The ties that bind the men charged in the plot to kidnap Michigan's governor
By GUS BURNS, ROBERTO ACOSTA AND JOHN TUNISON | mlive.com | Published: October 20, 2020
WALKER, Mich. (Tribune News Service) — Some struggled with substance abuse. Others were Marine Corps veterans. There are convicts, a licensed power plant mechanic and President Donald Trump supporters. One called the commander in chief a “tyrant,” another attended a George Floyd protest. Most come from rural Michigan towns, others from populated suburbia.
A deeper look into the backgrounds of 14 men charged in an alleged plot to kidnap the Michigan governor and spark a civil war reveals varied lifestyles and ideologies. The common traits that appear to unite the men, however, is their disdain for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and a fondness for guns.
The conspiracy to kidnap Whitmer began to take form following a June 6 planning meeting in Dublin, Ohio, where nearly 13 men from up to five militias in as many states converged to discuss the creation of a self-sufficient society based on the Bill of Rights, FBI Special Agent Richard J. Trask II, who led the investigation, said in the criminal complaint and during testimony at a federal preliminary hearing in Grand Rapids last week.
They were fed up with lockdown rules put in place to slow spread of the coronavirus, especially in states like Michigan and Virginia, where the men felt governors were acting extraordinarily tyrannical.
While it’s unclear if the president’s remarks provoked outrage with those specific states, Trump mentioned both in a quick succession of tweets posted to the president’s Twitter page before lunch on April 17. “Liberate Michigan” and “Liberate Virginia, and save your great Second Amendment. It is under siege!” the Trump posts said.
“Several members talked about murdering ‘tyrants’ or ‘taking’ a sitting governor” during the Ohio meeting, the FBI said. “The group decided they needed to increase their numbers and encouraged each other to talk to their neighbors and spread their message.”
The “message” returned to Michigan, where members of a November 2019-formed militia group calling itself the Wolverine Watchmen joined the effort. Recruiting escalated at a subsequent Second Amendment gun rally outside the Capitol Building in Lansing on June 18.
What followed according to the FBI were firearms and tactical training drills, planning sessions, talk of sending out mail bombs — referred to as “cupcakes” in text messages — surveillance missions, the purchase of a high-voltage Taser, bomb testing and a fundraiser to acquire explosives for the detonation of a highway overpass.
The early stages of the plan involved storming the Capitol Building in Lansing with 200 men and putting Whitmer on trial for treason, the FBI said. It evolved between June and October and the focus shifted to abducting Whitmer at her vacation home in Antrim County’s Elk Rapids. Following the arrests of the alleged plotters on Oct. 7, one of the planners said the intent was to kidnap Whitmer and strand her on a disabled boat “in the middle of Lake Michigan,” Trask testified.
The members, described by state police as “terrorists,” sometimes referred to their planned uprising as “the boogaloo,” Trask said.
“The Boogaloo Bois (or Boys) are a loosely connected group of individuals who espouse violent anti-government sentiments,” the U.S. Department of Justice said. “The term ‘boogaloo’ itself references a supposedly impending second civil war in the United States and is associated with violent uprisings against the government.”
According to the Anti-Defamation League, those identifying as boogaloo boys are “increasingly engaged in real-world activities, as well as online activities, showing up at protests and rallies around gun rights, pandemic restrictions and police-related killings.”
In an effort to learn more about the men charged in the alleged plot to kidnap Whitmer, MLive reporters and photographers visited the homes of most of the suspects, spoke with neighbors, acquaintances, friends and bosses, reviewed court records, called relatives, submitted records requests for police reports and scoured social media. Based on MLive’s investigation, here is what we know about these accused men.
Adam Fox, 37, of Wyoming is federally charged with conspiracy to commit kidnapping, punishable by up to life in prison.
Identified by the FBI as the leader of the conspiracy, at the time of his arrest, Fox was living meagerly with his two dogs in a Grand Rapids-area vacuum repair shop, Vac Shack Vacuums — a 40-year-old business, at 36th Street SW and South Division Avenue.
He “lived in the basement, which is located under a trap door,” Trask said at Fox’s preliminary hearing.
The business owner, Brian Titus, said he was trying to help Fox, whom he’s know since Fox was a child. Fox was recently kicked out of his girlfriend’s Kalamazoo home following a breakup. Titus gave Fox a job in his shop, and said although Fox mentioned involvement with a militia, Titus had “no clue” violent plans were underway to kidnap the governor and overthrow the government.
Nevertheless, that’s what the FBI claims was happening in Fox’s subterranean bedroom when he invited members of the Wolverine Watchmen over for a meeting on June 20.
The FBI identified Fox as the president of the Michigan Three Percenters. The Three Percenters are a national organization of self-described “patriotic citizens who love their country,” according the group’s website.
“We are not anti-government” and we are “not a militia,” the website says. “In fact, we are very pro-government, so long as the government abides by the Constitution, doesn’t overstep its bounds, and remains ‘for the people and by the people.’ Our goal is to utilize the fail-safes put in place by our founders to rein in an overreaching government and push back against tyranny.”
Trask testified Friday that Fox previously belonged to Michigan Home Guard, self-described as “Michigan’s largest and most active militia.”
