The Trials Of The Attempted Kidnappers Of Governor Gretchen Whitmer Explained

In October 2020, the FBI unveiled a particularly strange conspiracy (per The New York Times). According to the federal authorities, a group of 13 men — many with ties to a right-wing group known as the Wolverine Watchmen — had been arrested and charged with planning to kidnap the Governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer. The domestic terror plot against Wittner, which allegedly involved these men, had been quite carefully scouted and involved an elaborate array of weaponry and explosives. What's more, the group had also discussed plans that went well beyond this kidnapping (via ABC 12 News).  

Many strange and unnerving details of the plot have come to light over the course of the trials that have been going on after the group was caught. Though the case is fairly recent, it has already featured so many twists and turns that it can be hard to keep track of every detail. With that in mind, here's a handy explainer of what's happened in the trials of the attempted kidnappers of Governor Whitmer. 

Note: Many aspects of the case are still ongoing as of October 2022, and all defendants haven't been convicted, so the following article will discuss several allegations about suspects who have not yet been found guilty in a court of law. 

The culprits were angry about lockdown measures

According to The Guardian, the FBI had been keeping a very close eye on the group for quite some time and had an informant in place to keep them up to date with their plans and actions. Six of the men who were allegedly involved were arrested on October 7, 2020, and charged on a federal level. The other seven faced state charges. The six conspirators — Adam Fox, Barry Croft, Ty Garbin, Kaleb Franks, Daniel Harris, and Brandon Caserta — faced charges that could imprison them for life. Apart from the kidnapping plot, authorities said that Fox, in particular, had hoped to recruit a 200-strong group to storm the Michigan State Capitol and take hostages.

As Detroit Free Press tells us, the motivation for the kidnapping plan was frustration with COVID-19 lockdown orders, but the group was ultimately undermined by their lack of professionalism. "Was it a good plan? It doesn't look like they discussed it much," Assistant U.S. Attorney Nils Kessler described the allegations against the group during court proceedings on October 9. "These people got caught because they're amateurs." 

Kessler continued by specifically noting that the group was nevertheless potentially dangerous, but the FBI still seems to have had a good handle on things all along. Case in point: per Detroit Free Press, near the end of the ill-advised plot, the group was surveilling Whitmer's cabin ... with a team that featured a grand total of four FBI-affiliated people. 

They also considered attacking police officers and Virginia governor Ralph Northam

Governor Gretchen Whitmer wasn't the only potential victim the wannabe kidnappers considered. Another possible target was Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia, Whitmer's fellow Democrat and another source of lockdown-themed gripe among the members of the group (per NPR). Adam Fox and Barry Croft had Northam in their sights as a potential option for Whitmer, though when this news surfaced during an October 13 hearing, it wasn't known if any real action against Northam was ever planned. His spokespeople were confident there had been no immediate threat. 

Some of the men had also left evidence that seemed to indicate that they might attack police officers. According to Detroit Free Press, Brandon Caserta was bitter about a traffic ticket he'd recently received and posted threats at various officers in the group's internal, encrypted discussions. Meanwhile, Daniel Harris had posted suggestions to shoot an unnamed police officer, as well as Whitmer.  

Though neither the abduction plan nor the violence against law enforcement got off the ground before the FBI's intervention, Special Agent Richard Trask testified that the men charged with the plot had some pretty creepy preliminary ideas of where to hide their victims. During the hearings, the agent stated that Fox wanted to secure Whitmer by stashing her on a boat with a broken engine on Lake Michigan (via Detroit Free Press), though the men also expressed interest in taking the governor to a secure location for a mock trial. 

The state charges the Wolverine Watchmen

As the federally charged men were denied bail (via Detroit Free Press), several members of the state-charged group weren't doing much better. Michigan State Attorney General Dana Kessel charged Pete Musico, Joseph Morrison, Paul Bellar, Shawn Fix, Eric Molitor, Michael Null, and William Null for providing material support for terrorist acts and gun felony, with added terrorism threat charges for Musico and Morrison (per ABC 12 News). On October 15, ABC 12 WISN reported that an eighth man — Brian Higgins from Wisconsin — was also charged with supporting terrorism. According to The New York Times, Musico, Morrison, and Bellar were name-dropped on several occasions during federal hearings. Nevertheless, they haven't been federally charged at the time of writing.

