Events that might at first appear to be the plot of an intense action movie actually unfolded in the state of Michigan over the past few months. Thirteen men, all but one from Michigan, were arrested last Thursday, October 8, for a number of charges relating to the planned kidnapping of Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), alongside state officials from Michigan, arrested 13 men who had been plotting a number of crimes with anti-government overtones. Six of the 13 arrested were a part of the kidnapping plot specifically. According to the FBI, those involved in the attempted kidnapping had been planning out these attacks for months, meeting over the summer in nearby Grand Rapids to conduct combat drills and firearms training. The group had also been busy building and buying explosives.
Richard Trask II is a special agent for the FBI and has been heavily involved in this investigation. He told New York Times writer Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs that the plan was to create and detonate a bomb on a nearby bridge close to Whitmer’s summer home. This would have created a distraction for law enforcement, and the kidnappers would have then been able to take the governor. If the kidnapping was successful, their orders would have been to hold Whitmer hostage at an unknown location in Wisconsin until the November presidential election, when she would then be tried for “treason.” Adam Fox of Grand Rapids was the leading mind behind the kidnapping plot. He gained the support of the five other men but wanted to reach out to a larger audience. Fox then reached out to the Wolverine Watchmen, a self-made militia group built on support for the Second Amendment, limiting government and having an overall strict interpretation of the Constitution. The Wolverine Watchmen was founded by Pete Musico and Joseph Morrison, who have now both been charged in connection with the plot.
Both groups worked together in the kidnapping plot. Due to the severity of the crime itself, those originally working with Fox were charged with conspiracy to commit kidnapping, which has the potential for a life sentence in federal prison. Those formerly from the Wolverine Watchmen are being tried in the Michigan court system, with their charges including providing material support for terrorist activities, being members of a gang and using firearms while committing felonies. The maximum time for these charges is twenty years. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel released an update after the arrests stating that the individuals in state custody “had plans to target homes of law enforcement officers, threats of violence to instigate a civil war, planning operation attacks on the Michigan capitol building and to kidnap government officials.”
These types of groups have been fueled in recent months by COVID-19 restrictions. Those involved—and a number of other Michiganders—have viewed the acts of the state government as violating the Constitution and specifically their individual rights. The main sources of frustration were the state-wide mask mandate and the closing of many businesses across the state. As of mid-October, the virus has infected 146,000 Michiganders and has taken the lives of 7,200. Recently, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that Governor Whitmer had exceeded her use of executive orders and that it was unconstitutional for her to continue putting them into place.
In April, thousands marched on the Michigan capitol building in Lansing to protest COVID-19 restrictions. Among these protestors were signs of hate, such as Swastikas, Confederate flags and semi-automatic weapons. Michael and William Null, two of those charged in connection with the Wolverine Watchmen, were in attendance. Among them was Sheriff Dar Leaf from Barry County, Michigan, who lives in the same area as the brothers. When asked about the connection between the crimes committed and the Null brothers, Sheriff Leaf told a Fox Affiliate of Grand Rapids, “The two gentlemen that I know of from my county, were they involved in that? I don’t know. They’re innocent until proven guilty. And we really, really should be careful, trying to try them in the media.” The fact that Leaf attended this protest, in addition to the fact that he may have potential ties to the brothers, has fueled calls for his resignation.
In the aftermath of the arrests, Governor Whitmer made a statement thanking the law enforcement officers and agents who were involved. She also mentioned the connections between violent right-wing groups and President Trump’s refusal to denounce white supremacist groups in the first presidential debate between him and Democratic candidate Joe Biden. Whitmer asserted that those groups “heard the president’s words not as a rebuke but as a rallying cry, as a call to action. When our leaders speak, their words matter. They carry weight.” Trump lashed back on Twitter soon after, saying that Whitmer has done a terrible job in Michigan and that Democrats “refused to condemn ANTIFA, anarchists, looters, and mobs that burn down Democrat-run cities.”
Researchers have found that the state of Michigan is a type of breeding ground for these armed militia groups. According to USA Today, the Wolverine Watchmen is only one of an estimated two or three dozen armed Michigan groups. There are active militia groups in every state, but they are predominantly law-abiding. Historically these groups began to grow in the 1990s in response to fears of tyrannical, overbearing governments. Amy Cooter from Vanderbilt University studies these groups and has found that militias in Michigan have “always been the kind to which other states’ militias look up to.” This also brings into question the role of social media in the past years and how it increases the capability of these groups. Why are these types of groups so prominent in Michigan? Cooter has found that they are able to thrive in rural areas where people hold beliefs in individual freedom and self-reliance. These sorts of midwestern characteristics allow for the rise of these home-bred citizen militia groups and the domestic terrorism that is often espoused by these groups.
As of Tuesday, three of the five defendants who have already been arraigned are being held without bond to await their trial. The other two men are awaiting a ruling on their bond status, and a sixth defendant from Delaware has been ordered to be transferred to Michigan to face charges. The seven others linked to the militia group but not directly to the kidnapping plot have also been charged in state court with several criminal offenses. The investigation into the full extent of the militia’s activity and domestic terrorist plans is ongoing.