Thirteen members of a secretive militia group called the Wolverine Watchmen plotted to kidnap and then kill Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer after having her stand “trial” for her strict coronavirus lockdown measures that sparked protests across the state, federal and state authorities said Thursday after arresting the group.
“Snatch and grab, man. Grab the [expletive] Governor. Just grab the [expletive]. Because at that point, we do that, — it’s over,” one of the militia members said, according to an affidavit filed in federal court in Michigan.
In August, the Wolverine Watchmen took pictures and a video of Ms. Whitmer’s vacation home as they drove by and learned how close police were to the house, according to court documents.
By mid-September, militia members had detonated an IED that was surrounded by human silhouette targets and plotted placing an explosive device under a highway overpass to divert police from the vacation home, the FBI said in the affidavit.
Federal prosecutors announced Thursday that they had charged six militia members with conspiring to kidnap Ms. Whitmer, a Democrat. If convicted, all six could face life in prison.
Separately, Michigan State Attorney General Dana Nessel filed charges against seven other members accused of having roles in the plot. Those seven face 19 felony charges, including state terrorism counts, that could land each in prison for more than 20 years.
It is not clear what role the defendants facing state charges are accused of played in the kidnapping plot.
Matthew Schneider, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, called the allegations “deeply disturbing” at a press conference announcing the charges.
“All of us can disagree about politics, but those disagreements should never, ever result in violence,” Mr. Schneider said.
The militia members at least twice conducted surveillance at Ms. Whitmer’s vacation home and discussed kidnapping her and moving her to a remote location to stand “trial” for treason before the Nov. 3 elections, according to the court documents.
The group also planned to raise about $4,000 to obtain the explosives they wanted to blow up the overpass leading to the governor’s vacation home. Those fundraising efforts ultimately brought them to the attention of a confidential FBI informant, the court documents state.
Militia members also discussed knocking on Ms. Whitmer’s door and “when she answers it, just cap her,” one of the defendants said, according to the affidavit.
One of the defendants, Adam Fox, purchased an 800,000-volt Taser to use in the kidnapping, the FBI said.
Mr. Fox called Ms. Whitmer a “tyrant [expletive]” and asked the group to link with others for ideas about what to do.
“Several members talked about murdering ‘tyrants’ or ‘taking’ a sitting governor,” an FBI agent wrote in the affidavit. “The group decided they needed to increase their numbers and encouraged each other to talk to their neighbors and spread their message.”
The militia group also met in Ohio and Wisconsin. While in Wisconsin, another defendant named Barry Croft tried to make an improvised explosive device with black powder, balloons and BBs for shrapnel, according to the FBI.
The group also discussed a plot to gather 200 men and “storm the Capitol in Lansing and take hostages, including the governor,” the affidavit says.
Authorities said the defendants were angry about Michigan’s strict coronavirus lockdown. Ms. Whitmer has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by imposing some of the toughest restrictions in the country.
On Thursday, Ms. Whitmer cautioned against using the COVID-19 restrictions as an excuse for violence.
“I’ve said it many times: We are not one another’s enemies. This virus is our enemy,” the governor said.
Jonathan Lewis, a research fellow at the George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, said some anti-government groups have rallied against coronavirus lockdowns across the country.
“The lockdown has been a lightning rod and the primary focus for a lot of these groups because you have so much shared anger and frustration,” Mr. Lewis said. “It can very quickly be translated from anger to frustration into fears the governor who is perpetrating all of this will overreach into our lives.”
He said the arrests indicate that anti-government militia groups have become more aggressive in recent months.
“Anecdotally, we are certainly seeing a rise in cases where they are very willing to and very quick to go from towing across the line from First Amendment protected speech to online calls for violence to taking steps in furtherance of acts of violence,” Mr. Lewis said.
According to court documents, Mr. Fox in June posted a Facebook video disparaging Ms. Whitmer’s COVID-19 restrictions and complaining that gyms were closed.
Ms. Whitmer “has no checks and balances at all. She has uncontrolled power right now,” one of the militia members said, according to court documents.
Authorities identified the six federal defendants as Mr. Fox, Mr. Croft, Ty Garbin, Kaleb Franks, Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta. All live in Michigan except for Mr. Croft, who resides in Delaware.
The seven individuals facing state charges are Paul Bellar, Shawn Fix, Eric Molitor, Michael Null, William Null, Joseph Morrison and Pete Musico.
“There has been a disturbing increase in anti-government rhetoric and the reemergence of groups that embrace extremist ideologies,” Ms. Nessel, the state attorney general, said at the press conference. “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.”
The men facing federal charges first appeared on law enforcement’s radar in March, when the FBI learned that militia members were trying to obtain personal information, including addresses of local law enforcement officers, according to court filings.
FBI agents said there are recordings of a discussion to attack a Michigan State Police facility as part of their plot.
“At the time, the FBI interviewed a member of the militia group who was concerned about the group’s plan to target and kill police officers and that person agreed to become a [confidential source],” an agent wrote.
In June, Mr. Croft and others from several states met in Dublin, Ohio, near Columbus to discuss overthrowing the government, according to the affidavit. The confidential FBI source attended the meeting.
“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. “They discussed different ways of achieving this goal from peaceful endeavors to violent actions. At one point, several members talked about state governments they believed were violating the U.S. Constitution, including the government of Michigan and Governor Gretchen Whitmer.”
Criminal charges were filed within hours of an FBI team’s raid on Mr. Garbin’s home in Hartland Township on Wednesday.