“He had since left that group or been removed from that group,” Trask said. “And then upon meeting the Wolverine Watchmen, I don’t know if he was ever a member of that group, officially.”
Fox attended the militia meeting on June 6 in Ohio. Fox then met a “founder” and later enlisted codefendant Ty Garbin, identified by the FBI as a leader of the Wolverine Watchmen, during a June 18 gun rights protest in Lansing. Garbin brought other militia members with him to the vacuum repair shop where Fox lived on June 20.
In an effort to preserve secrecy, the men were asked to leave their cell phones upstairs in the shop. What Fox didn’t know is that one of the Wolverine Watchmen attendees was already working with the FBI and wearing a wire that captured audio of the meeting, Trask testified.
A local police department first reported the social-media-formed Wolverine Watchmen to the FBI in March after learning the group was seeking home addresses of police officers. The FBI interviewed a member of the Wolverine Watchmen who raised concerns the group might “target and kill” law enforcement, Trask said in the criminal complaint. That member became an undercover informant for the government. He’s since spent “hundreds of hours” with Fox, according to Trask, and received $14,800 from the FBI for “reporting and expenses,” according to a criminal complaint.
“I know that at least a bulk, if not more, was for expenses that came out of their pocket,” Trask testified. He never met or spoke with the confidential informants, only their “agent handlers.”
During the June 20 basement meeting, Trask said the nine participants discussed “storming” the Capitol in Lansing, an effort Fox previously estimated during a secretly recorded phone call would take 200 men. Fox proposed firebombing police vehicles “to prevent a law enforcement response,” Trask testified Tuesday.
The participants, now defendants, used Wire, an encrypted messaging service to communicate, the FBI said. The software allowed users to send messages that are near impossible to intercept through external surveillance. The FBI, however, received many of the chat logs directly from their embedded informant. At one point, members became suspicious that authorities were intercepting their messages and they switched to a different encrypted chat service, Trask said. However, they included the undercover informant in those messages which allowed the FBI ongoing access to the conversations.
While participating in the encrypted conversations, Fox used the codename Alpha F*** You, according to the FBI.
Fox on several occasions cited Nov. 3 as an “endpoint” to whatever violence occurred, Trask said. His move-out date from the vacuum shop was set for Nov. 1.
Fox was bound over for trial in the U.S. District Court for western Michigan on Oct. 16. He is jailed without bond in Newaygo County. His next court hearing, a status conference, is scheduled for Nov. 4.
Barry G. Croft Jr., 44, of Bear, Delaware is federally charged with conspiracy to commit kidnapping, punishable by up to life in prison.
Croft is one of two defendants not from Michigan. He has a criminal past that went silent for more than two decades.
Based in part for his good behavior since the late 1990s, Delaware Gov. John Carney in April 2019, a week after Delaware revenue officials filed a state tax lien against Croft for more than $36,700, granted Croft a pardon for his past convictions.
Croft in December 1997 was convicted in Delaware of possessing a firearm during the commission of a felony. He spent three years in prison on that conviction. Prior to that, he spent a year incarcerated, a stint that ended in March 1996, the Associated Press reports. Prior convictions in 1994 and 1996 were for burglary, theft and receiving stolen property, the AP reported.
It’s not clear from records or testimony when Croft and Fox initially met, but they spearheaded the effort to recruit Michigan militia members for an attack on state government and were both in attendance at the June 6 multi-militia meeting in Ohio, the FBI said.
Croft, appearing with a tan bald head and an unruly gray beard in his mugshot, made trips from the East Coast to Wisconsin for firearms training exercise between July 10 and July 12, and to Luther for tactical training and to perform surveillance on Whitmer’s lake house between Sept. 12 and Sept. 13, the FBI said. At the latter meeting, Croft arrived to the September gathering with what he called his “chemistry set,” actually components for a makeshift explosive device using balloons, gun powder and BBs for shrapnel.
The men set up silhouettes of mock people in a field to test how deadly their homemade bombs might be. Trask said some of those damaged silhouettes were still set up when the FBI raided the property on Oct. 7.
When the group split up into three cars to drive to Whitmer’s vacation home, Croft rode with Fox and a man named Red, actually an undercover informant for the FBI brought into the fold by Fox due to his explosives knowledge, Trask said. They made a pitstop along the way to look at an overpass along Highway M-31 they were considering blowing up during the operation to slow down the expected police response.
During the pit stop, Croft said Whitmer has “uncontrolled power” and “all good things must come to an end,” Trask testified.
He’d previously made comments on Twitter seeming to convey his violent, subversive ideology. “Account suspended,” it now says if you visit Croft’s purported Twitter account online, but screen shots from Croft’s account were copied and shared prior to its deletion.
“You want to make America great again, green light us on liberals,” he typed in an Oct. 12 tweet directed to Trump. “We’ll take this trash out for humanity’s sake.”
An order to transport Croft from Delaware to Michigan was issued Oct. 13. He did not appear in federal court along with his co-defendants this week and no bond hearing has been held or scheduled, according to online federal court records.
Ty Garbin, 24, of Hartland Township is federally charged with conspiracy to commit kidnapping, punishable by up to life in prison.
Gary Hovsepian wasn’t sure what was going on after spotting some activity at the residence next door to his well-kept home with a small garden in the Hartland Meadows mobile home park in Livingston County’s Hartland Township.
