WASHINGTON - Law enforcement authorities Thursday announced the disruption of a plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan, arresting six anti-government extremists apparently enraged over the Democratic politician's lockdown measures during the coronavirus pandemic. Seven others were arrested on state terror charges.
The six were charged in federal court with conspiring to abduct Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer from her vacation home and take her to a secluded Wisconsin location to try her for treason.
Working with members of an unidentified militia group in Michigan, the men – five from Michigan and one from Delaware – spent months plotting, training and conducting surveillance of Whitmer’s Michigan summer residence, most recently last month, prosecutors said.
"All of us can disagree about politics, but those disagreements should never, ever result in violence," said U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider for the Eastern District of Michigan. "The allegations in this complaint are deeply disturbing."
A few hours later, Whitmer said President Donald Trump was partly to blame because he has not condemned white supremacists, including during a debate last week with Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, when he instead urged a far-right group to “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 said.
There’s no indication in the criminal complaint that the men arrested were inspired by Trump, who recently told Fox News that he condemned "all white supremacists." The White House called Whitmer's remarks “outlandish.”
The FBI identified the six men as Adam Fox, Ty Garbin, Kaleb Franks, Daniel Harris, Brandon Caserta – all of Michigan – and Barry Croft of Delaware. If convicted of the charges, each faces a maximum of life in prison.
A lawyer for Croft contacted by VOA declined to comment. Lawyers for Fox and Garbin did not respond to requests for comment. The court docket does not list lawyers for Franks, Harris and Caserta.
In an affidavit filed in federal court in Michigan, FBI special agent Richard Trask said the bureau began investigating the group early this year after learning through social media that the men were discussing the “violent overthrow of certain government and law-enforcement components,” believing that state governments were violating their constitutional rights.
Trask said the group had initially planned to storm the Michigan Capitol but later decided to kidnap Whitmer from her vacation home.
The FBI used confidential sources and undercover agents to monitor and record the group’s conversations and actions, according to the criminal complaint.
The plot was well along in its planning when FBI agents executed search and arrest warrants late Wednesday at multiple locations. Just last week, the complaint said, one of the men purchased an 800,000-volt taser for use in the kidnapping, and several others had planned to buy explosives on Wednesday, according to an FBI affidavit.
Through the months of plotting Whitmer's kidnapping, the six men were in contact with a Michigan militia, according to the affidavit. While the FBI did not name the group, Michigan state prosecutors identified it as the Wolverine Watchmen, a militia group actively recruiting members on Facebook since November 2019.
Seven Wolverine Watchmen members were arrested under a Michigan anti-state terrorism law as part of the sprawling conspiracy. In addition to playing a marginal role in the plot to kidnap Whitmer, the Wolverine Watchmen are accused of collecting the home addresses of police officers in order to target them and trying to “instigate a civil war leading to societal collapse.”
The attempted kidnapping of a sitting governor appears to be the first plot of its kind.
Former FBI agent Sherine Ebadi said the extraordinary level of coordination and planning that went into the alleged plot was deeply concerning.
"I find this to be extravagantly concerning," said Ebadi, now associate managing director of business intelligence and investigations at the Kroll consulting firm. "This is not, 'I'm angry and I'm going to go kidnap someone because it's opportunistic and I want ransom.'"
The plot followed warnings by extremism experts that deep ideological divisions fanned by political rhetoric could lead to violence around the Nov. 3 election.
In a report released this week, the Department of Homeland Security said domestic violent extremists present "the most persistent and lethal threat" to the homeland.
"This is exactly the threat we've been warning about for some time: small cells organizing on social media to direct their aggression at a target demonized in the socio-political culture," said Brian Levin, executive director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.
Along with other Democratic governors, Whitmer has been a frequent target of Trump's criticism for shutting down their economies in response to the coronavirus pandemic this year. In April, as protesters gathered outside Michigan's state capitol to protest a lockdown imposed by the governor, Trump tweeted "Liberate Michigan."
Levin said Whitmer, a first-term governor who was briefly under consideration to become Biden's running mate, was demonized as a "Nazi" during the protests that were attended by militia and other far-right groups.
Some of the plotters attended a gun rights rally at the Michigan Capitol in June, according to the affidavit and the Michigan attorney general. During a live-streamed video on a private Facebook group later in the month, Fox, the alleged ring leader, griped that Michigan authorities were “controlling the opening of gyms,” referring to Whitmer as "this tyrant bitch," according to the affidavit.
Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project against Hate and Extremism, said Whitmer was demonized repeatedly by Trump and other Republicans, priming her as a target for extremist attack.
"So, I'm not surprised that Whitman might be at the top of the list of an organization like this that they would want to kidnap," Beirich said.
Militia groups espouse extreme anti-government views, believing the government is out to rob them of their constitutional rights such as the right to carry weapons. While not all militiamen engage in violent acts, many militia groups have a nexus to violence and armed militiamen frequently appear at white supremacist rallies.
"For example, the Oath Keepers have had members arrested for things like rape," said Beirich, a former director of SPLC's intelligence project. "Three Percenters have been arrested on gun charges and other things."
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there were 181 militia groups in the United States last year.
In recent years, racially and ideologically motivated violence has tended to increase around election time in the United States. With political tensions reaching a fever pitch ahead of the election, there is heightened concern about violence around the vote.
"I think everybody who studies extremist groups is concerned about that right now," Beirich said.