The plot to kidnap and potentially kill the governor of Michigan appears to have been born in a meeting held in a small Ohio town in early June, where 13 people from around the country gathered to discuss overthrowing state governments they believed were violating the Constitution.
One of them was Adam Fox, a 37-year-old vacuum cleaner salesperson from Grand Rapids, Michigan, who believed that Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, was a “tyrant.” He took particular umbrage, according to the FBI, at the fact that she had ordered gyms to be closed to protect against the spread of the coronavirus.
The group's members, who had previously communicated in part via social media, concluded they needed to recruit more people; Fox offered to reach out to a group of organized armed extremists in his home state known as the Wolverine Watchmen whose members had been planning to “target and kill” police officers.
Within months, Fox and at least 12 others, many of whom were members of the militant organization, had helped craft a plan to kidnap Whitmer at gunpoint in front of her home, blow up a nearby bridge, take the governor to Wisconsin, and put her on trial for “treason.” If necessary, they would “just cap her” — but what was critical was that the plan be pulled off before the Nov. 3 election. They wanted to send a message to the electorate.
That scheme collapsed on Wednesday, when the FBI, working with the Michigan State Police, swept in to arrest the conspirators and charge them under federal kidnapping laws and a variety of Michigan gun, gang, and terrorism statutes. It turned out that law enforcement had been surveilling the group and other militants since early in the year and moved in after Fox and three others arranged to buy explosives from an undercover agent for $4,000.
Although Whitmer was never touched, the failed operation raises troubling questions about increasingly violent expressions of radical right-wing beliefs around the country. The communications among the members, many recorded by confidential informants attending meetings, phone calls, and “field training exercises,” reveal the ways that politically conservative and increasingly angry people can take ideas drawn, amplified, and encouraged on social media — and by the nation’s political leadership, including the president — to extreme lengths.
According to a report from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, an extremism and disinformation tracking organization, the militants used Facebook to plan the alleged kidnapping.
"Private groups remain a wild west of violent incitement, extremist coordination, and hate on the platform, with no real oversight," said Ciaran O'Connor, a disinformation analyst with the institute. "This is yet another troubling demonstration of the platform’s failure to get a grip on violent groups, especially those targeting women."
The 13 men charged with state and federal crimes are in their twenties, thirties, and forties.
Barry Croft, 44, is a Delaware man who owns a trucking company. Ty Garbin, 24, is an avid fisherman from western Michigan who worked in aircraft maintenance. Kaleb Franks, 26, worked at a clinic in Waterford, Michigan. According to his social media, he is passionate about motorbikes and working out, and posts about firing guns to blow off steam. Brandon Caserta, 32, has worked as a bicycle mechanic and a manager at Domino’s Pizza, according to his social media.
None could be reached for comment Thursday, and it wasn’t immediately clear if they had legal representation.
The mother of one of those arrested on state charges, Paul Bellar, questioned whether her son was involved. “You’re kidding,” she said when reached by phone Thursday. “I don’t believe this is accurate,” she added before hanging up.
But a review of the social media profiles belonging to many of those charged reveals a common thread of angry invective against Democrats, concerns about “the globalist influence,” adherence to organized armed extremist groups such as the Three Percenters, and an almost amorous enthusiasm for violence.
Eric Molitor, who was charged in Michigan for “providing material support for terrorist acts” and carrying a firearm during commission of a felony, appears to have moonlighted selling ammunition, which some customers called “freedom seeds.”
Numerous others involved in the plot took to social media to share admiring posts about Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old charged with crossing state lines to fatally shoot two protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Some expressed anti-vaccine sentiments, while Croft, portrayed by the FBI as another ringleader of the group, tweeted that liberals should be hung in order to “make America great again.”
On Twitter, Fox frequently used language that hinted at possible violence, tweeting to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, both Democrats, on May 29, 2018: “we’re coming from you” and “we’re coming for all of you.” He also demonstrated his support for President Donald Trump, tweeting in May 2018 that “Trump’s a winner and the US will continue to win under real leadership!!”
Fox also repeatedly referred to Democrats as traitors, criminals, and, if they were women, hags who would one day pay for their crimes against their country. “When your party starts a war you’re all gonna pay!!!!!” he tweeted at Sen. Elizabeth Warren in 2018.
One man involved in the Michigan armed extremist scene who spoke to BuzzFeed News on the condition that he not be named said he knew Fox, but didn’t much care for him. “[Fox] was a musclehead-type guy. Drama. Alpha type,” he said. “I’m a mellow and laid-back guy. So those two types usually just don’t mesh.”
Although Fox and the others appear to have been sharing these ideas online for months, if not longer, it wasn’t until June when they began trying to turn that rhetoric into a reality.
According to the FBI, he and Croft “agreed to unite others in their cause and take violent action against multiple state governments they believe are violating the U.S. Constitution,” helping to orchestrate a series of meetings, training exercises, and surveillance operations that increasingly honed in on Whitmer, who had earned the ire of many conservatives in the state for her aggressive attempts to fight the spread of the coronavirus by requiring masks and locking down the state in late March.
Fox and Croft took pains to shield their activities from law enforcement, including meeting in a basement room accessed through a trap door hidden under a carpet inside Fox’s business in Grand Rapids. Concerned about surveillance, Fox on one occasion also collected the cellphones of his fellow conspirators and placed them in a box that he took upstairs before sensitive discussions. But such measures were useless, given that the FBI had by then infiltrated the group with several confidential informants and at least two undercover agents.