It was around 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 7 when he saw a person cutting across his lawn.
“I thought maybe he was a meter reader because there’s a meter right here,” said Hovsepian, 65, as he watered a variety of plants last week.
Thinking it was a bit late, but not too out of the ordinary, Hovsepian fell asleep.
It was a little more than three hours later when the picture became a bit clearer.
“About 12 (a.m.), I got up again. I went to check outside…and the whole house was lit up,” said Hovsepian. “I thought they must be having a party, but it wasn’t really a party night and then I started seeing FBI on their T-shirts.”
Multiple police agencies had descended on the Lansing Avenue home registered to 24-year-old Ty Garbin.
“I was met by one of the SWAT team guys and he had a rifle and helmet with the light on top,” said Hovsepian, adding law enforcement vehicles were lined up and down the street. “He asked what I wanted. I said I’m curious I want to know what’s going on next door.”
Hovsepian spotted a broken-out window on the unit, a vent ripped near the skirting that’d been tossed on his lawn.
“He said we served a warrant. I’m thinking to myself that’s one hell of a warrant. They must have done something bad,” he said. “They had a big UPS type van. It had sliding doors and they had LED lights all the way around…it lit up their driveway like it was daytime.”
Garbin had lived in the mobile home park, but he also owns property in Luther and Cadillac. The FBI said Garbin’s land in Luther, where the Sept. 12 and Sept. 13 training and surveillance missions were conducted, is being purchased on a land contract, although there is no record of any land purchases by Garbin in county property records.
Neighbor Mark Deyoung, who has lived in the Hartland Township mobile home park since 2007, noted the lot where Garbin’s home sits had been empty until about three years ago.
Garbin received an airframe and powerplant mechanic’s license in February 2018, per the Federal Aviation Administration website.
He met other suspects at a Second Amendment rally at the Capitol earlier this year.
Garbin, who went by the codename “Gunny” in encrypted conversations, according to the FBI, suggested to his co-conspirators that they shoot up Whitmer’s vacation home, federal documents say. The same day, he said he did not want to go after the Capitol, but was “cool” with attacking Whitmer’s home, even if it only resulted in destruction of property, according to documents.
The FBI case concentrates heavily on activity between Sept. 12 and Sept. 13, which agents say occurred at rural property Garbin owns by way of a land contract in Luther on the west side of the state.
The land was used for training drills, testing out makeshift explosives and as a jump-off point when four of the charged men, Fox, Garbin, Kaleb Franks and Brandon Caserta, along with an undercover informant and four other unnamed people, split up into three different cars and scouted Whitmer’s lake house on Sept. 12.
Trask said Garbin drove to Whitmer’s property with a Brian Higgins of Dells, Wisconsin and Franks.
Fox participated in an earlier surveillance mission at Whitmer’s property, according to the FBI. Garbin was invited to join by an undercover informant but declined.
Garbin also “initially expressed reluctance” about the kidnapping plan, the FBI affidavit said.
Garbin’s neighbor couldn’t believe the militia members were plotting violence against the government “right next door,” and worries how some radical people will react if Trump loses the presidential election.
“Are these people going to try to start a civil war or something?” Hovsepian said.
Tim Hay said he isn’t worried for his 87-year-old mother’s safety. She lives three houses down from Garbin’s residence where a plywood board now covers the broken window. No one answered at Garbin’s home when a reporter knocked on the door multiple times.
Hay did express some distress at the current political climate and what may be leading some groups to consider violence against the government.
“It surprised the hell out of me when I saw the story on the news,” Hay said. "Anything can happen anywhere anymore. It doesn’t matter where you live, I guess.
“I don’t want to get political, but it sounds to me like Donald Trump is endorsing hate and racism and all that stuff and all these militia groups are starting to go nuts because that’s what he wants them to do.”
Garbin was bound over for trial on Oct. 16. He is jailed without bond in Newaygo County. His next court hearing, a status conference, is scheduled for Nov. 4.
Daniel Harris, 23, of Lake Orion is federally charged with conspiracy to commit kidnapping, punishable by up to life in prison.
Tim Fletcher’s family goes back three generations along Beach Drive in Orion Township.
His grandfather Albert Geltz owned several lots along the dirt road lined with single-family homes bordered by Tommy’s Lake
“We’ve been here 100 years,” said Fletcher, whose home is located next to Harris'. “I’ve been coming out here since I was a kid. In fact, the swing that’s out here my mother…swung on when she was a little girl, so now my children have done the same also. I’ve been here forever.”
Through all those years, nothing comes to mind like what took place last week when law enforcement agencies swarmed a Beach Drive home and took 23-year-old Daniel Harris into custody in connection with the suspected plot.
While Fletcher attended a birthday party and wasn’t home when the activity first began, he encountered FBI, Oakland County Sheriff’s Office, and Michigan State Police vehicles lining the road outside the Harris’s home upon his return.
“They were all over the place. We walked down,” he noted. “We knew something heavy was going on just because of all the equipment and the people and the manpower that was here...they had it locked down. It was interesting.”
Barbara Goodman lives right across the road from the Harris residence, with newly posted No Trespassing signs up on trees in the yard near a circle drive.
