The suspects accused of plotting to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer also discussed kidnapping the governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam, over the state’s lockdown orders, according to testimony by an FBI agent Tuesday.
Special FBI agent Richard Trask, who was part of the investigation that thwarted a plot by right-wing militants to kidnap Whitmer at her vacation home before the Nov. 3 election, testified during a preliminary examination in US District Court in Grand Rapids. Six men were arrested for the kidnapping plot last week. Seven additional men, known to be members or associates of the group Wolverine Watchmen, face terrorism-related charges.
Trask testified that members of the right-wing militant group discussed kidnapping the Virginia governor during a June meeting in Ohio of multiple groups from "four to five" different states. Trask did not specifically name Northam.
“They discussed possible targets, taking a sitting governor, specifically issues with the governor of Michigan and Virginia based on the lockdown orders,” Trask said, adding that people in the meeting were unhappy with the governors’ responses to the coronavirus pandemic.
President Donald Trump has in the past embraced violent far-right groups who oppose the racial justice movement and coronavirus lockdowns. In April he tweeted “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” and "LIBERATE VIRGINIA!"
Northam's press secretary, Alena Yarmosky, issued a statement Tuesday casting blame on Trump's rhetoric.
"Here’s the reality: President Trump called upon his supporters to 'LIBERATE VIRGINIA' in April — just like Michigan," Yarmosky said in a statement. "In fact, the President regularly encourages violence against those who disagree with him. The rhetoric coming out of this White House has serious and potentially deadly consequences. It must stop."
Yarmosky added that the FBI had alerted key members of the governor's security team throughout the course of its investigation.
"Per security protocols for highly-classified information, neither the Governor nor other members of his staff were informed. At no time was the Governor or his family in imminent danger."
At Tuesday's hearing, a judge ordered three of the defendants, Kaleb Franks, Brandon Caserta, and Daniel Harris, to be jailed without bond. The hearings for two other men, Adam Fox and Ty Garbin, were moved to Friday. The sixth man, Barry Croft, was being held in Delaware, and was ordered to be transferred to Michigan.
During the hearing, multiple videos taken by some of the accused during "field training exercises," self-styled military training that included firearms training, medical training, and drills, were played for the courtroom, as were recordings where the men could be heard joking about kidnapping.
The men spoke together mainly on Wire, an encrypted messaging service app, where they used pseudonyms and shared videos and photos. In one, Garbin shared a photo of a short-barreled rifle, which the FBI agent noted is an illegal weapon, with a silencer attached. Authorities also played a Snapchat video filmed by Garbin showing his gun locker with multiple weapons, including that short-barreled rifle.
The group chat was initially called "Fuck around find out" and then "Bonfire Party," and was later renamed "The Boys" as their chat focused on their alleged plan to kidnap the governor from her vacation home in rural Michigan.
The app was chosen specifically so it could be deleted "with the click of a button" if federal agents found it, Harris wrote in the chat, not knowing that feds were being leaked the chats by one of the people in it.
At one point in August, a former member of the Wolverine Watchmen warned the men that "cops just questioned my old housemate, and my actions in the boogaloo movement," referring to the loosely organized far-right anti-government extremist movement.
FBI agent Trask pointed out that while leaders of the Wolverine Watchmen were encouraging their members to attend anti-lockdown protests, members of this accused group instead tried to keep a low public profile in recent months as they planned to kidnap the governor before next month's presidential election.
During Trask’s cross-examination, some of the defendants' attorneys suggested that “militia” group members were “military wannabes” and “crack pots who talk big” and that it was impossible to determine whether they intend to commit criminal activity.
However, Trask testified that the defendants openly talked about committing a crime — kidnapping the governor of Michigan.