Skip to main content
From left: Defendants Barry Croft Jr., Daniel Harris, Adam Fox, Brandon Caserta

From left: Defendants Barry Croft Jr., Daniel Harris, Adam Fox, Brandon Caserta

As I write this, the prosecution has rested in the trial of four men accused of plotting to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. The issue of entrapment came up early in the case, and it will be interesting to see how useful this argument is for the defense.

The FBI has had an active sideline in manufacturing terror cases for its entire history, so people were right to be skeptical when this story came to light on October 7, 2020. These were far-right militia activists, members of the Boogaloo Boys movement, an obscure militia called the Wolverine Watchmen militia, and their associates.

Despite the very real possibility of FBI hijinks, things don’t look good for the men on trial. They went out of their way to train, accumulate weapons, and even took multiple trips to Whitmer’s vacation home. They weren’t merely fantasizing about committing a crime or thinking out loud. The plan might have been doomed to fail, but the planning itself was very real.

For more on the kidnapping plot, read A Tale of Two Militias on Failed State Update.

The federal investigation began in early 2020 when the FBI heard through an informant that right-wing militia activists in Michigan were calling for violence in response to the COVID-19 lockdown. While most militias claim to train for strictly defensive purposes, this group wished to ignite the second Civil War — or, at the very least, keep Trump in the White House. And according to the FBI, they conspired to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who became a political lightning rod after passing public health measures in the early days of the pandemic.

“We wanted to cause as much a disruption as possible to prevent Joe Biden from getting into office,” Ty Garbin, who is now 26, testified in court.

Opening arguments began on March 9. Early in the trial, jurors heard from FBI Special Agent Mark Schweers, who went undercover with the militia. Schweers testified that when he met with Adam Fox, one of the ringleaders, Fox discussed what he’d like to do if he ever got his hands on the governor: “We want her flex-cuffed on a table while we all pose and get our pictures taken like we just made the biggest drug bust in ... history.”

Fox also fantasized about taking over the Michigan State Capitol, which somehow (through a sort of twisted logic) would lead to the re-establishment of the United States as a “constitutional republic.” Of course, the United States already is a constitutional republic and has been since March 4, 1789, but here Fox was reiterating a right-wing talking point. And those talking points can be surprisingly resilient, even when they come up against actual facts.

The case was kicked off when “Big Dan” Chappel, a former U.S. Army sergeant, came across the Wolverine Watchmen’s Facebook page during the lockdown. He joined, thinking it might be a chance to keep his soldiering skills sharp and support the 2nd Amendment. Instead, he discovered a group of dysfunctional people who spent a lot of time getting high and fantasizing about hunting down police officers and other acts of terrorism. He went to a friend in the FBI, who encouraged him to keep tabs on the group. Chappel was present at several meetings and training sessions of the Wolverine Watchmen militia, including a June 18, 2020 rally at the Michigan State Capitol building and multiple reconnaissance trips to the governor’s lake house in August 2020.

There are no domestic terrorism statutes in the United States, and something like “seditious conspiracy” is historically tough to prove. But kidnapping is inarguably a crime, so when the FBI heard Chappel’s story, they moved to set up a bust. Or manufacture a conspiracy.

There are no wrong ideas when you brainstorm, which would explain some of the group’s other options for dealing with the governor, such as tying her to a kite and flying her over the lake. Or hiding in the woods near the governor’s vacation home and making animal sounds, so “she'll know [even] the animals were against her,” Defense attorney Joshua Blanchard explained to the court.

Of course, people can be both jackasses and would-be terrorists, so it’s likely that they both fantasized about tying the governor to a large kite and prepared to commit acts of terror.

im-196095

Angry Young Men

The oldest of the plotters was 51 at the time of his arrest. The youngest was 21. The majority were in their thirties and forties. These are angry young men (and not so young men), living in an era where none of them can even remember a time when a man, straight out of high school, could walk into a plant somewhere and earn a living wage. Collectively, their lives are marked by a myriad of legal hassles, things like drunk driving, assault, shoplifting, and unpaid debts. Some of the men seethed quietly. Others took to social media, where they ranted against the government and cops and, more importantly, they found each other.