“It was a big explosion,” she said of what triggered her to find out about the incident. “I thought maybe the house caught on fire.”
Harris, who used the alias “sillllllllll” in encrypted group chats according to the FBI, was present at a July 18 meeting in Ohio when the idea of attacking an MSP facility was discussed, authorities have said.
On Aug. 9, Harris was with others for another tactical training session in Munith. In an encrypted chat involving Fox, Garbin, and Franks, Harris sent a message stating, “Have one person go to her house. Knock on the door and when she answers it just cap her . . . at this point. (Expletive) it. I mean . . . (expletive), catch her walking into the building and act like a passers-by and fixing dome her then yourself whoever does it,” according to federal documents.
While Harris attended the September meetup in Luther, he did not join the others who performed surveillance of Whitmer’s vacation home on Sept. 12. He “expressed regret” over his absence when the group met the following day, the FBI said.
Encrypted group chats indicate Harris, and three other suspects planned to meet with an undercover FBI employee on Oct. 7 to make a payment on explosives and exchange tactical gear.
He served in the U.S. Marine Corps from June 2015 until June 2019, attaining the rank of corporal E-4 with a specialty as a rifleman.
Harris had been deployed overseas once, from August 2016 until February 2017 in Japan.
He earned the Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal, Humanitarian Service Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, Korean Defense Service Medal and Sea Service Deployment Ribbon.
His final duty assignment was with the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
Harris worked briefly for Lagarda Security, headquartered in Burton, south of Flint in Genesee County.
Brent Leder, attorney for Lagarda Security, said Harris worked for the company from July 2019 until September 2019.
“He cleared background,” noted Leder. “There was nothing spectacular about him. Nobody really remembers him.”
Harris left Lagarda to take a position with DK Security, Leder said.
“I’ve met him a couple of, handful of times and just like I’m meeting you, you’d never know any difference,” Fletcher said. “A couple of times his dog got loose, and I spoke to Daniel. I helped him get his dog. His dog was just running around doing what all dogs do, you know.”
Goodman was a bit sad for the family still living at Harris' home.
“I feel sorry for those people right now,” she said. “They blew the door off. They blew the back door open. It was crazy.”
Fletcher described the neighborhood as “quiet.”
“I was never put back by him at all or his family,” he said. “Yeah, it was a shock to me.”
Harris, deemed a “serious risk” to the community, is jailed in Newaygo County in federal custody pending trial.
Paul Bellar, 21, of Milford, is charged in Jackson County with providing material support for terrorist acts and gang membership, both crimes punishable by up to 20 years in prison, and felony firearm, which carries an additional mandatory two-year prison sentence.
Bellar, the youngest participant in the alleged kidnapping plot, provided plans for tactical maneuvers, coded language for covert communications, hosted meetings at his residence, provided ammunition and coordinated logistics for trainings contrary to Michigan laws, per an affidavit filed by state police.
Rebecca Timmerman, a former neighbor, wasn’t surprised by the accusations.
She lives in the Child Lake Estates mobile home park in Milford Township where Bellar previously lived before moving to South Carolina, where his father resides. Police arrested Bellar in South Carolina and he is awaiting extradition back to Jackson County.
“Nobody had really seen him much too except for screaming up and down the street with guns in his hands all the time, marching around,” she said while watching her kids play in the yard at their corner lot. “He thought he was the one that everybody is supposed to answer to supposedly.”
Timmerman was taken aback when she heard about those alleged gatherings taking place at his residence in the mobile home park nestled up next to Childs Lake.
“It’s like wow,” she said. “That was so close.”
When she heard about the full plot though, Timmerman replied: “It kind of put all the puzzle pieces together and I could understand it more now.”
She noted several neighbors had asked Bellar about why the “self-proclaimed neighborhood watch person” carried long rifles up and down the street.
“He was like, I don’t care,” said Timmerman. “The police don’t protect. I’m going to do it. I’m like OK, which is ridiculous because Milford (police) are constantly in here every day, nonstop.”
It’s her understanding when the park’s management made a move to evict Bellar “he had enough weapons for an arsenal.”
“Definitely concerning especially with all the amount of kids walking around here playing,” added Timmerman.
Milford Fire Chief Thomas Moore didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary about Paul Bellar when, as a teen, Bellar participated in the department’s cadet program, which prepped young people for a possible career in firefighting.
“Back then he was a nice, respectful person,” commented Moore. "There was absolutely nothing that would by his manner or his dress of anything that would make you say, uh oh.
“Somewhere between A and B, I don’t know what happened to Paul.”
If he had not turned to military service after high school, Moore said Bellar would have been a good candidate for employment as a paid, on-call firefighter.
Capt. Andrew Layton, Deputy State Public Affairs Officer for the Michigan National Guard, said Bellar signed an enlistment contract in April 2017 and reported to basic training in June 2017.
“He failed to complete his initial entry training and his contract was subsequently canceled in May 2018. Ultimately, he was released before earning the right to call himself a service member,” said Layton. “The serious allegations related to the charges announced on Oct. 8th contradict every principle the U.S. military stands for and are against the defining values of military service.”
William Null, 38, of Shelbyville is charged in Antrim County with providing material support for terrorist acts, punishable by up to 20 years in prison and felony firearm, punishable by a mandatory additional two years in prison.
