NOTE: This article previously described the militia group’s mandate incorrectly. Global News has made the change, and regrets the error.
Federal agents and state officials say they have thwarted a plot by a militia group to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and violently overthrow state governments.
The FBI announced on Thursday that it had arrested six men in connection with the alleged conspiracy to kidnap Whitmer. Seven other men were arrested on terror-related charges at the state level.
The suspects were allegedly plotting to grab Whitmer from her vacation home in northern Michigan before the U.S. presidential election.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel says the seven terror suspects were linked to a militia group called the Wolverine Watchmen.
The seven suspects allegedly tried to identify police officers’ homes in order to “target” and “threaten” them to “instigate a civil war,” Nessel said. They also allegedly planned to attack the Michigan Capitol building and kidnap the governor.
Paul Bellar, 21, Shawn Fix, 38, Eric Molitor, 36, Michael Null, 38, William Null, 38, Pete Musico, 42, and Joseph Morrison, 42, were charged with terror-related acts under Michigan law.
The six men arrested by the FBI had planned to meet Wednesday to “make a payment on explosives and exchange tactical gear,” according to an affidavit filed in federal court.
Ty Garbin, Adam Fox, Kaleb Franks, Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta, all of Michigan, have been named in the FBI affidavit. Barry Croft of Delaware was also identified. The suspects’ ages and photos were not immediately available.
The FBI first caught onto the alleged plot through social media posts in early 2020, according to the affidavit. They used confidential sources and undercover agents to follow along as the militia group allegedly plotted to overthrow several state governments that they believe are “violating the U.S. Constitution.”
Fox and Croft allegedly met with 13 others in Dublin, Ohio, on June 6 to hatch the plan, according to the affidavit. They discussed creating a self-sufficient society based on the U.S. Bill of Rights, and talked about “murdering ‘tyrants’ or ‘taking’ a sitting governor,” the FBI said. They ultimately decided to boost their numbers by recruiting neighbours and reaching out to militia groups, including one based in Michigan.
The group had also discussed storming the Michigan Capitol and using Molotov cocktails against police, according to the affidavit. They eventually dismissed that idea and focused their attention on kidnapping Whitmer, according to the FBI.
Whitmer, a Democrat, has been fiercely criticized by conservative groups since the coronavirus pandemic began. She had imposed some of the strictest lockdown measures in the United States during the early days of the pandemic, though most of those measures have since been lifted.
Armed protesters marched on the state capitol in April and May to protest the lockdowns, while others stood outside with signs comparing her to Adolf Hitler.
U.S. President Donald Trump also attacked Whitmer on Twitter during the unrest, calling her “Half” Whitmer and urging her to heed the armed protesters’ demands.
“LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” he tweeted on Apr. 17.
Whitmer noted that Trump did not condemn white supremacists in last week’s debate with Joe Biden and instead told a far-right group to “stand back and stand by.”
“Hate groups heard the president’s words not as a rebuke but as a rallying cry, as a call to action,” Whitmer said at a press conference. “When our leaders speak, their words matter. They carry weight.”
President Trump has repeatedly claimed without evidence that Antifa is the real threat. Last week, for example, he refused to condemn white supremacy after he was specifically asked to do so during the first presidential debate. Instead, Trump told the Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group, to “stand back and stand by.”
“But I’ll tell you what: Somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left, because this is not a right-wing problem, this is a left-wing problem,” he said.
White supremacist extremists are the “most persistent and lethal threat” to security in the United States, according to a Department of Homeland Security assessment released earlier this week.
A Facebook account belonging to a Brandon Caserta was swiftly removed after the charges were announced.
Global News viewed Caserta’s Facebook page before it was taken down, and it showed several joking memes about Kyle Rittenhouse, the militia gunman who allegedly killed two protesters in Kenosha, Wis., and a conspiracy theory post claiming that Trump was faking his COVID-19 diagnosis.
Several videos on the page showed Caserta complaining about being “robbed” by the government.
He made similar comments on a TikTok account that he promoted through his Facebook page.
“I tell you what’s like, one of the hardest challenges in life that you’ll probably never be able to get away with,” he says in a video posted Wednesday. “And that’s to not get robbed by the state.”
—With files from The Associated Press