According to the government, the mastermind of the plot is Adam Fox, a self-described “boog,” one of the Boogaloo Boys (sometimes spelled Boogaloo Bois). Like all social movements, this one isn’t always easy to pin down. Much of this is probably because it’s an extremely online subculture, and internet subcultures are slippery, imprecise things. But there’s also obfuscation here — the Boogaloo Boys don’t want you to understand precisely what they’re about, because confusion gives them a tactical advantage.

In general, boogs are pro-gun, anti-cop libertarians who believe that the United States is far beyond the point of rehabilitation. If the nation is going to be salvaged at all, there needs to be a second civil war; that is, “Civil War 2: Electric Boogaloo” — an incredibly lame joke, to be sure. There’s also the penchant for wearing Jimmy Buffett-type aloha shirts and flying flags emblazoned with igloos (at one point, the term “boogaloo” morphed into “big igloo”).

The use of humor and irony to keep one’s enemies off-balance is an established tradition. Groypers and Proud Boys, two contemporary hate groups, make themselves ridiculous to draw attention away from their ideologies. Even the Ku Klux Klan began as a bad joke. “Kuklos” is a derivation of an ancient Greek phrase meaning “circle of brothers,” and Klan is a misspelling of the Scottish-Gaelic word for “clan.” The name Ku Klux Klan is redundant — like establishing something called the Society Association. All the features of the Klan that you find ridiculous, the lofty titles like “Grand Dragon” and “Imperial Wizard,” the stupid robes, these were always meant to be ridiculous. Just like the early klansmen, part of the allure of the Boogaloo Boys is adopting an over-the-top identity that signals your rejection of the whole rotten system.

There are jokes in the Boogaloo Bois’ aesthetic, but nothing about it is fun. When you encounter these guys at a protest, you don’t want to laugh. The effect is uncanny and off-putting. It’s aesthetic terrorism. During the first Liberian civil war in the 1990s, I recall seeing photos of Liberian gunmen decked out in little girls’ dresses and fright wigs, toting AK-47s. It’s the same grotesque principle. A psyop, really.

“Boogaloo” as slang for civil war is several years old, but it wasn’t until 2019 that a social movement began to coalesce on websites like 4chan around the boogaloo itself. The years since have seen the violence go from rhetorical to literal.

In February of this year, Steven Carrillo was found guilty of murdering security guard Dave Patrick Underwood and injuring another working at the federal courthouse in Oakland, California. This was a premeditated act, planned with a fellow boog, for creating chaos during the George Floyd protests in May 2020. Carillo, a sergeant in the Air Force, had traveled from his home at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield to commit the attack. The following month, when police arrived at his home, Carillo killed Sgt. Damon Gutzwiller and injured several sheriff’s deputies. In addition to the gunman, five others were indicted in the killings. They were members of a militia that called itself the Grizzly Scouts. They met on Facebook and communicated through WhatsApp.

On Fox News, Sean Hannity was quick to blame Antifa for the murder of Underwood, and President Trump, true to form, repeated the claim. Later that year, Underwood was invoked by Mike Pence on the floor of the RNC as an example of radical left-wing violence. If the purpose of the murder was to sow confusion, it did. But rather than being anti-establishment, that confusion was used to try and re-elect the most powerful man in the world.

Good job, boogs.

Other examples of Boogaloo Busts include an illegal ghost gun stash in a New York City Airbnb that resulted in a four-year prison sentence and a West Virginia man who took a five-year plea deal on a gun silencer charge to avoid a trial for selling illegal kits that can convert a semi-automatic AR-15 rifle to a fully automatic machine gun. (The FBI claimed that he had as many as 800 customers.) In San Antonio in 2020, a group of boogs took up arms to guard the Alamo during the George Floyd protests there. One of the men, 22-year-old Cameron Emerson Casey Rankin, was legally prohibited from owning a gun due to his time spent in a mental institution. He was later sentenced to 24 months for illegal possession of a firearm. According to the San Antonio Express-News, Rankin told protestors that the Alamo was off-limits, but feel free to burn down a nearby police station.

The list goes on from there. In September 2021, one Texas man was sentenced to 50 years in prison for threatening to kill police officers, while another pleaded guilty to traveling armed to Minneapolis with the expressed intention of elevating a social justice protest there to a full-blown riot.

These are not the acts of disciplined militants or even healthy individuals. They are primal screams from a very angry, very troubled subculture.

“If we can’t have our world, they can’t have theirs. Burning it down. Making the world glow,” Adam Fox explained his motivation to an FBI informant. A tape of the conversation was played in the courtroom during the trial. They were talking about Timothy McVeigh, who Fox sees as an inspirational figure.