An MLive reporter previously encountered William Null, who has a twin brother, Michael Null, also charged in the state’s case, during a Civil War monument protest in Ottawa County’s Allendale Township.
William Null, armed and standing alongside a man who identified himself as a member of the Michigan Liberty Militia, said he was counter-protesting efforts to remove the controversial statue in June.
“They’re getting their education from the ‘Mein Kampf’ book,” Null said at the time. “This is exactly what Hitler did before he killed 6 million Jews. What is their intent? After they destroy our country and they destroy our nation and they destroy our history, what is their purpose after that? What 6 million people are they going to kill?”
The Null brothers are accused of participating in training exercises, planning meetings and acting as “lookouts” during surveillance of Whitmer’s vacation home in September.
William Null lives in a rural part of western Barry County, near the small community of Orangeville.
Neighbors said he recently began erecting a metal fence along the front of his property on Nine Mile Road. After news about the kidnapping plot surfaced, some were suspicious about its purpose.
William Null’s closest neighbor, though, said it was simply to comply with complaints from local zoning officials about scrap and junk on his property. The neighbor, who didn’t want his name disclosed, said he knows Null fairly well and describes him as an “all around nice guy.”
“He may have gotten caught up in something that he didn’t realize what was going on,” the neighbor said. “He’s got more sense than that.”
The neighbor said William Null talked about gun rights but he never knew him to be anti-government.
“He was all about the 2nd Amendment. That’s why he was in the militia, to protect the gun-owners rights,” he said.
No one answered the door at William Null’s home last week. Inside the fence, the yard was strewn with random items including a lawnmower, grill, a truck, building supplies and even a large shipping container that might be seen on a freighter or perhaps hauled by a semi-truck.
Neighbors said Null moved to the property five to six years ago. The house appeared to be under renovation. Police and federal agents raided the house last week after dark, shut down Nine Mile Road and set up portable lighting.
Rick Van Den Berge, who lives across the street from the Null property, said he never had much interaction with Null but had an uneasy feeling about the fence and Null displaying the former Mississippi state flag on his front porch. The flag contains the Confederate symbol.
William Null is jailed in Antrim County on a $250,000 cash bond. He has a probable cause conference scheduled for Oct. 21 and a preliminary exam on Oct. 28.
Michael Null, 38, of Plainwell is charged in Antrim County with providing material support for terrorist acts, punishable by up to 20 years in prison and felony firearm, punishable by a mandatory additional two years in prison.
The twin brother of William Null lives on a gravel section of 109th Avenue, not far from Plainwell in southeast Allegan County. The address is about nine miles south of his brother’s home.
His yard also is strewn with cars, two vehicle engines, appliances and various other items. Two flags, a yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flag and a “Three Percenters” flag, were shown on poles at the front of the house.
No one answered the door at Michael Null’s house last week. A relative arrived as an MLive reporter and photographer waited at the door, but he said he could not speak about the arrests or case.
Bob Veldt has lived in a house next door since 1961.
He said the area is quiet and there was never any hint that Michael Null was part of a militia group, let alone an alleged plot to kidnap the governor. He would see Michael Null only in passing and believed he lived on the property about seven years.
“It kind of blows my mind. How far did you think you would get with a plan like that?” he asked.
Another nearby neighbor, Tim Bartels, said it was a big surprise to learn that someone in his area was charged in the plot. He also didn’t know Michael Null well, other than seeing him outside on occasion and talking to him while cutting wood once.
He said Michael Null’s property was quiet.
“We never even heard him shoot guns down there and a lot of people around here shoot guns,” he said.
Michael Null is jailed in Antrim County on a $250,000 cash bond. He has a probable cause conference scheduled for Oct. 21 and a preliminary exam on Oct. 28.
Brandon Caserta, 33, of Canton is federally charged with conspiracy to commit kidnapping, punishable by up to life in prison.
Caserta, according to neighbors of his apartment complex in the busy Detroit suburb of Canton, said he was quiet.
The same doesn’t hold true for his online and social media presence. He posted at least 16 since-deleted videos to a YouTube account espousing anti-government beliefs, in one video dry-firing a military-styled gun, ejecting the magazine and quickly inserting another one for the camera.
Red-bearded and tattooed, a black flag with a red “anarchy” symbol hangs behind Caserta in several of the videos.
“Trump is not your friend, dude,” he said in one. “It amazes me that people actually believe that when he’s shown over and over and over again that he’s a tyrant.”
In another video circulating on social media Caserta discusses killing “government thugs.”
“If this (expletive) goes down ... I’m telling you what, dude, I’m taking out as many of those (expletive) as I can, dude,” Caserta said. "I’m sick of being robbed and enslaved by the state.
“If we’re doin a recon or something and we come up on some of them, dude, you better not give them the chance. You either tell them to go right now or else they’re going to die, because they are the (expletive) enemy, period.”
(Video contains explicit language)
The blinds to Caserta’s one-story apartment, which is on the corner of a unit with seven other similar units, were closed last week. There were no signs of the police raid that occurred there on Oct. 7.
An indoor armchair and a soggy piece of plywood leaned against the building were the only things visible on the patio.
“I saw two state police cars parked in the parking lot, just sitting there,” Kathryn Reicha, who lives in the complex, recalls from the night of the arrest.
One neighbor, who asked not to be named, said Caserta was a quiet neighbor whom she never really communicated with.
Since-deleted social media accounts indicated Caserta has previously worked at Dominoes Pizza and as a bike mechanic, Buzz Feed News reported.
Federal prosecutors said Caserta believes “the end times are approaching.”
“I believe that with every cell of my body” Caserta said in a recording played in court Tuesday. He has a problem with authority, is “extremely angry,” feels “enslaved by the state” and has mental health issues that he is in denial of, assistant U.S. Attorney Nils R. Kessler said.
The FBI said Caserta attended training and planning sessions in Cambria, Wisconsin between July 10 and July 12, in the Lake Orion home of Harris on July 26 and at Garbin’s land in Luther between Sept. 12 and Sept. 23. While he was in Luther, Caserta did not join others during their surveillance of Whitmer’s lake house, the FBI said. He did, however, join followup discussions surrounding the kidnapping plot.
“I would rather not scare them,” Caserta said on Sept. 13, in response to an FBI undercover agent announcing that Fox wanted to kill Whitmer. “Especially if it’s a (expletive) political parasite. The world would be better without that person, I’ll say that.”
Caserta’s attorney, Michael Darragh Hills, called his client’s statements “inflammatory rhetoric” protected by the Constitution.
“We might not like it, the court might use it to detain my client, but it doesn’t have anything to do with kidnapping the governor or conspiracy to kidnap the governor,” Hills said in court Friday.
Caserta’s absence from the surveillance mission doesn’t absolve him, according to the government.
He does “appear to be less involved than some of the other defendants,” assistant U.S. AG Nils said at Caserta’s preliminary hearing. “but less involved is not the same thing as not involved.”
U.S. Magistrate Sally J. Berens ordered Caserta to remain jailed without bond pending trial. He’s currently jailed under federal custody in Newaygo County.
Shawn Fix, 38, of Belleville is charged in Antrim County with providing material support for terrorist acts, punishable by up to 20 years in prison and felony firearm, punishable by a mandatory additional two years in prison.
The white, two-story rental house on a rural, dirt road in Sumpter Township, where neighbors say Fix lived with his fiancee and her three young children, sat vacant following Fix’s arrest.
“Truckers 4 Trump” read one if two pro-Trump campaign signs posted in the front yard. A vanity plate on the front bumper of a pickup parked in the driveway with one flat tire depicted the head of a bald eagle with a Confederate flag in the background.
A yellow “Don’t tread on me” Gadsden’s flag featuring a recoiling, fang-bearing snake hung from the porch.
Fix, identified by assistant AG Gregory Townsend as a member of the Wolverine Watchmen, said he worked as a truck driver for AD Transport Express Inc. in Canton, where he earned an average of $1,100 per week, at his Oct. 9 video arraignment in Antrim County. Fix has $1,000 in the bank.
“Country living at its finest,” is the slogan of Sumpter Township. People hunt in their own backyards. The smell of burn piles filled the air as a group of kids drove up and down the street in their parents' golf carts last week.
One of the children said they previously heard the sound of “full-auto” rapid gunfire coming from Fix’s backyard, which according to property records is about eight acres and owned by a Ronald Fix.
They watched from down the street as police, FBI and a SWAT truck swarmed the house on Oct. 7 and officers escorted children from the house.
“I don’t know his political views, I wave to him every now and then,” said Jerry Adkins, an across-the-street neighbor, who’s lived on the road since 1965. “I was surprised it was so close to home, but the way our society is coming, nothing really surprises me.”
Gunfire is not out of the ordinary in the area.
“You sit out on your porch and hear gunfire all the time,” Adkins said. “Come on now. We’re out here in the country.”
He recalled the evening raid with “wall to wall cars” a “shock” and the accusations against the suspects “a little bit out there.”
State police said in an affidavit that Fix hosted one of the planning sessions related to the kidnapping plot at his home.
Occasionally, Adkins saw visitors at the Fix home, but “nothing unusual.”
“Michigan does have militia,” Adkins said. “I am not a member. Do I believe in the Michigan militia? I believe you have the right to believe in what you want to believe in.”
Police also accuse Fix of participating in surveillance of Whitmer’s vacation home in September and helping other members to identify the address.
“Fix is innocent of the charges,” said his retained attorney, Nichole Poore-Sanchez.
Fix has previous criminal charges for driving while under the influence of alcohol and assault.
At 2 a.m. on Dec. 26, 2019, Fix lost control whole driving on a dirt road in Sumpter Township. The rear end of the 1999 Ford Taurus Fix was driving struck a tree causing the car to roll over. A 25-year-old woman passenger severed her right ring finger and was hospitalized. Fix failed a field sobriety test and was later administered a breathalyzer test that registered a 0.2% blood-alcohol level.
His sentenced included over $1,600 in fines, community service, probation, mandated Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and random alcohol and drug testing.
At 4 a.m. on Nov. 18, 2012, Sumpter Township police responded to an assault and discovered a “highly intoxicated” man with a “gash on his head,” the police report said. Fix had an argument with and punched the 35-year-old man, who fell to the ground and injured his head, police said.
