In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, a group of disgruntled citizens who said they were fed up with government interventions hatched a plan to take matters into their own hands. Training, stalking and kidnapping were all on the line. What they didn’t plan, the FBI was onto them the entire time.
The FBI reported they discovered discourse on social media as early as April 19, 2020, threatening the violent overthrow of state governments and law enforcement. From the start, the group worked to obtain Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s address, according to court records.
By October, Adam Fox, Ty Garbin, Barry Croft, Kaleb Franks, Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta were charged in the United States District Court for the Western District of Michigan for conspiring to commit kidnapping.
Here’s a look at how everything happened, according to court records and statements from officials.
The scheme started early June 6 between a group of disgruntled citizens. Their goal included chartering a new draft of the U.S. Bill of Rights.
Members of a Michigan militia group named the Wolverine Watchmen attended a Second Amendment rally, marking the beginning of recruitment. The goal was to recruit 200 men, attack the Michigan capital, capture Whitmer and put her on trial for COVID executive orders. They hoped to complete the mission by the 2020 presidential election. During the rally event at the Michigan Capitol on June 18, one member was recorded by a confidential source attempting to recruit militia group leaders to unite in an effort to attack the capitol.
Two days later on June 20, Fox invited individuals, including one confidential source, to where he was employed in Grand Rapids. According to the source, Fox collected cellphones to prevent recordings and led participants through a trapdoor from the main floor, though the source wore a concealed recording device unknown to those gathered.
Participants debated between peaceful and violent ways to achieve the goal. Talks focused on how state governments were supposedly violating the U.S. Constitution.
Audio from the meeting provided to the FBI contained discussions of an assault on the capitol, how to counterattack first responders, and the use of Molotov cocktails to destroy law enforcement vehicles. It was concluded that the group would meet on the first weekend of July, where they would discuss plans and perform training exercises.
The FBI infiltrated the group online and in person, according to a criminal complaint. A total of 12 informants were ultimately involved in the investigation, and six plotters were federally charged.
The first training occurred at the end of June in Munith, Michigan. A militia members property was used to conduct exercises that would help them prepare for the plot. A confidential source present for the exercises stated at this time participants were warned to leave if they were not comfortable with attacking the government and kidnapping officials.
By July, the group made the decision to target Whitmer’s vacation home in Elk Rapids. The group made a mock-up of the home to practice forced entry. They drew maps and began surveillance on the area.
The first steps toward the plot were two separate recon missions to scope it out, one in the day and one at night. Evidence showed Adam Fox and others went to a boat launch on the north side of Birch Lake to get eyes on the governor’s lake house. Originally the plan was to steal a boat and approach the cottage from the water, but that idea was dropped.
Instead, they would attack the house from the road on a side-by-side off road vehicle. They planned to take out Whitmer’s security detail and storm the home to take the governor hostage. Then the plan was to take her out of the home, by the UTV, away from the inland lake and out to a private beach access on Lake Michigan.
That’s where a boat, or maybe two, would be waiting to take her away by water.
At a second training session in Munith, participants tested explosive devices that would help carry out their plan. To slow down the police response after kidnapping the governor from her home, the group had intentions of blowing up the US-31 bridge. The explosion would cause a distraction and cut off access to the main road.
At the end of August, an emergency meeting held in Lake Orion discussed fears that the group was under surveillance by the FBI. A secret recording captured the group discussing surveilling the vacation home and the use of night vision goggles. Later that month an audio recording revealed Fox drove by Whitmer’s second home, taking photographs and pondering police response times.
On the recorded audio, Fox was heard saying, “We ain’t gonna let ‘em burn our f****** state down. 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.”
In the following months, the group was attempting to obtain explosives to carry out the attack. The FBI was worried they may be able to get the explosives, and decided to make the arrests. Six men were federally charged for their role in the kidnapping scheme. An additional seven members of the Wolverine Watchmen were also arrested for related schemes to kidnap public officials. Croft, Fox, Harris, Franks and Caserta pleaded not guilty to the charges. Garbin pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit kidnapping. His sentencing was scheduled for July 8. As part of a plea bargain, he agreed to testify against his co-defendants in exchange for no additional charges being filed against him by prosecutors. On Aug. 26, 2021, Garbin was sentenced to six years in prison and fined $2,500.
The federal charges are as follows:
COUNT 1: Conspiracy to Commit Kidnapping
All four men are charged with this. This is what the entire investigation revolves around, but the defense says their clients are not guilty because it was FBI informants and undercover agents that pushed the plot and entrapped their clients. There’s some argument that the plot was never feasible and couldn’t be taken seriously.
COUNT 2: Conspiracy to Use A Weapon of Mass Destruction
Croft Harris and Fox are charged with this. This is tied to the bomb they were supposed to be making or buying to blow up a bridge on US-31 in Elk Rapids, near the governor’s lake house. The argument being there was talk of explosives but never a true agreement or money changing hands.
COUNT 3: Possession of a Destructive Device
Croft and Harris are charged with this. There are photos, videos and recordings of the two making bombs, but the question for the court is, When does an explosive become a weapon? They added shrapnel to the explosives but never targeted people.
COUNT 4: Possession of an Unregistered Short Barreled Rifle
Harris is the only one with this charged. He is on record admitting he had one, photos show he used it in Wisconsin and he had it at his home in Lake Orion when arrested.
Two original suspects took plea deals, Ty Garbin and Kaleb Franks. They admitted to the plot and testified against the other four. For Harris and Caserta, they felt they had nothing to plead to.
Daniel Harris was acquitted of all four of his charges in the trial of the kidnapping plot. Brandon Caserta was the other man found not guilty and freed.
Fox, one of two men convicted as the ring leaders in the plot to kidnap Whitmer, received a sentence of 192 months, or 16 years, in federal prison. Barry Croft is sentenced to 235 months in prison, or 19 years and 7 months, for his role in planning the plot.
State of Michigan charges
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel charged seven other men: Pete Musico, Joseph Morrison, Shawn Fix, Eric Molitor, Michael Null, William Null, and Paul Bellar with state crimes, including providing material support for terrorist acts, firearm crimes and gang membership.
Pete Musico, Joseph Morrison and Paul Bellar were found guilty for aiding a terrorist, being a part of a gang and felony fire arm charges. Shawn Fix also plead guilty. Fix, 40, acknowledged helping Fox pinpoint the location of Whitmer’s home, key information that was used for a 2020 ride to find the property in Northern Michigan.
Brian Higgins, Shawn Fix, Eric Molitor, William Null and Michael Null are charged with one count each of providing material support for a terrorist act. All but Higgins are also charged with possessing a firearm when committing or attempting to commit a felony. Fix and Higgins both took plea deals and will not go to trial, but the trial for the others begins Aug. 23.