Adam Fox

“I just feel that he was lost,” Mike Fox, Adam’s uncle, told the (Detroit) Free Press in early 2021. Fox may be an alleged mastermind, but he is also someone’s kid, someone’s nephew. “He was a sweet boy, he was really tender-hearted,” Mike told the reporter. “He could say things that were really profound at a very young age.”

All the same, his home life wasn’t great. His mother was young when she had him, and his parents’ relationship had ended before he was born. Both his mom and his stepdad filed for bankruptcy at different points. In 1997, when Adam was 14, he found himself in front of the juvenile court system. The records have been destroyed by the county, but his uncle Mike seems to remember it was related to underage drinking. In high school, he was sort of adopted by a neighbor named Brian Titus, whose son was friends with Adam. Fox even lived with Titus’ family for a while. He referred to Brian Titus as “Pops.”

After high school, Adam Fox bounced around. For a while, he rented a room in a farmhouse in Potterville. He tried trade school but never graduated. He got his real estate license but didn’t stick with that either. He was married in 2014, which lasted all of six months. After a spate of abusive text messages to his ex-wife she sought a personal protection order, which a judge denied. Among the text messages Fox sent her: “I'll do whatever I want ... you can't stop me from doing shit ... but go ahead and push my buttons. ... I ain't got shit to lose.”

“He is reckless when drunk, even drives [drunk],” Fox's ex-wife wrote in 2015. “Threatening me. He owns a gun. He is an alcoholic. He has kicked my door to get in. Punched holes in my wall, and left bruises on me.”

It doesn’t seem accurate to say that Adam Fox’s life was falling apart, as much as it was in perpetual freefall.

Fox was kicked out of the Michigan Home Guard militia in early 2020 after his anger became apparent. “He has rage issues,'' co-founder Rick Foreman told BuzzFeed News. “He seemed fine until it was time for him to get patched in. And then all of the sudden he’s all anti-government, he wants to start a war, he wants to take people out.” Members of the group suspected he was taking steroids, which would explain his bouts of explosive rage.

After breaking up with his girlfriend, Fox moved into the basement of the Vac Shack in Grand Rapids, the business owned by his “Pops,” Brian Titus. It was accessed through a trapdoor in the floor of the shop. This was where the FBI claims that Fox and his crew plotted the kidnapping of the governor.

“I knew he [Fox] belonged to the militia but I didn’t know it was this deep. He kept it pretty quiet,” Titus told local TV news after the arrest. “I thought he was just trying to stand up for our constitutional rights.” But Fox had changed since the COVID-19 lockdown began, Titus said. He refused to wear a mask and started attending armed protests with other militia members. “I noticed he started getting on edge and stuff.” Sometimes he would bring up the impending Boogaloo.

“He was anti-police, anti-government,” Titus continues. “He was afraid [that] if he didn’t stand up for the Second Amendment and his rights that the country is going to go [to] communism and socialism.”

After Fox revealed his increased activity in the militia, perhaps intimating that he was doing more than attending armed protests and shooting his mouth off, Titus grew concerned. He told Fox that he had to be out of the basement by November. He was arrested in October.

Scroll to Continue

Recommended for You

“What he did is just uncalled for, just crossed the line,” Titus told the Free Press. “He put his mom, me, and his family all at risk, even his dogs are homeless.”

Whether or not it’s right — there’s a whole discussion about institutional patriarchy that we’re going to sidestep here — men are expected to perform a certain role in American life, especially in rural America. At the same time, all the good jobs have been shipped out of the country, even as a few people at the top got obscenely wealthy in the process. When society is insisting you do something while consistently denying the means to get it done, you’re inevitably going to lose your shit. Sociologists call this “social strain theory.” Not everybody experiencing social strain becomes a criminal, and this doesn’t explain all criminality, but it does explain those who paradoxically become criminals to achieve things that are otherwise culturally accepted. For instance, there’s the drug dealer who can’t find legal opportunities to make money. There’s nothing more American than the pursuit of wealth, even when you have to break the law to do so. This also explains the militia members, who may be breaking laws but believe that what they’re doing is in defense of the Constitution.

What’s Adam Fox’s excuse, then? Perpetual poverty? Coming from a broken home? ‘Roid rage? There aren’t any easy answers, but that’s okay. Reality isn’t easy.