The victim didn’t want to press charges and they were eventually dismissed.
Fix is currently jailed in Antrim County on a $250,000 cash bond. He has a probable cause conference scheduled for Oct. 21 and a preliminary exam on Oct. 28.
Kaleb Franks, 26, of Waterford is federally charged with conspiracy to commit kidnapping, punishable by up to life in prison.
A knock at the door if his two-story home in Waterford last week elicited a flurry of yelps from small-sounding dogs. No one answered. “Come in and cozy up,” read the door mat. An American flag dangled from a pole on the front of the house and Halloween decorations were strung to the porch railing.
“No trespassing” signs where fastened to the mesh fence surrounding a lot at the side of the home.
“Please get off my property,” a woman said to a reporter on the sidewalk as she pulled up and began hauling groceries into the home minutes later.
Franks' Portage-based attorney Scott Graham on Tuesday told a federal judge on Tuesday his client’s role in the alleged plot was as a “follower, not a leader.”
Franks attended Brighton High School in 2010 and 2011, based on a review of yearbooks but isn’t listed as participating in any extracurricular activities and it’s not clear if he graduated. He did take multiple courses at Washtenaw Community College, but did not graduate, according to a spokesperson there.
In federal court arguments to deny Franks' bond, Kessler noted that Franks was previously convicted of a home invasion that was erased from his permanent record under Michigan Holmes Youthful Trainee Act, a statute that allows first-time offenders to clear their records if they stay out of trouble following conviction. Franks completed his probation without issue and spent multiple months in jail, his attorney said.
“He was an addict,” Graham said. “It is undisputed. He got into trouble six or seven years ago. Since 2013 or 2014, he has been sober ... and has been such a model at trying to correct the situation that he has gone into the profession of being a peer advocate.”
An online professional page that appears to belong to Franks lists him as being employed as a recovery technician at Meridian Health Services in Waterford since 2016. Representatives from Meridian Health would neither confirm nor deny Franks' employment there.
Following his legal and addiction troubles, Franks worked at Guido’s Pizza in Brighton for about two years between 2014 and 2016, confirmed Franks' former boss, Kenneth Popchock.
The two remained in touch, even after Franks moved on.
“It doesn’t sound like him,” Popchock said of the FBI allegations. "It’s completely out of character from what I know of him, and I’ve spoken to his girlfriend and some of his friends who’ve said the same.
“I’ve never heard him speak about anything even remotely radical.”
Popchock said he hopes the claims are inaccurate or there’s “an explanation” because Franks was “doing really well.”
“He said he really liked helping people (as an addiction counselor). He could see where they were coming from because he’s been around those things before,” Popchock said. “He really seemed like he was going to do some good for the community.”
During arguments against Franks receiving bond pending trial, FBI Agent Trask said Franks “recently” asked Garbin to help him create “ghost guns,” firearms that do not have a serial number, making them untraceable.
Trask said the guns were intended for a friend of Franks, who is a previously convicted “drug dealer.”
Magistrate Berens denied bond. Franks is currently jailed under federal custody in Newaygo County.
Pete Musico, 42, and Joseph Morrison, 26, both of Munith in Jackson County, are each charged in Jackson County with committing a threat of terrorism, gang membership and providing material support for a terrorist act, each count a 20-year felony, and felony firearm, which is punishable by a mandatory additional two years in prison.
Hidden just beyond a treeline full of vibrant fall colors in Munith sits a two-acre plot of land where state and federal law enforcement officials claim heavily-armed men trained to storm the Michigan Capitol and kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. It is also the home of Musico and Morrison, who are currently being jailed in Jackson County on $10 million bonds.
Morrison owns the property.
State police in an affidavit said Morrison and Musico are “founding fathers” of the Wolverine Watchmen.
“Joseph Morrison is considered Wolverine Watchmen’s ‘commander’” and is known by the online moniker ‘Boogaloo Bunyan,’" state police said.
Investigators say several tactical and planning meetings were held on Morrison’s land, including a June 28 training during which Musico said: “If you’re not OK with kidnapping, then you need to leave,” according to FBI Agent Trask.
Residents living near the home where this alleged tactical training took place were not all that surprised, recalling multiple occasions where they would hear hundreds of rounds being fired on the property.
“There was one weekend where I had to of heard at least 500 rifle rounds being shot off in less than an hour,” one resident said. “I thought something might have been up. This is deep country and hearing gunshots is common, but not that many so fast.”
On Morrison’s property, surrounded by private property and no trespassing signs, sits a single-story home adorned with a Confederate flag flowing in the wind, a camper trailer, children’s toys and multiple cars that appear to be in need of repair
“I know hindsight is 20/20, but everything started making a lot more sense after the FBI raid,” a neighbor said. “In the two years they have been on that property, I never saw them. Not once. Only knew someone was living there when you heard the gunshots and the explosions.”
Multiple neighbors spoke with MLive but declined to give their names, stating they do not believe everyone involved in the plot has been arrested.
Musico and Morrison were interviewed alongside Fox by a WOOD-TV, Channel 8 Grand Rapids reporter during the June 18 gun rights protest in Lansing. All three men were armed and wearing Hawaiian shirts, a trademark for the boogaloo boys movement.
