Who Are the Wolverine Watchmen, the Group Allegedly Part of Thwarted Plan to Kidnap Michigan Governor?
Who exactly are the far-right extremist group Wolverine Watchmen?
After months of plotting, 13 men were arrested and charged by the state of Michigan last Thursday for conspiring to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at her vacation home in an attempt to instigate a civil war or a "boogaloo," according to court documents and several reports. Six of the men, whose names were publicly released in an affidavit last Thursday, are facing federal felony domestic terrorism charges. Seven others, who are linked to a far-right group called, "The Wolverine Watchmen," are facing state felony crimes.
Ever since the “thwarted” plot made headlines last week, the Watchmen have been circulating in the public spotlight. The group, which reportedly began plotting an abduction scheme involving Gov. Whitmer, in an attempt to take down the government, attracted attention from the FBI in March when the group started discussing attacks on social media, an affidavit said.
The Watchmen have been dubbed a "militia," but the group, which banded together with other accused conspirators allegedly initiated by Adam Fox, functions much more like a terrorist organization, according to several reports. Fox, who was referenced 92 times in a criminal complaint, and the other charged individuals had plans to make explosives and conduct firearm training in private residences, according to the complaint.
The name Wolverines, which comes from the Wolverine state of Michigan, were a recent “outgrowth” or a “smaller network” of the long history of militias in the state, Seth Jones, a political scientist and professor of counterterrorism at Johns Hopkins University, said in an interview with Inside Edition Digital. The group is a “bottom-up” establishment that grew directly in response to COVID-19 and to the economic challenges in the state of Michigan, he said.
"There are a lot of militia groups that do not intend to use violence. Once they start walking in direction to kill government officials, that is a plot," Jones said. "At the start of the year, the Wolverine Watchmen didn't even exist. None of this existed. Zero. This came together in a matter of months."
“Wolverine Watchmen is a relatively new group that was spurred to action specifically by the pandemic and by Whitmer's response to it,” Amy Cooter, a sociology professor, and militia expert at Vanderbilt University, told NBC News.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said in an interview with CNN that even if they called themselves a "militia organization," or whether they are "white supremacy groups," they all subscribe to a similar "extremist ideology," which is known as the Boogaloo movement.
“Most Boogaloos want to support a civil war in the U.S. and overthrow the existing order," Jones said. "But the challenge is, you see Boogaloo supporters of very different types. It’s not an organization, it doesn’t have an ideology, it doesn’t have a leader. It’s more of a broad movement that has a major following on digital platforms.”
Jones says the movement is a cult-like identity that is a “major threat.”
"They thrive on unrest," Nessel said of the movement in an interview.
When the pandemic struck, Whitmer pushed one of the country's most regulated lockdowns. These restrictions sparked greater frustration for many alt-right conservatives who yearned for stay-at-home orders to be lifted and businesses to be free to function as they were pre-pandemic. Although Michigan had relatively few COVID-19 cases in March, conservative and anti-government groups were among the first in the country to organize protests against coronavirus restrictions, according to the New York Times.
“Their anger at the Michigan governor was about her response to COVID-19, like shutting down gyms. And they really wanted to take action. What we see here is COVID-19 and the response to it, which has created anger against the government,” Jones said. “COVID-19 is just adding to the long list of grievances that some small fringe groups have against the U.S. government.”
“What’s interesting is that this is not an attack perpetrated by a group called Wolverine Watchmen. This was an attack that was first thought of by a couple of people," Jones said.
Alleged members and associates of the Watchmen who have been arrested were identified in an affidavit as Paul Bellar, 21, of Milford; Shawn Fix, 38, of Belleville; Eric Molitor, 36, of Cadillac; Michael Null, 38, of Plainwell; William Null, 38, of Shelbyville; Pete Musico, 42; and Joseph Morrison, 26, who live together in Munith.
The six charged by the federal government are Michigan residents Adam Fox, 37, Ty Garbin, 24, Kaleb Franks, 26, Daniel Harris, 23, Brandon Caserta, 32, and Delaware resident Barry Croft, 44.
Joseph Morrison is known as the "commander" or his online alias, "Boogaloo Bunyan," the document said. Both Morrison and Musico live together in Munith, where they hosted several firearm trainings at their residence, according to the affidavit.
According to a complaint, the group of accused conspirators, and its alleged leader Adam Fox, met with members of the Watchmen various times starting in June, including in Musico and Morrison’s private residence, at a second amendment rally in the state capitol, and in the basement of Fox’s business which you could only enter through a “trap door hidden under a rug on the main floor."
