

The day the news of the kidnapping plot broke, Whitmer delivered a short prepared address.

“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’ve imagined anything like this,” she said.

“This should be a moment for national unity, where we all pull together as Americans to meet this challenge head-on — with the same might and muscle that put a man on the moon, seeing the humanity in one another and doing our part to help our country get through this,” she said of the pandemic. She then condemned Trump for “denying science, ignoring his own health experts, stoking distrust and fomenting anger, and giving comfort to those who spread fear and hatred and division.”

“Just last week, the President of the United States stood before the American people and refused to condemn white supremacists and hate groups,” she said. “‘Stand back, and stand by,’ he said to them. ‘Stand back, and stand by.’ Hate groups heard the president’s words not as a rebuke, but as a rallying cry — as a call to action.” Whitmer was referring to Trump’s the first presidential debate against Democrat Joe Biden, where Trump was asked to condemn white supremacists and instead name-checked a group called the Proud Boys, who took Trump’s acknowledgement as a wink and a nod, quickly emblazoning the quote on memes and T-shirts.It was a good speech — harking back to the era when leaders made speeches, which they read from a page, instead of just winging it, attempting to unite and calm everyone with the powers of their words.

“When our leaders speak, their words matter,” Whitmer said. “They carry weight.”

But Trump, being Trump, cannot stop himself.

A week later, Trump did an interview on Fox Business — one of his first since his own denial of the pandemic resulted in him being hospitalized with COVID-19. “You sound well and feisty,” host Stuart Varney said. “You sure you’re OK?”

Trump was obviously not OK.

“I went through the process, heh heh, you know, ’cause we gotta do it, there’s some things you have to do, and that’s the way it is,” he said, quickly changing the subject. “And they ought to open up the states. That’s the other thing with the Democrats, maybe more important. Open up the states. You know, we’re winning a lot of lawsuits about that. Michigan, (Gov. Whitmer) has to open up. She wants to be a dictator in Michigan, and the people can’t stand her.”

Despite his close call with COVID-19, on Saturday Trump held a campaign rally in Muskegon, drawing thousands of his supporters, many following his lead and refusing to wear masks to prevent the spread of the virus.

“You’ve got to get your governor to open up her state,” Trump said to the cheering crowd. In response, the crowd started chanting Trump’s 2016 chant against Hillary Clinton: “Lock her up, lock her up, lock her up.”

“Lock them all up,” Trump said.

It didn’t seem to matter to Trump or his followers that Whitmer was just the victim of an attempted violent coup — or that Whitmer’s stay-at-home order, in fact, ended months ago.

“This is exactly the rhetoric that has put me, my family, and other government officials’ lives in danger while we try to save the lives of our fellow Americans,” Whitmer responded on Twitter. “It needs to stop.”

But Trump, being Trump, cannot stop himself — and neither can his supporters, it seems. Some people just want to make the world glow.

This story was originally written and published by our sister paper, Detroit Metro Times.