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FBI arrests white supremacy leader in extremism crackdown in Michigan

Robert Snell Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Federal agents on Thursday arrested two men, including the self-proclaimed leader of the Base, a white supremacist group, as part of a continuing crackdown on extremism in Michigan three weeks after the FBI said it thwarted a plot to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

A team of FBI agents arrested Justen Watkins, 25, of Bad Axe, the self-proclaimed leader of the Base, and Alfred Gorman, 35, of Taylor, during a pair of raids Thursday, including at a rural farmhouse in Bad Axe, 100 miles north of Detroit.

According to Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, the 3 1/2-acre farm was being converted into a “hate camp” for members of the group to prepare to overthrow the government, according to the criminal case, which also accused Base leaders of encouraging others to harass a Washtenaw County family online.

A law enforcement official walks into a building in rural Bad Axe on Thursday. The 3 1/2-acre farm was allegedly being converted into a “hate camp.”

Watkins and Gorman are linked to a December incident in Dexter in which a local family was terrorized by the men, who tried to intimidate a husband and wife and shared their address with members of the Base, Nessel said in a statement.

The developments continue a string of arrests, raids and operations targeting far-right, anti-government extremists and white supremacists this month. That includes accused members of the Whitmer kidnapping plot and a shootout in suburban Detroit between FBI agents and a Madison Heights man who died 28 years after his family became embroiled in the infamous Ruby Ridge standoff in Idaho.

“I think this shows the range of bad actors that are operating in the United States, which should be a cause of concern,” said Jon Lewis, a research fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University.

Nessel's office charged the men with several felonies, including gang membership, a 20-year felony, using a computer to commit a crime and unlawful posting of a message. The charges were filed in Washtenaw County District Court, the location of the alleged Dexter incident. 

Both suspects were lodged in the Washtenaw County Jail pending arraignment.

“Using tactics of intimidation to incite fear and violence constitutes criminal behavior,” Nessel said. “We cannot allow dangerous activities to reach their goal of inflicting violence and harm on the public. I am proud to work alongside law enforcement agencies at the local, state and federal levels to safeguard the public’s safety from these serious threats.” 

'Doesn't even have a car'

Interviews and court records describe Watkins as a white supremacist who was trying to build a hub on a shoestring budget in an isolated farmhouse decorated with Nazi flags and a photo of Adolf Hitler.

"He's a tool," said farmhouse owner Eric Webb, 47, an optometrist who lives in Metro Detroit and owns the Bad Axe farmhouse. "He doesn't even have a car."

The Bad Axe raid and arrests follow a series of operations this year against members of the Base, a small Neo-Nazi network that started to emerge in mid-2018, Lewis said.

Three men linked to the Base were charged with conspiring to kill members of a militant anti-fascist group, police in Georgia announced in mid-January, a day after three other members were arrested on federal charges in Maryland and Delaware.

“While law enforcement has really disrupted their ability to commit acts of domestic terror, these arrests still show a significant threat to the homeland,” Lewis said.

The Base, operating as a paramilitary organization, has proclaimed war against minority communities within the United States and abroad, the FBI has said. Unlike other extremist groups, it’s not focused on promulgating propaganda — instead, the group aims to bring together highly skilled members to train them for acts of violence, Nessel said.

“Members are alleged to have engaged in firearms training at camps similar to what we saw in the Whitmer kidnapping case,” Lewis said.

Law enforcement officials investigate the scene on Sullivan Road in rural Bad Axe on Thursday.

“These guys want societal collapse. They don’t just want to target government folks,” Lewis said. “They want the race war.”

The arrests come three weeks after prosecutors said the FBI thwarted a plot to violently overthrow the government as well as kidnap and harm Whitmer. In all, 14 people have been charged with crimes in state and federal courts, including members and associates of an obscure militia, the Wolverine Watchmen.

The conspiracy was led by anti-government extremists angered by state restrictions on travel and business imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the government. Members of the alleged conspiracy conducted surveillance visits to Whitmer's cottage in northern Michigan, trained with firearms and explosive devices and discussed attacking other politicians, including President Donald Trump and the governors of Virginia and South Carolina.

The arrests Thursday are not part of the Whitmer kidnapping plot.

Law enforcement officials walk down the Sullivan Road driveway during their investigation on Thursday.

Couple threatened

The arrests came 13 months after unexpected visitors arrived at a home in Dexter owned by Dawn and husband Rich Shea, who had moved into the home in August.

At the time, the couple was unaware their new home address was being shared on a white supremacy message board. That's because white supremacists wrongly believed the address belonged to Daniel Harper, host of an Antifa podcast "I Don’t Speak German,” according to an article in the Informant newsletter.

Threats followed, including in a letter mailed to the home. In December, the couple found two figures dressed in black outside and taking photographs. The photos were uploaded to a social media platform with the message, "The Base sends greetings to Daniel Harper of the Antifa podcast 'I Don't Speak German.'"

Rich Shea was notified of the arrests Thursday.

“Right now, I’m not looking to say too much,” Shea, 45, told The Detroit News. “I want to see how things play out. All of this has been pretty sudden after things had died down for a while.”

Gorman's mother and grandmother were not aware of the charges when contacted by The News on Thursday. They declined to comment.

The Base, according to Nessel's office, is a white supremacy organization that encourages acts of violence against the U.S. and claims to be training for a race war "to establish White ethnonationalist rule in areas of the U.S., including Michigan’s Upper Peninsula."

"The group also traffics in Nazi ideology and extreme anti-Semitism, at one point requiring its members to read neo-Nazi books that urge the collapse of Western civilization," Nessel's office said in a statement.

The group encourages members to train for "insurgency against the U.S. government" and ran a "hate camp" for members where tactical and firearms training was conducted, Nessel's statement said. 

Webb, who owns the Bad Axe property, says the isolated farmhouse was built by his great-great grandfather, and his 17-year-old son, Tristan Webb, moved into the property this spring with plans to create a homestead with like-minded people.

"It was going to be a homestead-type thing," Eric Webb said. "It wasn't militant."

At some point, Tristan Webb met Watkins online, and the plans changed, Eric Webb said.

"He was online, falling for this white nationalism garbage on the internet," he said. "That's how he got hooked up with Justen."

Eric Webb described Watkins as a negative person who spent time recruiting people online.

In June, organizers held a protest against social injustice despite threats and the presence of three armed counter-protesters, including Tristan Webb and Watkins. The armed display drew the attention of FBI agents and local law enforcement.

Eric Webb visited the home in recent months and saw Nazi flags and the Hitler photo.

"They were a bunch of white kids running around with guns," Webb said. "I’m trying to tell my son 'look, I understand you're a man and you want to protect your country, but this is nonsense. You can't go to war with him.'"

Tristan Webb came to a realization three weeks ago, his father said, after the FBI disrupted what it called a plot to kidnap the Michigan governor.

"I think that woke him up. (Tristan) saw what happened and moved out," Eric Webb said. 

The Webb family has cooperated with investigators, he said, and were in touch with the FBI on Thursday after the raid.

"This is a happy ending," Eric Webb said. "My son realized he is going to live his life, not die for some stupid cause."

rsnell@detroitnews.com

Associated Press contributed.