Mysterious Wolverine Watchmen militia group 'flew under radar'

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Extremism experts say they had never heard of the Wolverine Watchmen until members of the militia group were accused Thursday of a conspiracy to overthrow the government as part of plans to kidnap the governor.

There was no apparent trace online Thursday of the Wolverine Watchmen, although federal prosecutors said the group's members planned the alleged crime over several months by communicating via a private Facebook page and in encrypted group chats.

The Wolverine Watchmen "flew under the radar," said Jon Lewis, a research fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University.

Joseph Morrison, left, and Pete Musico. Assistant Michigan Attorney General Gregory Townsend said Morrison and Musico were "founding members" of the Wolverine Watchmen militia group.

"This is simply not a big group that we'd ever heard of," Lewis said. "I know anecdotally there are a lot of militia organizations operating both nationally and in Michigan, but this one has not popped up in our research."

According to a 15-page affidavit filed in federal court, the FBI early this year became aware "through social media that a group of individuals were discussing the violent overthrow of certain government and law-enforcement components."

In June, 15 men from multiple states met in Dublin, Ohio, near Columbus, to discuss "creating a society that followed the U.S. Bill of Rights and where they could be self-sufficient," according to a confidential FBI source who recorded the meeting.

“They discussed different ways of achieving this goal from peaceful endeavors to violent actions," the agent wrote. "At one point, several members talked about state governments they believed were violating the U.S. Constitution, including the government of Michigan and (Gov. Gretchen) Whitmer. As part of that recruitment effort, (alleged conspirator Adam) Fox reached out to a Michigan-based militia group (Wolverine Watchmen)."

The alleged plotters also detonated an explosive to see its capabilities, according to the indictment.

Assistant Michigan Attorney General Gregory Townsend said during a Thursday arraignment announcing 19 state criminal charges against seven Michigan residents that defendants Joseph Morrison and Pete Musico were “founding members” of the Wolverine Watchmen. The group was "committed to violence" against the government, Townsend said.

 “There are multiple members of the Wolverine Watchmen,” Townsend said. “Mr. Morrison was considered the commander.”

Plenty of groups talk about overthrowing the government, "but the question is, at what point do they cross over from expressing their First Amendment rights to free speech to a criminal conspiracy?" said Andrew Arena, director of the Detroit Crime Commission and a former Special Agent in Charge of the Detroit FBI office.

Arena, who also hadn't heard of the Wolverine Watchmen before Thursday, said the allegations against the group are "eerily similar" to the 2010 case involving the Hutaree militia movement, which was based near Adrian.

In that case, federal prosecutors alleged group members planned to kill police officers and then kill more officers who attended their funerals. Nine members of the Hutaree group were arrested and charged.

A federal judge dismissed the charges, saying the group members were merely engaging in First Amendment-protected free speech. Three members ended up pleading guilty to possessing illegal guns and were sentenced to time served.

"It's an obviously troubling issue for law enforcement: How long do you let something like this go, and what risks are you willing to take that it's just people talking and not an actual plot? When you're talking about plans to kidnap the governor of Michigan, you can't take a risk," Arena said. "Now, it'll be up to the courts to decide."

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said in a Thursday statement there has been "a disturbing increase in anti-government rhetoric and the re-emergence of groups that embrace extremist ideologies.

“These groups often seek to recruit new members by seizing on a moment of civil unrest and using it to advance their agenda of self-reliance and armed resistance," the first-term attorney general 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.” 

Lewis said many extremist groups don't try to radicalize others "as much as they take people who are already radicalized." He added that while some militia groups attract racists, not all anti-government groups are white supremacists.

"Especially with groups like the boogaloo boys, which are primarily anti-government, you can get both white supremacists and left-leaning anarchists in the same group," Lewis said. "They can attract and put out narratives that appeal to both left- and right-leaning people who don't like the government.

"For instance, they can say 'Justice for Breonna Taylor' (a Louisville woman who was killed in March by a police officer who returned fire after someone shot his partner through a closed door), and 'Justice for Duncan Lemp,' who was also killed by police. His story was picked up by the boogaloos as a rallying cry," Lewis said. 

Most militia groups operate independently, he said.

"What we understand about most anti-government groups is that they may have some organization, but they’re usually not a cohesive coordinated national network that speaks with one voice and has one clear guiding principle," Lewis said.

It's too early to say whether the Wolverine Watchmen were linked to any other groups or individuals, he said. But the federal affidavit indicates "there was some level of organization, with people traveling from several states to meet up and plan the kidnapping," Lewis said.

Detroit firearm instructor and advocate Rick Ector said he often speaks to militia groups and cautioned about painting them all with the same brush.

"I’ve been the keynote speaker at several of their functions, and I’ve never once felt uncomfortable around any of them. I reject the premise that just because someone is in a militia they’re violent or a white nationalist,” said Ector, who is African American. “The people I’ve met have been a great bunch of guys and gals who have an affinity for firearms.” 

Former FBI agent Arena said, "it's an interesting time in this country" because people of all political persuasions are upset with the government.

"If you look at all the agitation that's going on in this country, there are extremist groups all over the spectrum," he said. "They're out there, and they're practicing their First Amendment-protected free speech.

"The issue is when they cross the line and become so agitated they decide to take action," Arena said. "Then you've got a problem."

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN