One of the Michigan militiamen wanted to spread Gov. Gretchen Whitmer out on a table, hogtied and displayed while they took pictures of themselves. Another worked on detonating an improvised explosive device in his yard while his 10-year-old daughter offered him a Doritos chip. The paramilitary training, the reconnaissance at Whitmer’s home, the weapons collections—it was all part of a plan to spark a nationwide civil war, the men believed. "We wanted to be the first to kick it off," a key witness testified.
The testimonial evidence in the trial of the four men charged with plotting to kidnap and kill Whitmer in its first weeks has been both riveting and disturbing. Most of all, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the entrapment defense planned by their attorneys is unlikely to hold water: All of the cooperating witnesses so far have attested that none of the FBI’s multiple informants at work on the case induced anyone to commit the crimes.
A 26-year-old onetime member of the Wolverine Watchmen, as the group called themselves, from Hartland Township named Ty Garbin was the prosecution’s primary witness this week. Garbin, who entered a guilty plea last year as part of a cooperation agreement, told the jury that no one else convinced him or anyone else in the group to join the kidnapping plot.
The defendants—Adam Fox, 37, of Grand Rapids; Barry Croft, 44, of Bear, Delaware; Daniel Harris, 23, of Lake Orion; and Brandon Caserta, 32, of Canton, Michigan, all members of the so-called “Wolverine Watchmen” militia—are leaning heavily on claims that the government entrapped them into the plot to abduct Whitmer from her summer home and put her on “trial,” for which they now face federal kidnapping-conspiracy charges. The trial’s outcome could have broad ramifications for how federal authorities tackle the rising tide of right-wing domestic terrorism, as well as ongoing prosecution of the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol insurrectionists.
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Garbin testified that, when he joined the Wolverine Watchmen, he was okay being labeled "a domestic terrorist," and so were his co-defendants, since they had no illusions about the nature of what they were planning. He described the various actions the group took in preparation for executing their plan, ranging from building explosives to constructing a "shoot house" to casing the governor’s summer home, all while creating secret chat rooms online to avoid detection.
At the end of his direct examination, the prosecutor asked Garbin whether he or any of the other Watchmen had been convinced by FBI informants to join the conspiracy. Garbin flatly answered: “No.”
Earlier, prosecutors had asked Garbin to describe what “Boogaloo”—the far-right civil-war movement to which the militiamen subscribed—meant.
“The Boogaloo is a movement that consists of multiple political ideologies…the foundation of it is basically we need a second civil war, another revolution,” Garbin explained. “The plan was for us to basically be … the ignition to it and hopefully other states and other groups follow suit.”
Last week, the jury heard how Croft had worked on a setting off a homemade bomb during a training session with the others in Cambria, Wisconsin. On a recording, they could hear Croft being approached by his 10-year-old daughter.
“Daddy, do you want a Dorito?” she asked.
“Honey, I’m making explosives, can you get away from me please?” Croft responded, before adding: “I love you.”
An undercover FBI agent testified that Croft had tried to light the fuse twice, but it had failed both times.
Garbin described how the group’s plans had progressed, beginning with a plan to storm the state Capitol in Lansing, taking hostages and holding televised “trials” of state officials, to be followed by their executions. The men also discussed firebombing police vehicles and targeting police to create a diversion while they committed bank robberies to finance their operations.
Finally realizing that storming the Capitol wasn’t feasible, the group's focus shifted to kidnapping Whitmer in late June, Garbin testified. He detailed how the group rehearsed by building a “shoot house” that would enable them to train for a home invasion by simulating the interior of Whitmer’s summer home.
Garbin said the training included first-aid lessons, with the expectation they would suffer combat wounds while engaging police. They also built a firing range on his property, intended to sharpen their shooting skills, using tires filled with sand.
Last week, jurors heard recordings of Fox describing his hopes for kidnapping Whitmer.
“We just want the bitch, we want the tyrant bitch,” he said. “I want to have the governor hog-tied, laid out on a table while we all pose around like we just made the world’s biggest goddamn drug bust, bro.”
Most of the men were similarly inclined to violence, according to the testimony. Garbin said that Harris—who would describe bloody scenarios with a “blank” face—was determined to kill Whitmer at any cost. “It was suicidal … someone, or a group of people to go kill her and then go kill themselves afterwards,” he said.
Jurors also heard a recording of Caserta ranting in a similarly cold-blooded fashion about taking on government officials.
“I’m taking out as many of those motherfuckers as I can. Every single one. And if you guys are going to give any of these motherfuckers a chance, any of these gang, fucking criminal ass, government thugs that rob people every day, if you are going to give them even a second to try and speak or tell their story? Don’t even fuck with me dude,” Caserta could be heard saying.
However, Croft was the one member of their group who apparently made everyone else nervous because of his eagerness for violence. FBI agent Christopher Long testified last week that at one point, at a meeting in Ohio where he was not present, other Wolverine Watchmen talked about voting Croft from the group because they believed he was too violent even for them and that he wanted to move too quickly—and that would end up with all of them being arrested.
“Mr. Croft was ready to do it right now,” Long testified. “Their concern was he would get them locked up.”
Similarly, Garbin testified that Croft wanted the Watchmen to carry out a series of bank robberies to raise cash for the plan. He thought that launching a preemptive assault on the state police would prevent them from responding quickly.
“He wanted to attack that facility, firebomb it and destroy as many police cars as possible,” Garbin said.
These plans resemble many of the fantasies right-wing extremists have harbored and cultivated among themselves for generations about fomenting a civil war that would overthrow liberal democracy. In fact, Croft’s plan practically replicates a 1967 plot in Seattle by a far-right terrorist group called the Minutemen. Their scheme, as it happened, also backfired when their gang was infiltrated by informants, and the men all wound up in prison.
It’s a familiar blueprint, with a familiar outcome.