In late June, Fox streamed a video to a private Facebook group — which by then included an FBI informant — in which he complained about the fact that the state of Michigan was controlling when gyms could be opened. In the video, according to the affidavit, Fox called Whitmer a “tyrant bitch.”
“We gotta do something,” he said, before urging people to connect with him “on our other location system, give me some ideas of what we can do.”
Three days later, on June 28, Fox gathered at the home of an unnamed militant group member in Munith, Michigan, with four others, one of whom was working as a confidential FBI informant, for “tactical training exercises.” Guests who were not willing to participate in violent acts against the government were asked to leave.
Within weeks, the group was training in earnest for violence. Over the weekend of July 10, for example, Fox, Croft, and several others drove to Cambria, Wisconsin, for a “field training exercise.” They participated in firearms training and combat drills, and, according to the criminal complaint, tried to make improvised explosive devices using black powder, balloons, a fuse, and BBs for shrapnel. Something went wrong, however, and the IEDs failed to blow up.
The next weekend, the group was back in Ohio, where they were discussing targets. Some talked of attacking the Michigan State Police. After the meeting, Garbin, who has a fish tattoo on his forearm, floated the idea of shooting up Whitmer’s vacation home in the western part of the state. He didn’t want to go after the capitol building, but was “cool,” he said, with going after the vacation home — even if it only resulted in the destruction of property.
Only Franks, according to the affidavit, expressed qualms about violence. According to the FBI, at a July 7 meeting in the home of another militant, Franks said he was “not cool with offensive kidnapping” and was “just there for training.” Despite his hesitance, Franks did not drop out and continued helping the group prepare.
Fox, for his part, never wavered. By late July, he was raging at how tyrannical he thought the government had become. In a secretly recorded phone conversation on July 24, he said: “In all honesty right now ... I just wanna make the world glow, dude. I’m not even fuckin’ kidding. I just wanna make it all glow, dude. I don’t fuckin’ care anymore. I’m just so sick of it. That’s what it’s gonna take for us to take it back. We’re just gonna have to — everything’s gonna have to be annihilated, man.”
Three days later, he apparently settled on kidnapping Whitmer. He wrote in an encrypted group chat: “OK, well how’s everyone feel about kidnapping?” According to the FBI, no one responded to the question, but by early August, the group was firmly focused on the details and tactics involved with kidnapping a sitting governor on her own front doorstep.
There was also talk about destroying her boat. “Have one person go to her house. Knock on the door, and when she answers it just cap her,” wrote one member of the group, Daniel Harris, in an encrypted group chat. “At this point. Fuck it.”
One member dropped $4,000 on a helmet and night vision goggles to help case Whitmer’s house, and as paranoia about law enforcement infiltration grew, the conspirators decided to switch to another encrypted app, unwittingly inviting at least one of the FBI informants to join them.
By late August, the group had settled on an operation at the governor’s vacation home. Members of the group surveilled the home, mapped the location of local police stations, and hatched a plan to blow up a bridge near the home in hopes it would delay law enforcement response to the kidnapping. Fox suggested making contact with a realtor to help learn the “layout of the yard, homes, and security,” according to the FBI affidavit, and also thought the team needed plumbers, electricians, engineers, IT experts, demolition specialists, and other “operators” to pull off their mission.
During a second surveillance operation in mid-September, Fox railed against Whitmer. “She fucking goddamn loves the power she has right now,” he ranted to others in the group. “She has no checks and balances at all. She has uncontrolled power right now.”
Later that month, Fox texted that he had purchased an 800,000-volt Taser to use on Whitmer before transporting her to a “secure” location in Wisconsin, where she would be put on trial for treason. A least one member of the group was from that state, and Fox and several others had traveled there for firearms practice in July.
On Sept. 14, Fox began pressuring the group to speed up their plans and canceled a planned training exercise in October “because it would leave insufficient time to execute the kidnapping before the national election on November 3, 2020.”
With time running short, there was still a critical element of unfinished business: They needed enough explosives to blow up the bridge. Although some members of the group could not attend the meeting where they planned to hand over $4,000 in exchange for the bomb-making materials, Fox and four others made the trip, oblivious to the fact that they were actually dealing with an FBI agent.
Some 200 federal and state law enforcement officers were on the ready, simultaneously serving arrest and search warrants in more than a dozen cities in Michigan, as well as in other states.
Of those arrested, Caserta, the onetime Domino’s Pizza manager, was among the most active on social media, where he maintained YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, and Facebook accounts. On Tuesday, he posted two videos on TikTok quoting Thomas Jefferson.
“The price of freedom is eternal vigilance, and indifference to this notion is the means by which the people can and will secure their own oppression," he said, adding: "Wake the fuck up.”
He also posed a question on Facebook: "Is it morally legitimate to initiate violence and theft against non-violent people?"
Rosalind Adams, Chris Miller, Stephanie K. Baer, Sal Hernandez, Zoe Tillman, and Amber Jamieson contributed reporting to this story.
Correction: Thirteen people were charged in connection to a plot to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. A previous version of this post misstated the number of people charged.