• Sat. Jan 23rd, 2021

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

Authorities in Michigan charged 13 men with a battery of terrorism and conspiracy charges on Thursday, revealing what they said were plans by anti-government extremists to storm the State Capitol building, initiate a civil war to cause society to crumble and kidnap the Michigan governor ahead of the presidential election.

At least six of the men had talked about taking Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, hostage since the summer, according to a criminal complaint filed in federal court and unsealed on Thursday. The men met over the summer for firearms training and combat drills and tried to make 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.

He 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.

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 the Wolverine Watchmen, an extremist group, and have been charged with state crimes, which carry penalties of two to 20 years in prison.

Dana Nessel, the Michigan attorney general, said in a news conference that she was particularly disturbed by messages from politicians that she claimed may have contributed to the violent plot.

“I have watched and have seen and listened over the course of these many months and when we hear the president say, ‘liberate Michigan’ or, ‘there are very fine people on both sides,’ these are not just subtle winks or dog whistles, these are messages to people who want to do harm,” she said. “These are commands to action.”

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Credit…Matthew Dae Smith/Lansing State Journal, via Associated Press

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 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!”

The protests 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.

Credit…Brittany Greeson for The New York Times

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 militia 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, militiamen 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.

Experts in the field have been worried about greater violence fomented by militias in the weeks before and after the Nov. 3 elections, especially since Mr. Trump has repeatedly suggested that his opponents might be trying to steal the election.

Many groups in the “patriot” movement have adopted the name militia, even if they do not fit the definition. According to experts, a militia trains together, has an established hierarchy and specific rules of engagement. 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.

In response to the charges on Thursday, Mike Shirkey, the Republican majority leader in the State Senate, wrote on Twitter that a “threat against our Governor is a threat against us all” and called the men accused of the conspiracy “traitors.”

“We condemn those who plotted against her and our government,” he wrote. “They are not patriots. There is no honor in their actions.”

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

Neil MacFarquhar contributed reporting.