Beginning in early 1991 and lasting for the next decade, corporate America experienced an unprecedented economic expansion. This occurred at the expense of American workers. The social strain caused by this transfer of wealth totally wrecked parts of the country, including much of Michigan, and is one of the root causes of the modern militia movement.

The original militias of the 1990s sort of faded into the background of American life after 9/11, but here we are, twenty years later, and they’re back with a vengeance. It’s not surprising, as things haven’t gotten better for a working person in Michigan in the last two decades — or anywhere else, for that matter. If anything, they’ve become much worse.

Entrapment?

“In the eyes of my God, I will die a fuckin’ saint, covered in blood,” Adam Fox declared at one point to his fellow militiamen. We know this because FBI Special Agent Mark Schweers recorded the conversation.

The federal trial of four of the (alleged) (would-be) kidnappers began on March 9, 2022. In his opening statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Roth laid out the case: Adam Fox, Brandon Caserta, Barry Croft Jr., and Daniel Harris, in addition to several other men being tried in state court (and two who took plea deals) planned to blow up a bridge and take advantage of the ensuing chaos to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer.

"Defendants agreed, planned, trained, and were ready to break into a woman's home as she slept with her family in the middle of the night and, with violence and at gunpoint, they would tie her up and take her from that home," Roth said. "And to accomplish that they would shoot, blow up and kill anybody who got in their way."

It took at least a dozen undercover FBI agents and informants to arrest 15 men overall. At what point does a criminal plot become an FBI operation? When fifty-one percent of the plotters are feds? When there are as many cops and informants as there are conspirators? If someone has a crackpot idea and no means to carry it out, is it really a threat? If a tree falls in the woods? etc.

Besides, if the FBI was actually worried about these militia guys, they had plenty of opportunities to take them out before it got to the level of a full-blown terrorist conspiracy to kidnap a sitting governor. That’s the defense argument, anyways.

The FBI says they only quashed the plot when they did because it looked like these mooks were close to obtaining explosives. Along the way, the plotters conducted firearms training in a crude mockup of the governor’s home, met in several states to plan the operation, coordinated through encrypted apps, and unsuccessfully attempted to construct IEDs.

According to Roth, the plotters didn’t just want to conduct a citizen’s arrest of the governor, they were out to create a “war zone here in Michigan.” These plans wouldn’t have gone as far as they had without the leadership of “Big Dan” Chappel, the Iraq war vet who was made second-in-command of the alleged terrorist cell while simultaneously working for the feds. And while this might have been his civic duty, it was also a lucrative side hustle. The prosecution's star witness was paid about $54,000 (including expenses) for his work.

The more time Dan spent with the group, the more audio and video he recorded for posterity: “You need to take hostages. There’s your value,” Adam Fox said during a June 6, 2020, national militia meeting in Dublin, Ohio. This was the meeting where the plot was hatched (allegedly). “I’m gonna hit soon… I’m going to terrorize people. The right people. The people who have been terrorizing my people,” another defendant, Barry Croft Jr., said at the same meeting. A month later, in Wisconsin, Croft said that he will use explosives to “rain down” fire on law enforcement “with a team standing by” to abduct Whitmer in “a quick precision grab.” He saw the kidnapping as the first step in the boogaloo. "All it's going to take is one state to burn out and hang its governor and then those dominos will start to fall." Like most right-wing extremists, Croft vastly overestimates the average American’s desire for civil war.

Alongside Fox, Croft is considered the ringleader of the conspiracy. He’s a long-haul truck driver and Boogaloo Boi who once discussed cutting himself up to fool facial recognition technology. His lawyer, Joshua Blanchard, says that the defendants’ kidnapping talk should be dismissed because they’d been recorded when they were “absolutely out-of-your-mind stoned.”

The Dublin meeting was organized by Stephen Robeson, a 57-year-old biker from Wisconsin. He’s a large guy, covered in tattoos, works as a concrete asphalt contractor. He’s also the founder of the Wisconsin Patriot Three Percenters, a militia tied to the national Three Percenter movement. There’s a lot of crossover between the Three Percenters and Boogaloo Bois. Each group is radically Libertarian, and they both stockpile guns. You’ll often find them at the same protests.

