Federal and state officials announced Thursday that they had arrested Fox and five other men on charges related to the kidnapping plot. Seven other suspects were arrested by state law enforcement on charges of providing support to terrorist acts.
The plotters, according to an FBI affidavit, were motivated in part by their belief that state governments, including Michigan’s, were violating the U.S. Constitution by imposing restrictions to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus — and they referred to Whitmer as a tyrant. As their anger mounted, they trained together with firearms and experimented with explosives, discussing plans to storm the state capitol building and attack police officers in their homes, authorities said.
Fox had recently suffered personal setbacks in his life, and federal investigators often worry that in cases of domestic extremists and terrorists, such reversals can act as triggering events, propelling them to turn their violent ideas into action. In Fox’s case, there were two such issues – his apparently rocky relationship with his girlfriend and near homelessness.
In the 24 hours since Fox’s arrest, the store where he’d been living has been flooded with hate calls accusing the owner of enabling Fox, who was about to be homeless with two large dogs, before the business’ owner Brian Titus allowed Fox to stay temporarily, according to an employee of the store, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of privacy and safety concerns.
“People have said, ‘How did you not know you were housing a white supremacist?’ ” said the employee, who said Fox could be erratic and arrogant, but there was no indication his views crossed into the kind of violent plans described in court papers by federal investigators.
“He was afraid the government was going to take his guns,” the employee said. Those at the store were aware of Fox’s Second Amendment views and involvement with a group of armed men, which did not strike them as unusual for the area.
Support for local self-styled militia groups and the Second Amendment right to bear arms have a long history in the state, especially in western Michigan where strains of social and political conservatism intermingle with gun owner culture.
Titus, the owner of the Vac Shack, has stressed in interviews to local media he would have alerted officials if he had gotten wind of any plans to commit violence. He also said he didn’t know about a June 20 meeting in the basement of his store, described by the FBI in court papers, in which Fox and others allegedly discussed plans for attacking the state capital.
The store employee allowed The Washington Post to enter the basement, which was accessed through a cellar-door-style entrance, though authorities have called it a trap door. Fox had a small area in the basement where he slept amid boxes, old filing cabinets and spare vacuum parts. He kept a mini refrigerator and several large dog crates nearby, but appeared to have few personal belongings beyond some clothing. It was unclear what, if anything, federal agents might have confiscated at the time of his arrest.
One of alleged plotters, 23-year-old Daniel Harris, attended a Black Lives Matter protest in June, telling the Oakland County Times he was upset about the killing of George Floyd and police violence.
Parker Douglas, a lawyer for Harris, said his client was a former Marine who lived at home with his parents and did construction work. Douglas said Harris told him some things described in the FBI affidavit were taken out of context while others he “thinks just didn’t happen.” Douglas said his client believes “not everybody mentioned in this knew everything that is described in this complaint.” He said his client, in a brief meeting, had suggested he had voted for candidates from both parties, had not expressed a view on President Trump and seemed to favor small government.
Authorities in Michigan said six of the seven people facing state terrorism charges have been arraigned, while the seventh is awaiting extradition from South Carolina. The six others facing federal charges have court appearances scheduled next week.
The seven people charged in Michigan were described by Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office as members or associates of a self-styled militia group called the “Wolverine Watchmen.” Bond for three of them — Eric Molitor, 36; Michael Null, 38; and William Null, 38 — was set at $250,000. Shawn Fix, 38, was arraigned Friday and given the same bond. All four are facing charges of providing material support for terrorist acts and carrying or possessing a firearm during commission of a felony.
Two others — Joseph Morrison, 26, and his father-in-law, Pete Musico, 42 — were arraigned Thursday and both given $10 million cash bond. They each face the same charges as the others as well as additional counts of a threat of terrorism and gang membership.
The seventh person facing state charges, 21-year-old Paul Bellar, was arrested in Columbia, S.C., and Nessel’s office is seeking to extradite him so he can be arraigned in Michigan. He faces charges of material support for terrorist acts, gang membership and carrying or possessing a gun during commission of a felony.
In Munith, Mich., where Fox’s associates allegedly trained at the home where Morrison and Musico both lived, neighbors said the one-acre property was well-known for a regular cacophony of gunfire and explosions.
Neighbors Pam and Roger Karshnock said men in camouflage fatigues parked their cars and trucks along the road and fired rifles and other weapons, they said, rattling residents whose children play in the woods.
But in the past four months, the noise would come like clockwork: Every Sunday from 5 to 7 p.m. the group fired hundreds of rounds on the land, the couple said.
On Wednesday, hours before law enforcement raided the home, a blast shook the Karshnock’s windows, they said, leading them to later believe it was a test of a homemade explosive.
It was unclear if all of the men facing state charges had attorneys. Philip C. Curtis, an attorney representing Musico, said he was appointed late Friday afternoon, had not met with his client yet and did not have any comment. George D. Lyons, who is representing Morrison, also declined to comment.
At the Morrison residence Friday, a reporter could see windows smashed out of a trailer and a Confederate flag hanging outside. The arrests were a relief for some neighbors, but others were not confident it was the end of activity there.
“They locked two of them up. But they got family and friends,” said a woman in passing. “This ain’t over.”
Thomas O’Connor, a former FBI agent who spent decades investigating domestic extremists, said the most concerning element of the case is the sheer number of individuals arrested.
“In recent years, the incidents of violence or potential violence coming from extremist elements has often been one-off lone offenders, or very small numbers of people,” O’Connor said. “It’s disturbing to see 13 people charged, that that many people have the belief system putting them to the point where they are willing to commit violence.”
The arrests in Michigan could be the start of a busy time for the FBI, as it tries to prevent violence after a turbulent summer of civil unrest now facing a highly partisan national election.
O’Connor said that before major events, such as an election or political convention, FBI agents will often review their outstanding cases to see if subjects under investigation are preparing to commit violence.
“Whenever you have an event which could potentially be a trigger for people to act, you have to scrub your investigations to make sure that you don’t have someone that trigger will send into action,” he said. “I’m sure people are concerned inside law enforcement and outside law enforcement that the election cycle is potentially a trigger for a person with extreme views that might take steps toward violence.”
O’Connor said the case, built on the work of informants who secretly recorded the alleged plotting, could help dissuade any other would-be terrorists from trying to conduct politically motivated violence.
“Historically, the fear of infiltration by human sources has made groups eat their young, and can cause the groups to break up because they start seeing informants behind every door,” O’Connor said. “That’s not a bad thing.”
One of the men charged, William Null, had appeared in public with a local law enforcement official.
Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf said he met Null several years ago when Null came to his office to vent about the Black Lives Matter movement. Leaf said Null wanted to start his own cause: My Life Matters, which he would eventually turn into what he called the Michigan Liberty Militia.
Leaf said he would periodically run into Null at gun rights rallies in the state, and he “seemed to be a very concerned, straight shooting guy.” During the Flint water crisis, Leaf said, Null told him he drove to Flint to pass out water bottles alongside those involved in the Black Lives Matter movement.
Leaf said that in May, he was invited to speak at a protest of Whitmer’s coronavirus restrictions, and Null and others associated with him provided security. Leaf, who is opposed to the restrictions and what he views as government overreach, said he invited Null on stage to make a point about self-described militias being the last line of defense for people’s rights if government fails. Leaf said he had no indication that Null was plotting to kidnap Whitmer, or that he was capable of that.
“That’s why this is so shocking to me,” Leaf said. “I did not see this coming. Had I caught wind they were even talking about this, I would have stopped it immediately.”
Horton reported from Munith, Mich. Mark Berman and Julie Tate contributed to this story.