Opening arguments are being heard at Antrim County Circuit Court in Bellaire, Michigan, on Wednesday in the trial of the last defendants to be accused of plotting to kidnap the state’s two-term Democratic governor Gretchen Whitmer during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Eric Molitor, 39, and the twin brothers William Null and Michael Null, both 41, were among 14 men – described by the prosecution as “anti-government extremists” associated with the Boogaloo movement – charged with planning to take Ms Whitmer hostage after becoming incensed by the strict lockdown measures she enacted in 2020 in the interest of protecting citizens from the coronavirus.
Fortunately, the FBI intervened on 7 October that year to prevent the plot from actually being carried out, making a string of arrests and charging its suspects a day later.
Mr Molitor from Cadillac and the Null Brothers from Plainwell and Shelbyville now stand accused of providing material support for terrorist acts and of the illegal possession of firearms.
They have pleaded not guilty to all charges.
It is alleged that the 14 Michigan conspirators believed Ms Whitmer had overstepped her powers and violated the US Constitution by imposing the social restrictions without legislative approval and conspired in secret to abduct her in order to ensure civil liberties were restored by force, whatever the cost to public health.
Focus on the state’s tough lockdown measures had greatly enhanced the governor’s national profile at the time, resulting in rallies that sprang up demonstrating against them in April and May.
They also attracted the ire of then-president Donald Trump, who feared their economic impact could harm his own re-election prospects in November, prompting him to repeatedly deride Ms Whitmer and tweet “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” on 17 April.
Two weeks later, armed protesters taking part in an American Patriot Rally – the future Whitmer plotters among them – occupied the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing in a tense standoff with police that may well have been directly inspired by the president’s irresponsible rhetoric.
It was against this backdrop of anger and unrest that the alleged kidnapping was conceived between June and September of that summer, a time when the country was otherwise preoccupied with the advance of the virus and the Black Lives Matter demonstrations that had erupted in cities across the US in response to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Evidence presented in previous trials reported that the likeminded plotters had first met up in suburban Dublin, Ohio, on 6 June to discuss the need for a more self-reliant society that adhered strictly to the US Bill of Rights, at which point the prospect of overthrowing “tyrant” state governors was first discussed.
Over the course of further talks carried out between June, July, August and September, often via a private Facebook chat, the plan to abduct Ms Whitmer from her vacation home on Birch Lake in Elk Rapids gradually evolved, with the group also proposing to blow up a bridge over the Elk River to prevent law enforcement from pursuing them.
Gatherings for “field training” and surveillance operations were carried out during that time before the FBI stepped in to make its arrests, the bureau having been well aware of the group for some time thanks to its infiltration by undercover agents, who had collected “hundreds of hours of undercover audio recordings and more than 13,000 pages of encrypted text messages” over the course of the summer.
“The FBI and state police executed arrests of several of the conspirators when they were meeting on the east side of the state to pool funds for explosives and exchange tactical gear,” Andrew Birge, US attorney for the Western District of Michigan, explained on 8 October when the men were charged and the plot exposed.
“The individuals in custody are suspected to have attempted to identify the home addresses of law enforcement officers in order to target them, made threats of violence intended to instigate a civil war, and engaged in planning and training for an operation to attack the capital building of Michigan and to kidnap government officials including the governor of Michigan,” added state attorney general Dana Nessel.
Nine men have since been convicted in federal or state courts related to the affair, including ringleaders Adam Fox and Barry Croft Jr and four who pleaded guilty: Ty Garbin, Kaleb Franks, Shawn Fix and Brian Higgins.
Two more – Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta – were acquitted at trial.
Half of the suspects proved to have ties to a small paramilitary group calling itself the Wolverine Watchmen, which was founded by Pete Musico and Joseph Morrison, who were likewise convicted over the Whitmer plot.
Jon Lewis, a research fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, later admitted the outfit had flown “under the radar” of experts due to its comparative obscurity and small size, despite widespread concern at the time about the growing influence of far-right groups in the state.
The final three defendants on trial have been portrayed as close to Fox, the “mastermind” who was convicted of orchestrating the scheme and sentenced to 16 years in jail.
He is currently serving time at US Penitentiary Florence High in Colorado and has declined to testify in the upcoming trial, invoking his right against self-incrimination.
Fox was recorded by an undercover FBI agent during one clandestine meeting in the basement of a vacuum repair shop in Grand Rapids on 20 June saying of the Null Brothers: “They’re willing to go die... if need be. They don’t want to die in vain though.”
According to a court filing citing earlier witness testimony, Molitor and the siblings attended a training session in the town of Luther where a fake “kill house” had been built out of PVC tubing to simulate Ms Whitmer’s property, before allegedly joining Fox and others on a night ride to see the real mansion.
“The assignment for that vehicle was to be a look out for ‘suspicious’ vehicles in Governor Whitmer’s neighbourhood and to interact with the other two vehicles participating in the surveillance by using hand-held radios,” prosecutors explained.
Speaking out after the FBI had intervened and made its arrests, Governor Whitmer herself labelled the plotters “sick and depraved men” and wasted no time in laying the blame squarely at Mr Trump’s door, accusing him of inciting hostility against her in interviews with CBS’s Face the Nation and NBC’s Meet the Press and in an article for The Atlantic.
If convicted, Mr Molitor and the Null Brothers could now be handed 20-year jail sentences for the crimes of which they stand accused.