F.B.I. Says Michigan Anti-Government Group Plotted to Kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer


Storming the State Capitol. Instigating a civil war. Abducting a sitting governor ahead of the presidential election.

Those were among the planned activities described by federal and state officials in Michigan on Thursday as they announced terrorism, conspiracy and weapons charges against 13 men, saying that at least six of them had hatched a detailed plan to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who has become a focal point of anti-government views and dissatisfaction over coronavirus control measures.

That group met repeatedly over the summer for firearms training and combat drills and attempted to build explosives; they also gathered several times to discuss the mission, including in the basement of a shop in Michigan that was accessible only through a “trap door” under a rug, the F.B.I. said.

The men had surveilled Ms. Whitmer’s vacation home in August and September, and they indicated that they wanted to take her hostage before the election in November, Richard J. Trask II, an F.B.I. special agent, said in the criminal complaint. In July, one of the men said the group should take Ms. Whitmer hostage and move her to a “secure location” in Wisconsin for a “trial,” Mr. Trask said.

Mr. Trask said the F.B.I. believed the men were planning to buy explosives this week for their plot. Court records indicated that at least five of the men had been arrested on Wednesday in Ypsilanti, Mich.; it was not immediately clear if the sixth man had been taken into the custody.

“When I put my hand on the Bible and took the oath of office 22 months ago, I knew this job would be hard,” Ms. Whitmer said on Thursday, in reaction to news of the arrests. “But I’ll be honest, I never could have imagined anything like this.”

The state charged an additional seven men, all from Michigan, with providing material support for terrorist activities, being members of a gang and using firearms while committing felonies.

The men were said to be affiliated with a separate extremist group, known as the Wolverine Watchmen, and the state’s attorney general accused them of publicizing addresses of police officers, threatening to start a civil war “leading to societal collapse” and planning to kidnap the governor and other government officials.

The seven men were charged with state crimes, which carry penalties of two to 20 years in prison; it is unclear whether they worked with the other six men charged by federal authorities.

Ms. Whitmer and Dana Nessel, the Michigan attorney general, tied the extremists’ plot to comments from President Trump and his refusal, at times, to condemn white supremacists and violent right-wing groups.

“Just last week, the President of the United States stood before the American people and refused to condemn white supremacists and hate groups like these two Michigan militia groups,” Ms. Whitmer said. There is no indication, in the court documents, that any of the men were inspired by the president, but Ms. Whitmer said the extremists “heard the President’s words, not as a rebuke, but as a rallying cry — as a call to action.”

The F.B.I. said it had learned about the six men it charged by intercepting encrypted messages the men had sent and because it had undercover agents and confidential informants working with the group.

Those six men were charged with conspiracy to commit kidnapping, which can carry a life sentence. Their names were listed in court documents as Adam Fox, Kaleb Franks, Brandon Caserta, Ty Garbin, Daniel Harris and Barry Croft. Mr. Croft lives in Delaware and the other five live in Michigan, the authorities said. No lawyers were immediately listed for the men.

The authorities said that Mr. Fox and Mr. Croft had decided to “unite others” to “take violent action” against state governments that they thought were violating the Constitution and that Mr. Fox was the one to initiate contact with a Michigan-based anti-government group. The F.B.I. said he had talked of storming the Michigan statehouse with 200 men and trying Ms. Whitmer for treason.

Brian Titus, the owner of a vacuum store in Grand Rapids, Mich., said that he had hired Mr. Fox, whom he had known since childhood, and even given him a place to stay in the store’s basement after he was kicked out of his girlfriend’s home. Mr. Titus said the store was raided on Wednesday.

“I felt sorry for him but I didn’t know he was capable of doing this; this is almost insane,” Mr. Titus said in an interview. “I knew he was in a militia, but there’s a lot of people in a militia that don’t plan to kidnap the governor. I mean, give me a break.”

Ms. Whitmer has been the subject of attack from right-wing protesters for measures she imposed to try to control the spread of the coronavirus.

In April, thousands of people gathered at the State Capitol to protest the executive orders she issued shutting down most of the state to help stop the spread of the virus that has now infected more than 145,000 Michiganders and killed more than 7,000.

President Trump openly encouraged such protests, tweeting, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!”

Ms. Nessel, speaking in a telephone interview, was critical of public officials who she said appeared to condone anti-government violence.

“We’re asking elected leaders to tone down these very dangerous messages to those who would commit such violence,” she said. “I think today’s criminal charges are just the tip of the iceberg.”

The protests last spring featured some signs with swastikas, Confederate flags and language that advocated violence against Ms. Whitmer, including one man who carried a doll with brown hair hanging from a noose. Many in the crowd carried semiautomatic weapons, leading some Democrats in the Legislature to call for a ban on guns in the Capitol.

Republicans in the Legislature sued Ms. Whitmer in May over the executive orders and opponents of her lockdown orders filed petitions with more than 500,000 signatures with the secretary of state last week to repeal the law that gives governors authority to declare emergencies during times of a public health crisis. The Michigan Supreme Court ruled last week that her use of the 1945 law was unconstitutional.

Many groups in the “patriot” movement have adopted the name militia, even if they do not fit the definition. Although the 2nd Amendment guarantees the right to bear arms and mentions a “well-regulated militia,” all 50 states have some manner of prohibition against private paramilitary groups.

Michigan has a long history of anti-government activity. A group known as the Michigan Militia dates back to the early 1990s, when Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, later convicted of carrying out the Oklahoma City bombing attack in 1995 that killed 168 people, attended a few of its early meetings. It resurfaced again around 2008 and 2009, with the election of Barack Obama as president.

More recently, armed groups of men began appearing at some demonstrations, most notably the 2017 march by white nationalists in Charlottesville, Va.

The upheavals in 2020 provided new impetus for anti-government groups to move from the online world onto the streets. During protests against the virus lockdowns, they accused the government of “overreach,” suggesting that business closings and mask mandates were forms of tyranny. That initial scattered presence mushroomed with the nationwide protests over social justice after George Floyd died at the hands of police in May. When some protests degenerated into arson and looting, groups of men appeared on the streets, saying that they were there to protect homes and businesses that law enforcement could not.

But some groups fervently opposed to the government in general and especially law enforcement claimed that they mobilized to protect protesters from officers.

Homeland Security analysts have warned in recent months of potential attacks from extremists seeking to retaliate against government-ordered social distancing measures and closures.



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