Michigan-based militia members plotted extensively to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at her vacation home before the Nov. 3 presidential election, stockpiling weapons and explosives and twice staking out her residence, according to an FBI affidavit unsealed Thursday that described probable cause to charge six suspects as part of a conspiracy.
The FBI, relying on confidential sources who recorded conversations and informed on the plot, became aware of the effort through social media chatter early this year and developed detailed insight on the purported plan over the ensuing months.
The FBI had already suspected the militia of plotting to kill police officers, and a member of the group concerned about that plan had agreed to become an FBI source, according to the affidavit.
The plan to kidnap Whitmer was hatched in the basement of a Grand Rapids business in June, according to the FBI filing.
“The attendees discussed plans for assaulting the Michigan State Capitol, countering law enforcement first responders, and using ‘Molotov cocktails’ to destroy police vehicles,” the affidavit indicates. “The attendees also discussed plans for an additional meeting during the first weekend of July when they also would conduct firearms and tactical training.”
The plot ultimately evolved into one in which the conspirators would storm her vacation home, blowing up a nearby bridge and grabbing Whitmer, if not killing her outright, the FBI indicated, citing recordings and internal communications it obtained from the alleged conspirators.
Whitmer, in her first term, has become a national figure this year and was considered by Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden as a potential running mate before he selected Sen. Kamala Harris. Whitmer has drawn the fury of President Donald Trump, who criticized her lockdown measures early in the coronavirus pandemic, tweeting “Liberate Michigan” in all caps on April 17. Trump also criticized Whitmer Thursday morning during a Fox News appearance, labeling her the “lock-up queen.”
Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) similarly attributed the alleged plot to “extreme rhetoric” stoked by political leaders.
“Elected leaders in Michigan and Washington alike have encouraged and tolerated threats of violence and hate against those with whom they disagree,” she said. “They have purposely stoked it in a misguided attempt to appease their alleged base. These same leaders should not now feign surprise that some extremists have turned such rhetoric into action.”
Whitmer herself said Trump’s rhetoric had emboldened “hate groups” like the ones charged in the plot against her. “Hate groups heard the president’s words not as a rebuke, but as a rallying cry, as a call to action,” she said in afternoon remarks. “When our leaders speak, their words matter. They carry weight. When our leaders meet with, encourage or fraternize with domestic terrorists they legitimize their actions, and they are complicit. When they stoke and contribute to hate speech, they are complicit.”
Late Thursday night, Trump issued a string of tweets saying Whitmer had done a “terrible” job as governor and complaining that she was calling out his rhetoric. He urged the governor to open up her state from restrictions enacted to prevent the spread of coronavirus and took credit for the FBI‘s investigation into the plot against her.
“Rather than say thank you, she calls me a White Supremacist,“ Trump tweeted.
Trump campaign adviser Jason Miller likewise expressed disdain toward the governor, saying Whitmer‘s putting blame on the president‘s rhetoric was “ridiculous.“
“If we want to talk about hatred — then Governor Whitmer, go look in the mirror,“ Miller said during a Fox News interview. “I mean, the fact that she wakes up every day with such hatred in her heart towards President Trump.”
Whitmer later shot back that Miller‘s comment “tells you everything you need to know about the White House and the people they surround themselves by.” Speaking on CNN on Thursday evening, she contrasted Miller‘s remarks with the members of both parties who have called to see that she and her family are OK.
According to the FBI, at least two of the alleged plotters were part of a group that initially met to discuss “creating a society that followed the U.S. Bill of Rights and where they could be self-sufficient.”
“They discussed different ways of achieving this goal from peaceful endeavors to violent actions,” per the FBI affidavit. “At one point, several members talked about state governments they believed were violating the U.S. Constitution, including the government of Michigan and Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Several members talked about murdering ‘tyrants’ or ‘taking’ a sitting governor. The group decided they needed to increase their numbers and encouraged each other to talk to their neighbors and spread their message.”
The FBI says it has probable cause to charge six of the plotters with conspiracy to commit kidnapping: Adam Fox, Barry Croft, Ty Garbin, Kaleb Franks, Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta. All of the men live in Michigan with the exception of Croft, a Delaware resident. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel revealed during a press conference that she intended to charge seven people connected to the militia, dubbed the “Wolverine Watchmen,” under the state’s anti-terrorism statute. It’s unclear if the seven eyed for state charges are largely the same suspects facing federal charges.
Facebook indicated that it played a role in tipping law enforcement to the potential threat. “We remove content, disable accounts and immediately report to law enforcement when there is a credible threat of imminent harm to people or public safety,” said a spokeperson. “We proactively reached out and cooperated with the FBI early in this ongoing investigation.”
By mid-July, the plot had evolved to include storming Whitmer’s vacation home.
“Fox said their best opportunity to abduct Governor Whitmer would be when she was arriving at, or leaving, either her personal vacation home or the Governor’s official summer residence,” the FBI affidavit notes, citing an audio recording provided by one of its sources. “Fox described it as a ‘snatch and grab, man. Grab the fuckin’ Governor. Just grab the bitch. Because at that point, we do that, dude — it’s over.'”
The plan included taking Whitmer to a “secure location” and holding a “trial.” Some members also discussed assassinating her outright, according to recordings and source information obtained by the FBI.
In late August, the conspirators allegedly staked out Whitmer’s vacation home, an episode recorded by one of the FBI’s confidential sources.
“Fox and the other individual located the vacation home, took photographs and slow-motion video from their vehicle as they drove by it, and discussed conducting additional surveillance from the water at a later date. The other individual then looked up the locations of the local police department and Michigan State Police in the area, and used them to estimate how long it would take law enforcement to respond to an incident at the vacation home,” according to the FBI affidavit.
During the surveillance operation, Fox said, “We ain’t gonna let ‘em burn our fuckin’ state down. 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 weekend of Sept. 12 and 13, the group surveilled the vacation home at night: “During the late night of September 12 and early morning of September 13, the group drove from Luther to the vicinity of the vacation home in three separate vehicles.
The affidavit described an exchange in which the alleged conspirators, returning to Garbin’s property, made sure they were all in agreement on the plan to kidnap Whitmer. “If you’re not down with the thought of kidnapping, don’t sit here,” one of them said. Garbin replied, “Oh no, we’re not kidnapping, that’s not what we’re doing,” prompting laughter.
By early this month, the group allegedly had made plans to purchase explosives and other equipment to carry out their plan.
Nancy Scola and Matthew Choi contributed to this report.
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