The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Wolverine Watchmen, extremist group implicated in Michigan kidnapping plot, trained for ‘civil war’

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks during a news conference Thursday, after 13 people were arrested in connection with alleged plans to take her hostage and attack the Capitol. (Michigan Governor’s Office/Reuters)

In some ways, the Wolverine Watchmen resembled many self-styled militia members who were angry at Michigan’s governor in the spring over measures to fight the novel coronavirus seen as government intrusion into their lives, experts say.

Members of other groups describe them as “regulars” at heavily armed demonstrations at the Capitol protesting pandemic restrictions, according to Amy Cooter, a senior lecturer in sociology at Vanderbilt University who has contacts in the community.

But the Watchmen and their associates did not stop at demonstrations, state and federal officials said Thursday, and eventually plotted to attack the Capitol and kidnap Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Their broader goal, according to a state affidavit: “civil war leading to societal collapse.”

Their alleged plans fulfilled the worst fears of those who worried that the vitriol against Whitmer could escalate, while highlighting the threat of violence from extremist groups and thrusting a young, little-known organization into the national spotlight.

Michael Lackomar, a communications officer and team leader for the Southeast Michigan Volunteer Militia, recalled a small band of people that was just entering his radar amid the anti-shutdown furor.

“They expressed frustration that the militia groups weren’t doing enough,” he said.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel (D) on Thursday announced felony charges against seven members or “associates” of the Wolverine Watchmen, accusing them of making threats toward officials and supporting plans for terrorist acts. Affidavits describe an “anti-government, anti-law enforcement” militia that has recruited on social media since the fall of 2019 and met in remote locations for “field training exercises” with firearms.

It was preparation, the affidavits say, for the “boogaloo,” an anti-government uprising or civil war. People connected to the right-wing “boogaloo bois” movement have been charged with killing a security guard and plotting to use explosives amid protests in the summer.

The Wolverine Watchmen’s founders are Joseph Morrison, 26, and Pete Musico, 42, who lived together in Munith, Mich., according to state affidavits. Both were charged in the thwarted plot. The Washington Post could not reach Morrison or Musico for comment Thursday, and it was not immediately clear if they have lawyers.

Morrison, the group’s “commander,” went by “Boogalo Bunyan” online, authorities say.

The Wolverine Watchmen, along with others, planned and trained to kidnap multiple politicians as well as to storm the Capitol, officials say. They also “called on members to identify law enforcement officers’ home addresses in order to target the officers,” affidavits state, and “have made threats of violence to instigate a civil war leading to societal collapse.”

“There has been a disturbing increase in anti-government rhetoric and the re-emergence of groups that embrace extremist ideologies,” Nessel said in a statement. “These groups often seek to recruit new members by seizing on a moment of civil unrest and using it to advance their agenda of self-reliance and armed resistance. This is more than just political disagreement or passionate advocacy, some of these groups’ mission is simply to create chaos and inflict harm upon others.”

While self-styled militia groups have a long history in Michigan, the Wolverine Watchmen are so new that longtime members of other groups in the area were not aware of them until earlier this year, Cooter said.

Multiple groups in the state use the name “Wolverine,” a reference to a movie that is an “emblematic story for how they see themselves in the world,” she said. The movie, “Red Dawn,” features teenagers who defend their town from invaders and name themselves after the animal. Michigan is also sometimes called the Wolverine State.

“One of the hallmarks of militias forever has been their concern about government overreach, about the government infringing on individual rights,” Cooter said. “And so I think it’s fair to say that all militias were at least a little cranky, so to speak, about some of these new regulations. Many of them saw this as a possible slippery slope.”

The governor’s sex also may have played a role in these groups’ outrage over stay-at-home orders and other coronavirus restrictions, Cooter said. Most members are male, and “being told by a woman specifically what to do can rub them the wrong way.”

For many, the alleged plot against Whitmer underscored the threat of violence from groups with far-right ideologies, at a time when conservatives have focused on far-left groups and movements such as antifa.

President Trump — who encouraged the anti-shutdown protests in Michigan earlier this year — tweeted Thursday night that he does “not tolerate ANY extreme violence” but continued to specifically condemn antifa and others who “burn down Democrat run cities.” He also renewed his criticism of Whitmer and her policies.

Earlier in the evening, Whitmer had accused the White House of failing to help protect her, saying that when she “asked them to bring the heat down,” “they didn’t do a darn thing.”

Trump tweeted that Whitmer has “done a terrible job” and “locked down her state for everyone.”

Trump’s election has shifted the landscape for groups of the “patriot militia movement,” said Sam Jackson, an assistant professor at the University at Albany with expertise in anti-government extremism. Until 2016, the movement centered on a belief that “the federal government is the biggest threat to American life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” and that people need to prepare to use violence to restore American values.

Now, Jackson said, “their guy Trump” is in office.

These groups were already anticipating some sort of emergency that leads to government tyranny, he said, when the coronavirus pandemic hit, prompting stay-at-home orders and business shutdowns. At the same time, Jackson said, Trump has downplayed the virus’s threat, encouraging the groups not to take it seriously.

Isaac Stanley-Becker and Scott Wilson contributed to this report.