More than a dozen men were arrested on federal and state charges in connection with an alleged foiled plot to kidnap Michigan’s Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, authorities said Thursday.
Six were apprehended and charged with federal crimes, while another seven were picked up on state charges, officials in Michigan said.
All are members of two militia groups "who were preparing to kidnap and possibly kill me," Whitmer said in an address from Lansing late Thursday afternoon following the arrests.
"When I put my hand on the Bible and took the oath of office 22 months ago, I knew this job would be hard," Whitmer continued. "But I'll be honest, I never could have imagined anything like this."
She thanked federal and state law enforcement for bringing criminal charges that "hopefully will lead to convictions, bringing these sick and depraved men to justice."
The arrests grew out of an FBI-led inquiry that began in March and focused on militia groups' discussing the "violent overthrow" of certain government and law enforcement officials.
Each of the federally charged men faces up to life in prison if convicted on all charges, authorities said.
Those six suspects facing federal charges in the alleged kidnapping plot used encrypted messaging to communicate about the plot, conducted coordinated surveillance on the governor's vacation home and detonated an improvised explosive device wrapped with shrapnel, officials said.
Based on court documents, the FBI was well aware of the activities of the six men charged and there does not seem to have been an imminent threat posed to Whitmer.
The documents identify the defendants as Adam Fox, Barry Croft, Ty Garbin, Kaleb Franks, Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta.
At a meeting in July, allegedly attended and recorded by one of the informants, the men “discussed attacking a Michigan State Police facility, and in a separate conversation after the meeting, Garbin suggested shooting up the governor’s vacation home," authorities said.
Then at a July 27 meeting, Fox and an informant discussed a possible kidnapping of Whitmer, with the defendant allegedly saying: “Snatch and grab, man. Grab the f---ing governor. Just grab the b----. Because at that point, we do that, dude — it’s over.”
"Fox said that after kidnapping the governor, the group would remove her to a secure location in Wisconsin for 'trial'," according to the criminal complaint.
The alleged conspirators used code words and encrypted platforms to shield their discussions from authorities, according to U.S. Attorney Andrew Birge for the Western District of Michigan.
They used terms such as "cake" or "cupcakes" for bombs, a "chemistry set" for components of an improvised explosive device and "baker" for an explosives manufacturer, according to the complaint.
"Fox and Croft in particular ... discussed detonating explosive devices to divert police from the area of the (governor's vacation) home," Birge said.
The federal investigation involved at least one member of a Michigan militia group who was involved in a Second Amendment rally at the Michigan Statehouse in June.
That member allegedly told the FBI that the group was considering killing police officers and agreed to become an informant.
But the involvement of that militia in the plot to kidnap the governor appears to be minimal as the group that was charged Thursday allegedly discussed keeping the broader militia out of their actual plan.
In a YouTube video from May, Caserta claimed in a 30-minute diatribe that “the enemy is government.” He shot the video in front of an anarchist’s flag and a map of Michigan.
Caserta did not post on YouTube again until three weeks ago. In that video, Caserta does not speak, and simply loads and poses with a long gun off camera while wearing a shirt that says “F--- The Government.”
The seven suspects facing state charges were identified as Paul Bellar, 21, Shawn Fix, 38, Eric Molitor, 36, Michael Null, 38, William Null, 38, Pete Musico, 42, and Joseph Morrison, 26.
They've all been charged with "providing material support for terrorist acts" and "carrying or possessing a firearm during the commission of a felony," according to state prosecutors.
The seven are linked to the Wolverine Watchmen militia, sought to "instigate a civil war" and had "engaged in planning and training for an operation to attack the Capitol building of Michigan and to kidnap government officials, including the governor of Michigan," Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said.
A senior federal law enforcement official said authorities believe the “Wolverine Watchmen” ideology differs from a conventional militia group. The official says this group believes in the “boogaloo” movement, a term that refers to an impending civil war.
The boogaloo movement is also described as an anti-government movement that advocates for a violent uprising targeting liberal political opponents and law enforcement.
There have been a number of arrests involving people linked to the boogaloo or self-described as being in the movement, including in the killing of a federal security officer and a California sheriff's deputy in May and June.
For months, Whitmer has drawn the ire of militia groups and others opposed to her restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus.
Armed protesters took to the streets of Lansing, the state capital, during the early days of Whitmer’s coronavirus lockdown orders. And President Donald Trump famously tweeted "LIBERATE MICHIGAN!" in April.
"The Governor of Michigan should give a little, and put out the fire," Trump tweeted May 1. "These are very good people, but they are angry. They want their lives back again, safely! See them, talk to them, make a deal."
U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider, who heads federal prosecutions in the Eastern District of Michigan, acknowledged the fraught political climate in which these arrests were made.
"All of us in Michigan can disagree about politics," he said. "But those disagreements should never, ever amount to violence."
Whitmer on Thursday said Trump was "complicit" through his rhetoric. She specifically linked the alleged actions of the suspects in her case to Trump’s refusal, at a debate last week, to forcibly denounce white supremacist 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,” she said.
“‘Stand back and stand by,’ he told them … hate groups heard the president’s words not as a rebuke but as a rallying cry, as a call to action.”
Trump on Thursday night attacked Whitmer, tweeting that the governor "has done a terrible job" and "locked down" her state, referring to coronavirus restrictions. "My Justice Department and Federal Law Enforcement" announced the foiling of a dangerous plot, he tweeted.
"Rather than say thank you, she calls me a White Supremacist," Trump wrote.
"I do not tolerate ANY extreme violence. Defending ALL Americans, even those who oppose and attack me, is what I will always do as your President!" he added in another tweet.
"Mr. President, I thought you weren’t interested in a virtual debate?" Whitmer responded on Twitter, referint to Trump's stated refusal to participate in the next presidential debate after the Commission on Presidential Debates announced it would take place virtually "in order to protect the health and safety of all involved."
Trump is being treated for Covid-19.
Whitmer also encouraged Trump to watch her earlier speech, saying the president clearly had not done so. "If you’re as tired of this divisive rhetoric as I am, there’s something we can do about it," Whitmer said in another tweet, with a link related to voting.
Trump's rival, Joe Biden, criticized Trump's past remarks on Whitmer, saying the "words of a president matter."
"I just think it's got to stop. The president's got to realize the words he utter matter,” the Democratic nominee said. "Why can't the president just say stop? Stop. Stop. Stop. And we will pursue you if you don't, so stop."
"There is a throughline from President Trump’s dog whistles and tolerance of hate, vengeance, and lawlessness to plots such as this one. He is giving oxygen to the bigotry and hate we see on the march in our country," Biden said in a statement. "We have to stop it."
Whitmer was elected as the state's 49th governor in 2018, defeating Republican Bill Schuette by nearly 10 percentage points.
The governor on Thursday continued to defend her actions during the pandemic.
Michigan residents are now testing positive at about a 3-percent rate, one of the lowest in the nation, according to a rolling count kept by Johns Hopkins University.
"It’s not over yet, but here's what I know: We're Michiganders. We have grit. We have heart and we are tough as hell," Whitmer said.
An attorney for Harris said in an email that he would speak to Harris on Friday and had no comment "except to say that he, like all Americans, are presumed innocent until adjudicated otherwise." Emailed requests for comment for attorneys listed as representing the other five people federally charged were not immediately returned Thursday evening.