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Men detonated explosive, used encrypted messages in Whitmer kidnap plot, feds say

They were tired of being controlled by the "tyrannical government" and hatched a plan that called for an 800,000-volt taser and explosives to ensure its collapse, according to the government.

Militia group members in Michigan and Delaware banded together on plans for a "violent overthrow" that called for the murder of "tyrants" and intricate plans for the abduction of Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, according to a federal affidavit filed Thursday.

The group spent months convening in remote areas in Michigan and out-of-state for firearm and tactical training. They discussed the need for "200 men" to storm the Capitol building in Lansing and take hostages, including the governor, explaining she would be tried for "treason" by the group before the Nov. 3 election. 

In June and July, the group discussed efforts to survey Whitmer's vacation and summer homes, evaluated a potential escape route via boat and discussed calling in experts to help decipher blueprints to plan out the strategy for attack, the affidavit notes. 

Elements of the "elaborate plans" by a group of men linked to the militia were detailed Thursday by Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel and federal officers who came together to thwart what Nessel called a "serious and credible threat" to public safety.

Federal officials charged Adam Fox, Ty Garbin, Kaleb Franks, Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta of Michigan and Barry Croft of Delaware, with conspiring to kidnap Whitmer.

Andrew Birge, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Michigan, said the men used operational security measures in their kidnapping plot, including encrypted messaging platforms and even detonated an explosive wrapped in shrapnel to test its capabilities.

"This case is one of the largest cases in recent history that the MSP has been involved in," said Michigan State Police Col. Joe Gasper on Thursday. "The nature of this case is rather unprecedented, but it does send a very vivid reminder that while we may be in a period of discourse, possibly even divisiveness and fighting across the nation, law enforcement stands united."

The FBI became aware of the group's discussions in early 2020 through social media.

Croft and Fox, the affidavit says, agreed to unite others in their cause to take action against state government that they believed was violating the U.S. Constitution.

On June 6, Croft, Fox and about 13 others from several states gathered for a meeting in Dublin, Ohio, near Columbus. Several talked about murdering the “tyrants” or “taking” a sitting governor.

“The group talked about creating a society that followed the U.S. Bill of Rights and where they could be self-sufficient,” the FBI agent wrote.

The FBI was already tracking the militia in March after a local police department learned members were trying to obtain addresses of local law-enforcement officers, the FBI agent wrote.

Those present included an FBI confidential source who recorded the meetings. The source has been paid $8,600.

On June 20, the group met in the basement of a Grand Rapids shop accessed through a trap door under a rung on the main floor. The discussions, recorded by a confidential source, covered plans for assaulting the state Capitol and using Molotov cocktails to destroy police vehicles, the affidavit notes. 

Later that month and in July, the group continued to meet in Munith, Michigan, in northeast Jackson County and Cambria, Wisconsin, for combat drills. During a July meeting, one member, "attempted to construct an improvised explosive device," the affidavit notes. Another brought, and fired, a rifle with a silencer at the exercise, it says. 

On July 18, members met and discussed attacking a Michigan State Police building and "shooting up the governor's vacation home."

By late July, organizers determined the best opportunity to capture Whitmer would be at her vacation home or her summer residence. They would then take her to a secure location in Wisconsin for "trial."

“Snatch and grab, man. Grab the f-----’ Governor. Just grab the b----," said Fox, according to the affidavit. "Because at that point, we do that, dude — it’s over.”

The group discussed intensive mapping of the surrounding property and security, noting plumbers and electricians were needed to help them read blueprints. They communicated through encrypted chats and a private Facebook.

On Aug. 9, they revisited the talks and even discussed blowing up Whitmer's boat.

Harris, according to the affidavit, suggested someone walk to the door, knock and when Whitmer answered "just cap her ... at this point."

Franks, according to the affidavit, had spent $4,000 on a helmet and night vision goggles for the mission. Group members on Aug. 29, located the vacation home, allegedly taking photographs and slow-motion video — they also looked up local law enforcement locations to estimate how long it would take for police to respond. 

Fox told the others "we ain’t gonna let ‘em burn our f-----’ state down" and "we'll go out there and use deadly force."

The next day, Fox shared the photo and video on an encrypted chat. There also was a hand-drawn map. 

In mid-September, group members constructed an improvised explosive device, or IED, by removing the cap from a commercial firework, adding black powder and "wrapping the device in pennies and electrical tape as shrapnel."

"During the exercise, the group set the device in a clearing surrounded by human silhouette targets, and Croft detonated it to test its anti-personnel effectiveness," the affidavit reads. 

On Sept. 12 to Sept. 13, armed group members drove to an area near Whitmer's vacation home in three separate vehicles. They staged near a boat launch across the lake from her property, according to the government. 

As members closed on the property, Fox allegedly remarked that Whitmer, who used her emergency authority as governor to implement strict rules amid the COVID-19 pandemic, "loves the power she has right now."

Group members laughed about their plan, with Franks saying: "Kidnapping, arson, death. I don't care."

Thursday's affidavit was filed hours after a team of FBI agents raided a Hartland Township home Wednesday and comes amid an ongoing investigation into the death of a Metro Detroit man killed during a shootout with FBI agents.

Whitmer, during an afternoon news conference, said "hatred, bigotry and violence have no place in the great state of Michigan."

"If you break the law ... we will find you, we will hold you accountable and we will bring you to justice," said Whitmer, saying she's spent the last seven months "making gut-wrenching decisions."

Nessel separately announced on Thursday 19 state charges against seven other individuals pursuant to the state's anti-terrorism act, "all of whom are in custody and linked to the militia group Wolverine Watchmen."

The investigation is the result of months of work that culminated Wednesday night in the execution of a series of search warrants and arrest warrants — both in-state and out-of-state — related to acts of terrorism under Michigan state law. 

The suspects, now under arrest, are alleged to have called on the groups’ members to identify the home addresses of law enforcement officers in order to target them; made threats of violence to instigate a civil war leading to societal collapse; and engaged in the planning and training for an operation to attack the state Capitol building and kidnap government officials, including Whitmer, a statement from Nessel's office notes. 

“There has been a disturbing increase in anti-government rhetoric and the re-emergence of groups that embrace extremist ideologies,” Nessel said. "This is more than just political disagreement or passionate advocacy, some of these groups’ mission is simply to create chaos and inflict harm upon others.”

Search warrants were executed in more than a dozen cities around the state, including Belleville, Cadillac, Canton, Charlotte, Clarkston, Grand Rapids, Luther, Munith, Orion Township, Ovid, Portage, Shelby Township and Waterford Township.  

Further individuals include Paul Bellar, 21, of Milford; Shawn Fix, 38, of Belleville; Eric Molitor, 36, of Cadillac; Michael Null, 38, of Plainwell; William Null, 38, of Shelbyville; Pete Musico, 42; and Joseph Morrison, 26, who live together in Munith. 

Null and Molitor were arraigned Thursday before Antrim County Magistrate Jessica Allmand. A cash bond of $250,000 was set for William and Michael Null, while Molitor’s bond was set at $250,000, 10%.  Their probable cause conferences are set for 1 p.m. Oct. 14, and their preliminary exams are scheduled for Oct. 21. 

Musico and Morrison were expected to be arraigned in Jackson County. Fix is in custody, and his arraignment is pending in Antrim County.  

cferretti@detroitnews.com