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What we know about the alleged plot to kidnap Michigan’s governor

Authorities in Michigan revealed Thursday what they said was a detailed plot to abduct Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ahead of the presidential election, a plan that included surveilling one of her homes and trying to buy explosives to blow up a bridge.

The FBI and state authorities charged 13 men who they said were part of, or working with, an anti-government group with a range of crimes including terrorism, conspiracy and gun offenses. The men had referred to the governor in vulgar terms, authorities said, and seemed to be motivated by a belief that she was a “tyrant” who was violating the Constitution.

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Whitmer, a Democrat, has become a focal point of anti-government and conservative anger over the severe measures she imposed on businesses and residents as she tried to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks at a campaign event supporting Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) in Detroit, Sept. 22, 2020.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks at a campaign event supporting Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) in Detroit, Sept. 22, 2020. (Allison Farrand/The New York Times)

What do authorities say the men were planning to do?

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The group that planned the kidnapping met repeatedly over the summer for firearms training and combat drills and practiced building explosives, the FBI said. Members also gathered several times to discuss the mission, including in the basement of a shop that was accessible only through a “trap door” under a rug.

The men spied on Whitmer’s vacation home in August and September, even looking under a highway bridge for places they could place and detonate a bomb to distract the authorities, the FBI said. They indicated that they wanted to take Whitmer hostage before the election in November, and one man said they should take her to a “secure location” in Wisconsin for a “trial,” Richard J. Trask II, an FBI special agent, said in the criminal complaint.

Trask said that one of those arrested had bought a Taser for the mission last week and that the men had been planning to buy explosives Wednesday. The FBI said it had monitored the kidnapping plot throughout the summer as the target narrowed to the governor’s personal vacation home.

“Have one person go to her house. Knock on the door and when she answers it just cap her,” one of the men said in an encrypted group chat, according to the FBI.

The group also spoke of a “baker” and a “cake,” the FBI said, which its agents interpreted as code words referring to explosive devices.

A combo image provided by the Kent County Sheriff shows mugshots of, from left, Brandon Caserta, Adam Fox, Kaleb Franks, Ty Garbin and Daniel Harris, the five men from Michigan who were charged by federal authorities with plotting to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. The sixth man charged by the federal authorities, Barry Croft, lives in Delaware.
A combo image provided by the Kent County Sheriff shows mugshots of, from left, Brandon Caserta, Adam Fox, Kaleb Franks, Ty Garbin and Daniel Harris, the five men from Michigan who were charged by federal authorities with plotting to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. The sixth man charged by the federal authorities, Barry Croft, lives in Delaware. (Kent County Sheriff)

Who are the men?

The FBI said Adam Fox, of Michigan, was a leader in the kidnapping plot and had reached out to members of an anti-government group for help devising the abduction.

State authorities arrested seven members of the group, known as the Wolverine Watchmen, and accused them of collecting addresses of police officers to target them, threatening to start a civil war “leading to societal collapse” and planning to kidnap the governor and other government officials.

The six men charged by federal authorities each face one count of federal conspiracy, which carries a sentence of up to life in prison. The seven men charged with state crimes could face penalties of between two and 20 years in prison.

In addition to Fox, the men charged by federal authorities were listed in court documents as Kaleb Franks, Brandon Caserta, Ty Garbin, Daniel Harris and Barry Croft. Croft lives in Delaware, and the other five men live in Michigan. All of the men charged by the state are Michigan residents, the attorney general said.

None of the appointed lawyers for the men charged by federal authorities commented on the charges.

The men charged by the state 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.

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Authorities said that Fox and Croft had decided to “unite others” to “take violent action” against state governments that they thought were violating the Constitution. The FBI said Fox had talked of storming the Michigan Statehouse with 200 men and trying Whitmer for treason.

Brian Titus, owner of a vacuum store in Grand Rapids, said he had hired 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. Titus said the store was raided by authorities Wednesday.

“I felt sorry for him, but I didn’t know he was capable of doing this; this is almost insane,” 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.”

How did the governor and other officials react?

“I knew this job would be hard,” Whitmer said Thursday after the charges were announced. “But I’ll be honest, I never could have imagined anything like this.”

Whitmer and Dana Nessel, the Michigan attorney general, tied the extremist plot to comments from President Donald Trump and his refusal at times — including last week in his debate with former Vice President Joe Biden — to condemn white supremacists and violent right-wing 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,” Whitmer said. There is no indication in the court documents that any of the men were inspired by the president, but Whitmer said extremists had “heard the president’s words not as a rebuke but as a rallying cry — as a call to action.”

Hours later, in multiple tweets, Trump insulted Whitmer, saying that she had “done a terrible job” and that he had expected her to thank him for the charges announced Thursday. Instead, he wrote, “She calls me a White Supremacist — while Biden and Democrats refuse to condemn Antifa, Anarchists, Looters and Mobs that burn down Democrat run cities.”

Yet, the FBI director, Christopher Wray, said in September that the most pressing threats facing the nation were from anti-government and white supremacist groups, who he said have carried out the most lethal domestic attacks in recent years.

Whitmer has been the subject of criticism from right-wing protesters for measures she imposed to try to control the spread of the coronavirus, which has infected about 146,000 Michigan residents and killed about 7,200.

c.2020 The New York Times Company

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