“It’s summertime,” Musico said when asked about his fashion choice. “It’s Hawaiian time. We like Hawaiian shirts.”
In another undated and apparently self-shot video of Musico circulating on social media, he said “the government is starting to overreach. It’s time for people to start stepping up and stepping back against the system, against the people in government.”
A probable cause conference for Musico and Morrison was adjourned Friday while the AG’s Office preps thousands of documents to hand over to the defendants' court-appointed attorneys.
Attorney Philip Curtis previously represented Musico at his arraignment and feels the $10 million bond is exorbitant.
“I’ll be interested to see what evidence they have to support the charges against Mr. Musico as it appears that he may have had very little involvement and just been swept up in a broad net cast by law enforcement given the nature of the allegations,” Curtis said.
The men are arguing their bonds, which Jackson County District Judge Michael Klaren set at 40 times the amount of the bonds for the codefendants charged in Antrim County. A hearing to review the bond is set for Oct. 23 and the probable cause hearing is scheduled for Dec. 4.
Eric Molitor, 36, of Wexford County’s Clam Lake is charged in Antrim County with providing material support for terrorist acts, punishable by up to 20 years in prison, and felony firearm, which carries an additional mandatory two-year prison sentence.
Molitor is a gun rights advocate who in January presented the Wexford County Board of Commissioners a resolution to designate the community a “Second Amendment sanctuary county.”
The resolution, which passed unanimously on Feb. 19, cited a Supreme Court decision in U.S. v Miller in its claim that use or possession of a gun for purposes related to “preservation of a well-regulated militia” is protected by the Second Amendment.
State police in a court affidavit said Molitor joined other members of the conspiracy to perform surveillance on Whitmer’s vacation home in September and used his cell phone to photograph the property.
Molitor at his arraignment received the lowest bond among any of the men charged in the alleged plot so far, $250,000 cash-surety or 10%. He remained in the Antrim County Jail as of Friday night.
He has a probable cause conference scheduled for Oct. 21 and a preliminary exam on Oct. 28.
Brian Higgins, 51, of Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin is charged in Antrim County with a count of providing material support for terrorist acts, punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
Wisconsin state troopers arrested Higgins in Portage, Wisconsin on Thursday night. He’s now jailed in Columbia County, Wisconsin and facing extradition to Michigan.
Michigan state police in a court affidavit said Higgins participated in training and planning exercises with the other suspects and attended the September surveillance mission at Whitmer’s lake house.
“In particular Brian Higgins, while on a nighttime surveillance of the governor’s home, provided the use of his night-vision goggles for the surveillance,” the affidavit said. “Additionally, he used a mounted digital dash camera located in his vehicle to record the surveillance of the governor’s home in order to aid in kidnapping plans.”
Trask said Higgins later said he did not want to participate in the kidnapping plot, which is why he wasn’t charged with conspiracy to commit kidnapping in federal court.
Several of the suspects attended a training exercise in Cambria, Wisconsin between July 10 and July 12. It’s not clear from police records or FBI testimony if Higgins was among them, but FBI agent Trask testified about at least two Wisconsin men riding along in separate cars during the surveillance of Whitmer’s Elk Rapids home.
Fox also mentioned Wisconsin during a planning meeting at the vacuum repair shop where he worked and lived in Grand Rapids on July 27.
At the time, Fox mentioned kidnapping Whitmer from her vacation home, what he called a “snatch and grab,” and taking her “to a secure location in Wisconsin for trial,” the FBI criminal complaint said.
Higgins is jailed and scheduled to appear for a bond hearing in Columbia County, Wisconsin at 10 a.m. Monday.
‘Bring the heat down’
While all 14 of the defendants are jailed, awaiting state or federal court hearings, political jousting over the issue continues.
At a campaign stop in Muskegon Saturday, Trump supporters, encouraged by the president’s criticism of Whitmer, chanted, “Lock her up, lock her up.”
“They say she was threatened right,” Trump said, “and she blamed me.”
Following arrests of the alleged kidnap plotters on Oct. 7, Whitmer said Trump \u2033refused to condemn white supremacists and hate groups, like these two Michigan militia groups."
“Stand back and stand by, he told them,” Whitmer said in reference to Trumps statement when he was asked to rebuke the Proud Boys at the Sept. 29 presidential debate. “Hate groups heard the president’s remarks not as a rebuke but as a rallying cry, a call to action.”
State police were on alert Saturday when armed men associated with the Boogalo Boys held a rally at the state Capitol. The event, which drew nearly 100 people, according to the Lansing State Journal, was pitched as a unity rally condemning violence and racism. It ended peacefully.
Whitmer on Sunday again called on the president and other leaders to address the volatile political climate and “bring the heat down.”
“It’s incredibly disturbing that the President of the United States, 10 days after a plot to kidnap, put me on trial, and execute me, 10 days after that was uncovered, the president is at it again and inspiring and incentivizing and inciting this kind of domestic terrorism,” Whitmer said on the NBC show Sunday morning. “It is wrong. It’s got to end. It is dangerous, not just for me and my family, but for public servants everywhere who are doing their jobs and trying to protect their fellow Americans.”
Contributing reporters: John Agar, Nathan Clark, Samuel Robinson, Ryan Boldrey
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