Per Click on Detroit, the eight men charged on the state level all had ties to the Wolverine Watchmen group. As Detroit Free Press notes, this militia group is just one of up to 36 that operate in Michigan, and as the severity of their charges implies, Musico and Morrison were its founders. The group was based in the Munith area, and according to The Daily Beast, was considered quite troublesome by the neighbors. "They were the kind of neighbors you stayed away from," one area resident said. "They were mean. You knew they were involved with the militia. That was obvious from the constant shooting."

Federal prosecutors reveal the men had explosives and possible illegal firearms

On October 26, 2020, the prosecutors revealed that the six men charged on the federal level had plenty of unnerving hardware at their disposal, per The Detroit News. A search of the various premises had turned up possibly illegal guns, as well as bomb materials. This was no doubt a worrying find, since the group had some capacity to construct and handle explosives. An informant revealed that Barry Croft, in particular, seemed to have been at least somewhat adept with DIY explosives, having constructed various bomb devices during meetups at Ty Garbin's property in Luther, Michigan. What's more, alleged ringleader Adam Fox had expressed interest in purchasing explosives through a contact — who, fortunately, happened to be an informant. Per the prosecution, both Fox and Garbin (per Detroit Free Press) also referenced a plan to blow up a bridge during the kidnapping. The group's attempts to acquire explosives also came into play when the FBI arrested several group members on October 7, which happened during a fake deal with an explosives contact.  

Combine all this with a vast amount of evidence gathered from the group's various communication devices, and at this point, it was becoming clear that the mountain of evidence that was piling up against the six defendants would take a while to sift through. As such, the prosecution asked for a 40-day delay in the proceedings.

A search of Barry Croft's social media reveals numerous threats of violence

As CNN notes, much of the correspondence between the defendants of the federal case was encrypted. However, the authorities uncovered much of their content, and the men's discussion of committing violent acts against Governor Gretchen Whitmer — as well as video footage depicting them training with weapons — was promptly added to the growing evidence arsenal. 

 On October 28, The Detroit News publicized search warrant affidavit information that gave some idea of the type of statements some of these men had been making. An FBI investigation of defendant Barry Croft's Facebook account revealed numerous posts about people he wanted to kill. Per the authorities, this included South Carolina governor Henry McMaster (pictured), the third governor to have his name attached to the case after Whitmer and Virginia's Ralph Northam (via NPR). He also expressed a wish to kill every single sitting official at the time of writing (May 2020). The people he specifically mentioned included President Donald Trump, as well as prominent Democrats like the Clintons, Barack Obama, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. He used similar rhetoric about various political and religious groups he opposed. 

Per M Live, the defense later tried to play out these kinds of statements as mere talk, arguing that Croft had merely been running his mouth, and had no actual intentions to do anything — against Whitmer or anyone else.

The federal suspects are indicted

As the Office of United States Attorneys reminds us, charging is an important process that marks the case's transition from the investigation of alleged crimes to formally indicting the people involved. Per Detroit Free Press, this watershed moment came for the six federally charged Whitmer kidnapping plot suspects on December 16, 2020. 

"The object of the conspiracy was to unlawfully seize, confine, kidnap, abduct and carry away, and hold for ransom and reward, or otherwise, the Governor of the State of Michigan," the indictment read. Barry Croft was not present at the time, but the other five immediately pleaded not guilty (via Detroit Free Press). Information about how Croft pleaded isn't readily available, but judging by how he continued to face the charges alongside Fox (via The Guardian), it's quite clear that his answer was the same.   

At this point of proceedings, there was a clear timeline of what had happened. The kidnapping plans started on June 6 of that year during a meeting between of the indicted, Adam Fox and Barry Croft. The next man on board was Ty Garbin, a Wolverine Watchman they met at a rally. On August 9, Fox officially brought the idea of abducting Governor Gretchen Whitmer, after which the reconnaissance and practical planning began. 

Ty Garbin enters a plea deal

On January 27, 2021, the federal prosecutors of the Whitmer kidnapping plot case scored a major win when defendant Ty Garbin pleaded guilty (via Associated Press). According to CNN, Garbin's cooperation with the prosecution was extremely important. "It's hard to overstate how significant Mr. Garbin's cooperation was here," one prosecutor described his role. "He didn't hold back. He would come right out and say, 'We planned to do this and I was knowingly a part of it.'" Among other information, Garbin revealed that the plot was part of a larger aspiration to disrupt the upcoming Presidential election, and potentially start a civil war, per Associated Press. On August 25, 2021, Garbin received a six-year prison sentence — a relative slap on the wrist, compared to the potential life sentence he originally faced (via The Guardian). 

