The 14 men allegedly responsible for orchestrating the thwarted kidnapping of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, have now been accused of being homegrown domestic terrorists.
The FBI revealed the men’s alleged paramilitary operation earlier this month, which included sinister plots to execute government officials, storm the capitol building with explosives and send bombs codenamed “cupcakes.”
Among those accused are 42-year-old Pete Musico, 38-year-old Shawn Fix, a truck driver, 25-year-old Ty Garbin, an airplane mechanic, and twin brothers Michael and William Null, who were charged with providing material support for terrorist acts and felony firearms charges. The five have all pleaded not guilty.
“It was shocking,” Whitmer told “Nightline” co-anchor Juju Chang. “It really is something that is so personal and so serious. If you heard this fact pattern and you are describing something like ISIS, you wouldn't be surprised. This is happening right here in the United States of America. That's domestic terrorism.”
The governor said she’s been very open with her family about the realities of the threats against her.
“We see some of the most vile things. My kids have seen it,” she said. “We've had people show up on the front lawn with automatic rifles on more than a handful of weekends. I've been very, very blunt with my kids and my husband about what the nature of the rhetoric was.”
The alleged plot was months in the making, and involved people from far outside the state’s capital in Lansing, from small towns Luther and Munith and even from out of state, in Cambria, Wisconsin.
In March, anti-government, pro-gun groups protested Whitmer’s stay-at-home-orders. Some of those who were protesting allegedly gathered weapons, plotted and trained.
Though the alleged plans of suspects from the so-called “Wolverine Watchmen” have been foiled, other extremist groups are continuing to plan ways to make their presence known as the election approaches.
Months of tension in Michigan
As COVID-19 tightened its grip on the nation in March, Whitmer enacted some of the strictest measures in the country to control its spread.
Protesters who gathered at the state capitol were demanding that businesses be allowed to reopen. Adam Di Angeli’s conservative group, Michigan United for Liberty, helped organize anti-lockdown rallies in the spring.
“People were just absolutely fed up with being told to stay home… [we] couldn't go to school, couldn't go to work, couldn't do anything at all,” Di Angeli told “Nightline.” “People came and started demonstrating in Lansing. The whole city was filled.”
Among the protesters, militia groups carried automatic rifles and suited up in body armor to show their support. Some were photographed going into the capitol.
Di Angeli said it’s “not our land to tell them they can’t be there.”
“The capitol is the most public square,” he said. “They aren't breaking any laws. If they were, they would've been arrested... you know, who are we to tell them what to do?”
Whitmer reflected on the protests at the state’s capitol.
“People remember those pictures… where people with weapons were showing up and intimidating legislators and threatening me at that point,” she said. “Now, we have come to find that some other members of this plot were actually at that event. And I think that that kind of tells you how the rhetoric really can have horrible, disastrous, dangerous consequences for others.”
Whitmer said this menacing is absolutely “unacceptable” and “a threat to our democracy and the American dream.” She added that both parties, and the president, have a role to play.
“I think the hesitancy to even call out white supremacy creates space for groups that are looking for anything to hang their hat on,” Whitmer said. “I do think that the rhetoric has made safe harbor for people that are engaged in these activities.”
In April, President Trump tweeted in support of “liberating” Minnesota, Virginia and Michigan: three states with Democratic governors.
“I really shuddered and was horrified. I mean, liberate Michigan from who? And by what means?” said Dana Nessel, Michigan’s top law enforcement official. “When you say ‘liberate,’ you know, that is a call to action. It's a rallying cry. And I think it's a call to arms. And that's really, I think, what it turned out to be.”
Nessel pointed out that Michigan is one of only a few states where the state’s top executive offices are held by women. She said Trump’s distaste for state officials is “absolutely” misogynistic.
“We have a female governor, attorney general and secretary of state,” Nessel said. “The president of the United States has taken time to criticize all three of us by name on Twitter.”
However controversial, Nessel said Whitmer ultimately saved lives with her orders.
“We were third in the nation in terms of the number of COVID-19 infections, in terms of the number of deaths. Well, that's changed substantially,” Nessel said. “I give Gov. Whitmer great credit for that. I think her measures drastically decreased the number of infections -- and the numbers don't lie.”
A sinister plot forms in Michigan
Michael Lackomar and his wife, Wendy, are members of one of the oldest modern militias in the state. Lackomar said he crossed paths with some of the suspects involved in Whitmer’s kidnapping plot, namely the twin Null brothers.
The two were at an anti-lockdown protest -- armed with AR-15s, pouches for extra magazines and combat knives -- a mere stone’s throw from the governor’s office.
Lackomar and his wife have encountered the brothers from when they volunteered to help the community in Flint months before.
“They were like us. They were there to help Flint. They were there to help their communities,” Lackomar said.
“And they were quiet. They weren't waving their rifles around or screaming,” his wife said.
Lackomar said he rejects the violence associated with militia culture. He said these groups train in "everything from land navigation, map and compass without using modern electronics, first aid, hand-to-hand marksmanship, obviously communications, wilderness, bushcraft skills and just a lot of skills that our parents and our grandparents grew up with.”
But he defended the independent streak in their communities. “It’s like Boy Scouts with guns,” he joked.
"We actually work very closely with the police," Lackomar continued. "And several other groups have actually worked with the FBI, too, when we've gone into a crisis.”
According to Lackomar, the Null brothers were known to attend militia events and had a confrontational demeanor. At some point, the brothers allegedly found a home with the militia group that call themselves “Wolverine Watchmen.”
According to the FBI investigation, the group started using encrypted applications to communicate when they would meet in person and even used a trap door to have a meeting in the basement of one of the members’ homes.
