HARTLAND, Michigan—Federal prosecutors on Thursday announced the arrest of six men who allegedly plotted with a militia group to violently overthrow the government and kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
The men were arrested Wednesday night after the FBI and Michigan State Police raided several homes. As part of their plot, the group joined forces with members of a Michigan militia, with whom they discussed attacking the state Capitol building, storming a police facility, and kidnapping Whitmer outside her vacation home before Election Day, according to a federal affidavit filed Thursday.
“Several members talked about murdering ‘tyrants’ or ‘taking’ a sitting governor,” an FBI agent wrote in the affidavit, as first reported by The Detroit News. “The group decided they needed to increase their numbers and encouraged each other to talk to their neighbors and spread their message.”
Describing the six men as “violent extremists,” U.S. Attorney Andrew Birge said they face life in prison. The men were identified as Adam Fox, Barry Croft, Ty Garbin, Kaleb Franks, Daniel Harris, and Brandon Caserta—five of whom live in Michigan.
“All of us in Michigan can disagree with politics, but that should never amount to violence,” said Matthew Schneider, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan during a Thursday press conference announcing the charges.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel also announced that seven other men—linked to the militia group Wolverine Watchmen—have been charged with terrorism crimes for allegedly planning the capitol attack and attempting to “instigate a Civil War.” “There has been a disturbing increase in anti-government rhetoric and the re-emergence of groups that embrace extremist ideologies,” she said.
Later in the day, Whitmer thanked law enforcement for thwarting the 13 men who “were preparing to kidnap and possibly kill me”—before taking aim at President Donald Trump for refusing to denounce hate groups.
“When our leaders speak, their words matter. They carry weight. When our leaders meet with, encourage, fraternize with domestic terrorists, they legitimatize their actions and they are complicit. When they stoke and contribute to hate speech, they are complicit,” Whitmer said. “Hatred, bigotry, and violence have no place in the great state of Michigan.”
The affidavit states that, through a militia member-turned-informant, the FBI became aware that Fox and Croft were discussing “the violent overthrow of certain government and law-enforcement components.” During these conversations, they agreed to “take violent action” against state governments that they believed were violating the U.S. Constitution. One of those actions was kidnapping Whitmer, according to the affidavit.
“Snatch and grab, man,” Fox allegedly said in a recorded call from July 2020. “Grab the fuckin’ governor. Just grab the bitch. Because at that point, we do that, dude—it’s over.”
The news comes after a difficult week in Whitmer’s tenure as governor. A decision from the Michigan Supreme Court last Friday effectively knocked down the emergency powers she had been using to fight the coronavirus pandemic amid Republican opposition.
The first-term Democrat criticized the court's actions, even as Republicans celebrated what they felt was a powerful check on Whitmer’s executive power in managing the pandemic. The hope was that Whitmer would now have to work more with the GOP-controlled legislative chambers.
Over the summer, Croft and Fox gathered in Dublin, Ohio, to discuss their schemes with 13 others, talking about “creating a society that followed the U.S. Bill of Rights and where they could be self-sufficient,” investigators said. During that meeting, the group bounced around several different ways to achieve their goals—some peaceful, others violent, according to the affidavit.
Fox then reached out to a Michigan-based militia group that was already being monitored by the FBI and local authorities after allegedly trying to get the addresses of local law-enforcement officers.
Michigan has been a hotbed of militia activity for decades, with over a dozen active militia groups. In 2010, members of a militia group called the Hutaree were indicted for sedition and weapons-related charges over an alleged plot to bomb a law enforcement officer’s funeral. They were ultimately acquitted of the most serious charges.
The state’s militia movement surged back into the spotlight during the coronavirus pandemic, with militias joining other far-right groups to protest Whitmer’s coronavirus restrictions. In April, armed men tried to break onto the floor of the state Capitol, only to be stopped by security. In May, armed militia members rallied outside the capitol to protest Whitmer’s pandemic orders.
The plot against Whitmer came undone when a member of the group grew concerned that they planned to “target and kill police officers” and reached out to the feds, ultimately agreeing to become an informant. That informant confirmed that militia groups periodically met for field training exercises in a remote property in Michigan, where they also attempted to construct IEDs using “black powder, balloons, a fuse, and BBs for shrapnel,” according to the affidavit. The devices, however, were faulty and were never able to detonate as planned.
During one June 14 training, which included firearm and tactical drills, Fox was allegedly introduced to one of the militia’s founders over the phone, the affidavit states. They subsequently met throughout June, including “at a Second Amendment rally at the State Capitol” in Lansing.
“In an effort to recruit more members for the operation, Fox told Garbin and [the informant] he planned to attack the capitol and asked them to combine forces,” the affidavit states.
In a June 14 call recorded by the informant, Fox said he needed “200 men” to storm the capitol building before Election Day and take hostages, including Whitmer. “Fox explained they would try the Governor of Michigan for ‘treason,’” the affidavit states.
Six days later, members met at one of Fox’s businesses in Grand Rapids, convening in a basement that could only be accessed through a trap door hidden under a rug, according to investigators. Fox allegedly said the capitol attack would use Molotov cocktails to destroy police cars. They agreed to a July meeting to conduct firearms and tactical training, the affidavit states.