Fox and the other accused conspirators decided they needed to increase their numbers and, in part of the recruitment effort, Fox allegedly reached out to the Michigan-based militia group, the Wolverine Watchmen, the complaint said.
Fox "said he needed '200 men' to ‘storm’ the Capitol building in Lansing, Michigan, and take hostages, including the Governor. [He] explained they would try the Governor of Michigan for 'treason,' and he said they would execute the plan before the November 2020 elections,” the complaint said.
The FBI was already keeping a careful eye on the Watchmen as early as March after a local police department learned members were trying to obtain addresses of local law-enforcement officers, the FBI agent wrote, according to the affidavit. The group used social media platforms like Facebook to recruit members as early as November 2019, the document said.
Together, the group allegedly performed firearm training and tactical drills together during "field training exercises" on private properties that involved and planned "various acts of violence" unto the governor, the affidavit read. Some members had even allegedly discussed conducting surveillance of the Governor's vacation home, according to the complaint.
"Joseph Morrison and Pete Musico have hosted multiple tactical training sessions with other members of the Wolverine Watchmen at their property," state court charging documents allege. "During these trainings, specific training was provided for members to learn and practice tactical maneuvers. The group has drawn upon their members’ individual skills for training including tactical skills, medical knowledge, communications knowledge, and weapons expertise."
On page fifteen of the complaint, the FBI reviewed encrypted group chats that indicated Garbin, with Fox and others, planned, in preparing for their plan to kidnap Whitmer, to meet on Oct. 7 "to make a payment on explosives and exchange tactical gear."
“If you look at what they were saying their plots were changing over time," Jones said. "It was never clear what they planned to do but if they attempted to kidnap the Governor at her vacation home it would have been a stand-off. They prepared one of the bridges, built explosives."
Plans of demolishing a bridge, referenced as "M-31 highway bridge," in the vicinity of the governor's vacation home with a plan to "hinder police response" were mentioned on page ten of the fifteen-page complaint. Members had allegedly hand-drawn a map of the lake near her home with "the mileage of the nearest police departments and the estimated response time," the complaint said. Using symbols and emoticons the members communicated these plans. They allegedly inspected the underside of the bridge to for places to put an "explosive charge," the complaint said
A series of search and arrest warrants, undercover agents, and wiretapping several meetings over the course of the summer lead to the FBI raid in Hartland Township last Wednesday.
“This is the problem we face in the U.S. going into the election," Jones said. "There’s no way of knowing the absolute number but hundreds, if not thousands, of these kinds of networks in the U.S. right now that sit in this far-right, anti-government group.”
Attorney General Nessel charged the seven arrested members of the Watchmen with a total of 19 state felony charges for firearms and terror-related acts.
Pete Muscio and Joseph Morrison, the alleged leaders of the Watchmen, were both arraigned in Jackson County last Thursday and are each being held on $10 million bond, according to the Attorney General's office. The other Watchmen are being held on $250,000 bond, with the exception of Bellar, who is awaiting extradition to Michigan.
They are all facing charges of providing material to support a terrorist act, a 20-year felony. They are all also facing charges of carrying or possessing a firearm, a two-year mandatory prison sentence. Musico, Morrison and Bellar are also facing charges of gang membership, a felony that, if convicted, could carry 20 years in prison. Their next court dates vary, but are all sometime in October.
Philip C. Curtis was appointed Friday as Musico's lawyer and told Inside Edition Digital that his client is “eager to get his story out” but cannot comment further. Inside Edition Digital left a message for George D. Lyons, a lawyer for Joseph Morrison, and he did not immediately respond for comment. Damien Nunzio the lawyer for William Null and Tom Siber the lawyer for Michael Null could not comment at this time. Matthew Connolly, the lawyer for Eric Molitar could not be reached immediately.
On Tuesday, five of the six men –– with the exception of one who is still awaiting extradition –– facing federal charges for their alleged roles in the kidnapping plot appeared at the U.S. District Court Western District of Michigan appeared before a judge to discuss detention and bond hearings. Adam Fox was remanded back to U.S. Marshals custody and a detention hearing was granted but not yet scheduled, according to the clerk's office.
There was a bond hearing yesterday and the lawyers for the defendants denied their clients intended to kidnap the governor, the Detroit Free Press reported.
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