Investigators collected eight months’ worth of recorded calls and texts, some encrypted, in which the members allegedly laid out a scheme to obtain “pics of the bridge” where they were allegedly planning to plant a bomb and distract police in a raid.
The group started training and bought equipment, did surveillance and discussed how to best put shrapnel into improvised bombs, according to the federal complaint.
The FBI investigation released messages in which suspects discussed training. “I’m trying to get us as many reps as possible guys... 6 weeks till election,” one member reportedly wrote.
Another member allegedly suggested, “Have one person go to her house, knock on the door and when she answers it just cap her.”
Videos were released of the suspects displaying a cache of weapons and doing drills with assault rifles. One video shows a suspect being pulled over during a routine traffic stop. The FBI said he later texted the group saying he wanted to kill the officers who pulled him over.
“This one particular group had ties to multiple other groups across state lines,” Nessel said. “This is not just a Michigan problem, this is an American problem.”
The group’s plan to kidnap Whitmer allegedly tookform in September, according to the federal complaint. The group also allegedly discussed uprisings against other governors. Democratic Gov. Northam of Virginia was one of the ones targeted, authorities revealed this week.
The FBI announced the arrests in the case on Oct. 8, and as the alleged kidnapping plot against Whitmer made national headlines, the president continued attacking her, suggesting she unjustly blamed him for the threats.
“This is exactly the rhetoric that has put me, my family, and other government officials’ lives in danger while we try to save the lives of our fellow Americans,” Whitmer responded on Twitter. “It needs to stop.”
Despite learning of the alleged plot, Whitmer said she no longer feels like her life is in danger.
“The rhetoric for the last four years has been very hot, and especially throughout COVID-19,” she said. “But this particular plot, I'm just incredibly grateful to the FBI and the state police. They worked so hard to bring these people in. And I've got great confidence in their ability to keep me and my family safe.”
A small town in Michigan awakened by FBI raid in the night
Munith is a tiny rural town in Michigan. Only about 2,000 people live there, but two of them, according to investigators, helped forge a plot to kidnap and assassinate Whitmer.
Suspects Musico and Joseph Morrison lived in a double wide trailer with a Confederate flag hanging off their front porch. They allegedly did target practice in the back in the woody, secluded area. Both suspects have pleaded not guilty to their involvement in the plot.
Nearly three hours away, there’s another small town called Luther, Michigan. For nearly 20 years, Jim Chinavare has called the town home. He never expected he was living next door to two suspected domestic terrorists.
“I’m probably, maybe half a mile or quarter mile from them and I never knew this was here, never knew,” he told “Nightline” as he drove past the property. “This is unbelievable to me, just unbelievable.”
“There were many times that me and my wife would hear gunshots and it sounded like automatic weapons,” he said. “I've heard that and I have heard explosives going off.”
Chinavare lives less than a mile from suspect Ty Garbin, who, like the Null brothers, has pleaded not guilty to the charges against him. The federal complaint accuses Garbin of holding combat drills on his property and using it as a location to plot elements of the alleged kidnapping.
When the plot was discovered, the small town was startled awake at 2:30 a.m. by an FBI raid on Garbin’s property.
“That night there were so many helicopters. I mean, in one day the same one going back and forth, back and forth with the spotlight on it,” Chinavare remembered. “There were so many cars coming up and down the road. And the cars that were coming down or they had blacked out windows… we don't normally see that. So that's not normal here.”
Despite the startling news, Chinavare said he’s “not afraid.”
“I grew up in the city of Detroit, and there were bad times in Detroit. It wasn't directed at me... that's just like living up here,” he said. “But if they become directed at you, then you need to be cautious... I'm not afraid of that. But I'm, I'm a little more careful now than I used to be, absolutely.”
Gary Springstead, a former FBI agent-turned-criminal defense attorney, is now defending Garbin, who has been charged with federal crimes, including conspiracy to commit kidnapping. He has pleaded not guilty.
Springstead said accusations that Garbin not only attended trainings but also attempted to make IEDs may not be “borne out by the evidence.” Springstead said Garbin may have actually been the one to look out for others’ safety.
“One thing I know is that my client is not a crackpot. He's actually a fairly intelligent young man,” Springstead said. “He works in aviation mechanics and is quite technical and seems to be very diligent about following the case and knowing and listening to us and what's going on.”
Springstead also said the “field training exercises” Garbin conducted on his property had been carried on long before the suspected kidnapping plot emerged.
“It was nothing new. It's something that, while I may not agree with it personally and be something that I want to do, it’s certainly protected activity under the Second Amendment,” he said. “People have the right to bear arms. And as long as they're not harming anybody, they're perfectly within their rights to do that.”
Other alleged domestic terrorism groups have been documented online, calling on their members to go to the polls to protect against voter fraud, said Mary McCord, a legal director at the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (ICAP) and visiting law professor at Georgetown University. McCord was also acting assistant attorney general for national security at the U.S. Department of Justice.
“We're hearing that some of these unlawful groups are recruiting among their members to apply to be poll watchers and then just muck up the works like bring baseless challenges and other things inside the polls to cause delays in the counting of ballots and cause a lot of frustration and difficulty for election officials to do their jobs smoothly,” McCord added.
With just two weeks to go to Election Day, the climate of fear and division throughout the country has many voters deeply concerned.
For folks like Chinavare, one thing is clear: Violence is not the answer.
“Just because you don't agree with someone, then don't vote for them, OK?” he said. “Don't go out and try to plan, kidnap them and kill them and do whatever you want to do. That's not the way to do it. That's not the American way.”