Fox allegedly used a private Facebook group to complain about the judicial system and Michigan’s COVID-19 restrictions—including the state’s control over “the opening of gyms.” In one phone call, he referred to Whitmer as “this tyrant bitch” before stating, “I don’t know, boys, we gotta do something. You guys link with me on our other location system, give me some ideas of what we can do.”
On June 27, Fox met with the informant to discuss their ongoing plot, stressing their “best opportunity to abduct Governor Whitmer would be when she was arriving at, or leaving, either her personal vacation home or the Governor’s official summer residence,” the affidavit says. After kidnapping the governor, Whitmer would stand “trial” in Wisconsin.
“Fox suggested they get a realtor to help them find the exact location of the vacation home and collect information on the surrounding homes and structures,” the affidavit states. “Fox discussed the importance of knowing the layout of the yard, homes, and security. Fox stated they needed to map out the surrounding property and gates, and they needed plumbers and electricians to help them read blueprints to refine their strategy. Fox also suggested recruiting an engineer or ‘IT [Information Technology] guy,’ a ‘demo guy,’ and other ‘operators.’”
The next day, Fox told the informant he’d narrowed down his attack targets to Whitmer’s vacation home. “We about to be busy ladies and gentlemen,” he allegedly said. “This is where the Patriot shows up. Sacrifices his time, money, blood sweat and tears... it starts now so get fucking prepared!!”
In September, Fox admitted he’d been surveilling Whitmer’s vacation home before enlisting Croft, Garben, Franks, and several others to continue the recon at night.
“And it’s a perfect fuckin’ setup. Out of everywhere that she resides, this is the only one that’s probably actually feasible with a success rate,” Fox said on Sept. 12.
Fox, who was homeless, had been temporarily staying in the basement of a vacuum cleaner store in Grand Rapids that was raided Wednesday, the store owner, Brian Titus, said.
Titus told Wood TV he’d known Fox for years but he’d “changed” in recent months. He refused to wear a mask, went to protests at the capitol, and told Titus he’d joined a militia.
“I knew he belong[ed] to the militia, but I didn’t know it was this deep. He kept it pretty quiet,” he said. “He was anti-police, anti-government. He was afraid if he didn’t stand up for the Second Amendment and his rights that the country is going to go communism and socialism.”
The case might be one of multiple similar plots under investigation by the FBI. An internal FBI bulletin from August, reported by Yahoo News, revealed that the FBI was looking into a plot in an unnamed state in which “members of a self-described violent extremist militia” plotted to storm “the state capitol building while the legislature was in session, with the intent to kill all inside. Members stated the need to act prior to a possible Democratic presidential administration, due to the belief that stricter firearms regulations would be enacted quickly thereafter, according to FBI reporting,” the bulletin read. As of August, that case did not appear to have been prosecuted.
A Facebook page for a Ty Garbin residing in Hartland, Michigan, shows hemoved to the Wolverine State from Georgia in 2019. Among his “liked” pages are a libertarian blog called Gentlemen, For Liberty and firearms activist groups such as the Gun Owners of American and The American Arms Association. His sparse page otherwise shows an affection for weaponry and outdoor activities.
Melissa Merola, who lives down the street from Garbin, watched as state police and military personal surrounded his house.
“I barely knew these people, they were very standoffish,” she said. “To know that something like this was going on a few doors down, and this is where our kids play, I think it’s just very elaborate.”
She initially thought the raid was a drug bust once she saw what law enforcement was removing from Garbin’s residence.
“It did look like laboratory stuff coming in and out,” she said. “They were taking the vents off of the bottom of the house like looking to see if things were all stashed and stored under the house.”
A since-removed Facebook page for Brandon Caserta featured recent posts bragging about owning an AR-15 assault rifle and railing against efforts to control the spread of the novel coronavirus, which he dubbed “Con-vid 19.” In a January post, he warned that undercover law enforcement agents would try to infiltrate a Second Amendment demonstration in Richmond in January. In a post on Wednesday, the day before he was arrested, Caserta asked, “Is it morally legitimate to initiate violence and theft against non violent people?”
Instagram and Facebook pages for Michigan-based Kaleb Franks, the only person of that name who appears to live in the state, showcase a love of motorcycles and muscle-building—as well as for the National Rifle Association and pro-Trump youth group Turning Point USA. Like 24-year-old Garbin, 26-year-old Franks appears to be younger than stereotypically middle-aged militia members.
So too is 23-year-old Daniel Harris from Lake Orion, Michigan. A LinkedIn page corresponding to Harris in that small Detroit-area town lists his current occupation as “security guard,” but indicates he served as a rifleman in the U.S. Marine Corps until last year.
An individual of that name was quoted complaining about excessive use of force by police and alluding to his background at an anti-racist protest in Lake Orion in June.
“It is a shame what happened with George Floyd and instances where law enforcement officers murder an unarmed man/woman who isn’t resisting arrest, was complying with the orders is wrong and need to be stopped. You look at photos and videos of news teams and protesters being beaten by riot police when they are there peacefully, you see people losing their eyes because if an officer shoots them with a ‘non-lethal’ round like pepper balls, or rubber bullets,” Harris said. “I’ve gone through that sort of training and I can promise you weapons like that they can turn into a lethal round.”
- Reporter Kelly Weill contributed to this report.