Per Associated Press, Kaleb Franks became the second federally-charged member to plead guilty in February 2022. Like Garbin, he also offered information on the operation. He described his own supposed role in the kidnapping, as well as the desperate and downtrodden state of mind that caused him to go along with it. He also heavily implicated Fox as the driving force behind the kidnapping plot. On October 6, Franks received a four-year prison sentence for his role in the plot, as well as a $2,500 fine and three years of court supervision after his release (via The United States Department of Justice). 

The federal charges didn't stick on all of the men

As even casual observers of the justice system may have observed, the fact that someone's charged with a crime doesn't necessarily mean their eventual guilty verdict is guaranteed. Per the Associated Press, the lengthy trial of federally charged Adam Fox, Barry Croft, Daniel Harris, and Brandon Caserta proved this point. 

The trial's result wasn't exactly a shining victory for the federal prosecution. The defense painted the defendants as men who liked to run their mouths and argued that the undercover FBI agents and informants within the group had committed entrapment by prompting them to put their money where their mouth was (per Associated Press).

The trial ended on April 9, 2022, and Harris and Caserta were acquitted altogether. The jury couldn't reach a conclusion about Fox and Croft, leading to a hung jury mistrial for the two. However, the prosecution still had a chance to put the pair on another trial. 

Fox and Croft are found guilty in their second trial

The second, nine-day trial in August 2022 didn't go so well for Adam Fox and Barry Croft, per the Associated Press. The prosecution pointed out the men's past discussion and actions, from Croft's own threats to hang government officials to members of the group physically trying to acquire explosives and lurking outside Governor Gretchen Whitmer's property. The prosecutor also stated that Whitmer wasn't the only potential target — simply the most convenient. Fox and Croft's defense once again tried to argue entrapment (via Associated Press), which prompted the defense to implore the judge to explain the basics of the concept to the jury — specifically, that it's not entrapment if the person is already willing to act illegally.  

As an August 23 press release by The United States Department of Justice stated, Fox and Croft were both found guilty of the kidnapping charges, as well as conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction. Croft, who had a history with DIY explosives (via The Detroit News), was also found guilty of possessing a self-made shrapnel bomb. Their sentencing was set for December 12, per The Detroit News

As The Detroit News tells us, both men will likely appeal the convictions. According to Detroit Free Press, the defense has already requested a third trial, and there's already been an anonymous — though baseless, according to authorities — tip that contained allegations regarding a supposedly biased jury member. 

Terrorism charges are dropped for three state defendants

On March 29, 2022, it was time for the first three state-charged men to find out precisely what they'll go to court for (per M Live).  As it turns out, Joseph Morrison, Pete Musico, and Paul Bellar all managed to avoid terror threat-related charges. These were dropped because the men made various statements that would justify such charges in a closed environment of like-minded individuals, which eliminated the "threat" part of the equation.

However, this still left them with a number of charges to answer for. Per Detroit Free Press, all three were sent to court on charges of supporting terrorists, gang membership, and firearm felony. Both of the first two counts carried a potential maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. 

Though the men's legal teams argued that their clients weren't an active part of the clique that plotted the kidnapping of Governor Gretchen Whitmer, Judge Michael Klaeren pointed out that their status as Wolverine Watchmen and the help they gave to train the various members of the group meant they were complicit in many ways. "By analogy, I think these gentlemen are at the top of a mountain — make the snowball, start rolling it down the hill, and at various times, maybe their effort diminishes or they leave, temporarily, but they started a very big snowball which wasn't going to stop," Klaeren described their role.

Musico, Bellar, and Morrison are convicted

At the time of writing, the only three state-charged men who have been convicted for their roles in the plot to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer are Paul Bellar, Joseph Musico, and Pete Morrison, according to The New York Times. The three men were deemed guilty of all charges on October 26, 2022, with a sentencing date set at December 17. Per NPR, Bellar, Musico, and Morrison were convicted for firearm charges, gang membership, and helping terrorists. The last charge alone could lead to a 20-year prison sentence for each man. 

After a lengthy period that featured plenty of hits and misses, the conviction was a much-needed win for the state. However, as Whitmer herself commented on the result, the underlying problems haven't exactly gone anywhere, and these kinds of threats against elected officials and the public alike are a worrying problem. "They are the logical, disturbing extension of radicalization, hatred, and conspiratorial thinking that festers in America, threatening the foundation of our republic," she said. 

As for the rest of the state-charged defendants, their hearings wrapped up on September 1, 2022 (per The Detroit News). With trials, appeals, and further developments still on the horizon, it's probably safe to assume that the aftermath of the Whitmer kidnapping plot and the fate of the people involved in it will remain in the public eye for quite some time.