Four members of the Wolverine Watchmen, a Michigan group that the government accuses of plotting to kidnap and kill Governor Gretchen Whitmer, are – depending on whom you believe – members of a dangerous paramilitary or a group of big-talking good ole boys full of hot air.
Adam Fox, Brandon Caserta, Barry Croft Jr and Daniel Harris were charged in October 2020 with conspiring to abduct Whitmer from her northern Michigan vacation house. Their motive, say prosecutors in Grand Rapids, was anger over the Democrat’s Covid-19 restrictions and their plan has become a symbol of rising far-right violence and the threat it represents to US democracy.
At the moment the FBI arrested the men, prosecutors argued in court, they had plans to acquire a bomb to blow up a bridge near Whitmer’s home to hinder police. Jurors, they have said, would see social media posts and hear secretly recorded conversations, highly inflammatory language and details of a plan to take down a “tyrant”.
When they were arrested the case seemed a slam dunk. But as more evidence has unfolded and the trial has begun, a different narrative has emerged. Far from being a dedicated bunch of coup-plotters, their attorneys argue, the Wolverine Watchmen are hapless victims of FBI entrapment who had been induced by paid informants to commit crimes they would not otherwise have considered.
The FBI, according to defense filings, deployed at least 12 informants, as well as several undercover agents. “There was no plan, there was no agreement and no kidnapping,” defense attorney Joshua Blanchard said last week.
It is not an entirely outlandish claim. The defense’s argument of FBI entrapment draws on a long history. In the post 9/11 era, when internal US security agencies focused on the existence of Muslim extremist plots, several prosecutions, including of the Newburgh Four, hinged on informants actively promoting a plot before turning would-be perpetrators over to the government to be tried on conspiracy charges.
Activists and civil rights experts have argued that the FBI has frequently overstepped boundaries, essentially egging on people to participate in plots and locking up people for crimes that they would never have committed had it not been for the intervention of law enforcement.
Those counter-terrorist techniques, reapplied to the threat of white nationalist radicalization that Joe Biden has repeatedly said is the “most lethal threat” to the US, will play a part in how the Wolverine Watchmen trial unfolds. It has raised the question: were the Wolverines more dupes than dedicated terrorists?
“Counter-terrorism tactics have evolved because there wasn’t a lot of international terrorism occurring on the US soil,” said Mike German, author of Disrupt, Discredit and Divide: How the FBI Damages Democracy. “But there’s still pressure to make cases and that’s caused the FBI to adopt this methodology of manufacturing terrorism plots.”
German, who served 16 years as an FBI special agent and is now attached to the Brennan Center for Justice and NYU law school, says the tactics have migrated to far-right groups, though not necessarily with much success. The Hutaree militia case of 2010, in which nine members of a Michigan group infiltrated by the FBI were accused of plotting to kill a police officer, ended in acquittal.
“When these tactics first started it was easy to get the public on the FBI’s side just by making allegations,” German said, recalling the case of the Liberty City Seven – a Muslim extremist plot to blow up Chicago’s Sears Tower that ended, after three trials, in five convictions.
“The problem is, they’re manufacturing crimes and that’s not the job of a law enforcement agency – to make themselves look good by solving crimes they create – and there’s no legitimate government purpose in manufacturing a plot,” he said.
Another issue, German says, is that there’s more white supremacist/far-right activity in the US than there ever was Muslim extremism. But the federal government doesn’t maintain a database on white extremist violence, lumping all extremism – white nationalist, environmentalist – in one category under the Hate Crimes Statistics Act (1990) and the National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism, announced last year.
And that, German points out, has left the government without accurate data on what has occurred and in a position of trying to predict and prevent what might occur. “The issue is starting with talk and getting to violence, but not vice versa,” he said.
In the Wolverine Watchmen case, the four defendants are accused of taking deliberate steps toward violence, including secret messaging, gun drills and a night drive to northern Michigan to scout Whitmer’s vacation house. Two of the six men initially arrested, Ty Garbin and Kaleb Franks, have pleaded guilty and will appear as government witnesses.
But defense attorneys claim that one of the men on trial, Barry Croft, was lured to militia meetings and gun training by “Big Dan”, an informant with a long criminal history who was paid $54,000 by the FBI.
Big Dan’s handler was Jayson Chambers, an FBI agent who was looking to build a security consulting business that included “online undercover techniques” and had participated in investigations of Muslim “plots” involving inducements.
Another informant, Stephen Robeson, has pleaded to various felonies. Another government witness, FBI agent Robert Trask, was fired after beating his wife after a swingers party. Another was accused of perjury.
Still, anti-government extremism in the upper midwest comes with a track record that includes Terry Nichols, a participant in the 1995 Oklahoma city bombing, who was from Michigan. Fourteen men from the state have been charged in connection with the January 6 insurrection.
In 2020, hundreds of protesters, some armed, some driving Humvees, attempted to enter the floor of the legislative chamber of Michigan’s state capitol as lawmakers debated Whitmer’s request to extend emergency Covid powers. Some compared Whitmer to Hitler.
“I’m not surprised this is coming out of Michigan because of its history and because Governor Whitmer has drawn a lot of negative attention for her lockdown procedures,” said Amy Cooter, a sociologist at Vanderbilt University and author of Problems Predicting Extremist Violence.
Cooter suggests the alleged plot against Whitmer was not merely about Covid restrictions but also because she is a woman and a Democrat. In Cooter’s experience groups that indulge in extremist talk rarely translates that into action.
“The problem is there’s always potential for it to evolve into something more,” Cooter adds. “So when a specific person is targeted I think we have to take it seriously.”
Nils Kessler, the assistant US attorney prosecuting the current case, has drawn explicit parallels between the plan and the January 6 attack. “As the Capitol riots demonstrated, an inchoate conspiracy can turn into a grave substantive offense on short notice,” he wrote in a court filing.
Whatever the jury’s findings in the Wolverine case, Cooter predicts, groups on the right are “going to assume they were set up and [it] could galvanize some to further action”.
JoEllen Vinyard, a professor of history at Eastern Michigan University who notes that today’s white nationalists have antecedents in racist groups like the KKK, says groups like the Wolverine Watchmen “see themselves as standing for democracy and in many cases saving the country from its leaders” .
Michigan, she said, gets a lot of attention because groups there appear to be periodically better organized, depending on their leadership. “It’s hard to know the role of the FBI in this but these particular guys don’t seem to be the type that could exert much leadership,” she said.
She added: “There’s a lot of unrest in this country that we haven’t always recognized, and people have different reasons at different times. They were encouraged, of course, by Donald Trump. He didn’t create it, but he gave these people a sense that they were right and justified in their actions.”