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Militia Members Plotted To Kidnap Michigan Gov. Whitmer, FBI Says

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, shown here last month, was allegedly a target of a militia's kidnapping plot.
Michigan Governor's Office via AP
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, shown here last month, was allegedly a target of a militia's kidnapping plot.

Updated at 7:06 p.m. ET

The FBI says it has thwarted a plot by militia members to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, and six people are facing federal charges. In a coordinated move, Michigan is pursuing state felony charges against seven people with ties to a militia called the Wolverine Watchmen.

In a statement early Thursday, Whitmer said two militia groups "were preparing to kidnap and possibly kill me."

But in a later interview on NPR's All Things Considered, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said that "multiple white supremacy groups and militia groups have been acting in accordance with one another."

Whitmer thanked law enforcement officer on Thursday afternoon for foiling the alleged conspiracy. "I'll be honest, I never could have imagined anything like this," she said.

Michigan has been a hot spot for disagreements over shutdowns and other restrictions Whitmer ordered to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus — actions that allegedly sparked the plot against her. The governor noted those disagreements on Thursday and called for unity.

"We are not one another's enemy," Whitmer said. "This virus is our enemy."

Criticizing President Trump's recent remarks on white supremacists, Whitmer said his widely condemned "stand back and stand by" comment about the Proud Boys was taken by hate groups as a rallying cry, not a rebuke.

"Let me say this loud and clear: Hatred, bigotry and violence have no place in the great state of Michigan," Whitmer said.

The FBI said the Michigan militia group had already been on its radar because its members had attempted in March to acquire the home addresses of local law enforcement officers with the goal of attacking or killing them.

The agency said it collected information about the kidnapping plot from informants and undercover agents. Over the summer, the conspirators allegedly began training for a potential attack on Whitmer's vacation home or the governor's official summer residence, according to a criminal complaint released Thursday.

A federal charge of conspiracy to commit kidnapping has been filed against six people: Adam Fox, Barry Croft, Ty Garbin, Kaleb Franks, Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta. All are Michigan residents except for Croft, who is a resident of Delaware.

Fox discussed the kidnapping in a recording from late July, the complaint says: "Snatch and grab, man. Grab the f*****' Governor. Just grab the b****. Because at that point, we do that, dude — it's over."

After abducting Whitmer, Fox allegedly said, the governor would be taken to a secure location in Wisconsin for "trial," according to the complaint.

In addition to the six people facing federal charges, state charges have been lodged against another seven who are either members of Wolverine Watchmen or are associates of that militia, the state attorney generalsaid. They're now facing 19 state felony charges that range from gang membership and providing material support for terrorist acts to charges of carrying a firearm during the commission of a felony.

"There has been a disturbing increase in anti-government rhetoric and the re-emergence of groups that embrace extremist ideologies," Nessel said on Thursday. "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. 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."

Michigan's Capitol in Lansing was the epicenter of dramatic protests during the spring and summer, with demonstrators — including many who carried rifles — gathering to denounce the governor's coronavirus emergency orders. Whitmer and other officials were also the targets of online threats.

"We have legislators who are showing up to work wearing bulletproof vests," Whitmer said in May.

The alleged plot against the governor included a range of complicated details, including purchasing a Taser and spending around $4,000 to buy explosives to blow up a bridge leading to Whitmer's vacation home, according to the criminal complaint. Repeatedly, the men involved discussed their desire to kidnap the governor before the national election on Nov. 3, the complaint says.

The alleged kidnapping conspiracy is described in the complaint signed by FBI Special Agent Richard J. Trask, whose past work includes fighting domestic terrorism.

"In early 2020, the FBI became aware through social media that a group of individuals were discussing the violent overthrow of certain government and law-enforcement components," Trask says in the complaint.

The group included Fox and Croft – who decided they should get others to join their cause and "take violent action against multiple state governments that they believe are violating the U.S. Constitution," Trask says.

In early June, Fox and Croft met with around 13 people in Dublin, Ohio, the complaint says.

"The group talked about creating a society that followed the U.S. Bill of Rights and where they could be self-sufficient. They discussed different ways of achieving this goal from peaceful endeavors to violent actions," the complaint says. "At one point, several members talked about state governments they believed were violating the U.S. Constitution, including the government of Michigan and Whitmer. Several members talked about murdering 'tyrants' or 'taking' a sitting governor."

Once again, the decision was made to recruit others into the effort, Trask says in the complaint. That's when Fox reached out to a Michigan-based militia group, he adds. One of the group's members had already been in touch with the FBI over concerns about plans to target and kill police officers.

With a new conspiracy allegedly taking shape, that person agreed to become an informant, the complaint says. Agents were able to record or otherwise monitor many interactions — including a meeting where Fox confiscated cellphones and put them in a box — but one participant was wearing a recording device.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.