Robeson is a hardened criminal whose rap sheet goes back to his teenage years, including car theft, battery, possession of stolen property, forgery, disorderly conduct, theft, writing worthless checks, sex with a minor, bail jumping, and insurance fraud, as detailed in BuzzFeed News. He’s also an accomplished snitch:

[Robeson] helped the government put people away at least three times in the 1980s and again in 2005, when he provided information about a farmer who was seeking to pay someone to kill a romantic rival or leave him “crippled for life.” Under direction from the Eau Claire police, Robeson told the farmer he’d put him in touch with someone who could do the job. That turned out to be an undercover police officer, who over lunch at a restaurant recorded the farmer offering a hay baler in exchange for the act of violence. The farmer eventually pleaded guilty to solicitation of battery.

No one questioned why “Robey,” as he’s known, was so gung-ho about getting as many people as he could to attend the meeting. He even paid for hotel rooms and food for some of the more hard-up extremists.

The FBI’s lead investigators on this were Richard Trask, Jayson Chambers, and Henrik Impola. Last year, Trask was kicked out of the Bureau when his wife pressed charges against him for beating her after a swingers’ party. She alleges that Trask choked her and smashed her head against a nightstand. Trask was also moonlighting as a personal trainer, because there just aren’t enough gym rats with anger issues in this story.

There are indications that the remaining investigators are problematic at best. According to defense attorney Scott Graham, Impola told a source he would create “chaos” and “make discovery as difficult as possible” for the defense. And as BuzzFeed News reported last year, Jayson Chambers owns a private intelligence firm called Exeintel. For whatever reason (and the importance of this factoid is not yet clear) a Twitter account attached to the company began tweeting about the bust before it happened. BuzzFeed refers to the Twitter account in question, @ravagiing as belonging to a “right-wing troll” (it’s since been suspended).

The FBI has given us reasons to doubt its version of events. But the Wolverine Watchmen and their fellow Boogaloo Boys have given us plenty of their own reasons to be glad they’re off the streets.

sIE5tvS8_4x

Return of the Trenchcoat Mafia

In 1999, on Adolph Hitler’s 110th birthday, two students went on a rampage at Columbine High School in Columbine, Colorado. They killed 13 people and wounded 24 others before turning their guns on themselves. If they were still alive, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold — both members of their school’s “Trenchcoat Mafia” student clique — would be forty years old, which puts them squarely in the Wolverine Watchmen/Boogaloo Boy demographic.

There shouldn’t be any surprise that the modern militia movement and the contemporary high school massacre movement cropped up around the same time. “[M]any schoolyard shooters very consciously saw their massacres as rebellions, however poorly expressed or thought through,” Mark Ames writes in Going Postal. And later, in the same book: “The Columbine killers openly declared that their planned massacre was intended to ignite a nationwide uprising.” This is the same dream of kickin’ off a revolution that animated Charles Manson, Timothy McVeigh, that was fictionalized in the infamous far-right wank book The Turner Diaries, and the raison d'être of the Weather Underground in the 1970s. And it was part of the reasoning behind the alleged plot to kidnap Governor Whitmer.

The United States in the last 50 years has given us plenty to rebel against. And regardless of whether or not a rebellion is righteous, it is never a common sense, orderly thing. In fact, for the vast majority of people living in this society, people who accept the current state of affairs as being perfectly natural, the injustice that piles up around us — poverty, inequality, systemic racism, wars of empire — are unfortunate, but to be expected. (I mean, life ain’t fair, right?) If the society that creates these conditions is normal, then standing up to it must be abnormal.

“In other words, a rebellion doesn’t need to be rational in order to make it a rebellion,” Ames says elsewhere in the book:

Without a context, rational rebellion is impossible. Thus, crime, murder, is itself an act of rebellion if the circumstances are deemed unjust, if the environment … created the crime. Even if we only recognize the unjust causes one hundred years after the murder is committed, it still makes the crime a political act, a rebellion.

In 1999, after the Columbine massacre, the Department of Education and the Secret Service teamed up to study the phenomenon of school shootings. The final report, Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States, supports Ames’s contention that dysfunctional communities and their sick schools, not sick students, create spree killers. Among the team’s findings:

  • There is no accurate or useful “profile” of students who engaged in targeted school violence.
  • The largest group of attackers appeared to socialize with mainstream students or were considered mainstream students themselves.
  • Many attackers felt bullied, persecuted, or injured by others prior to the attack.
  • Most attackers had no history of prior violent or criminal behavior.

What happens when a potential school shooter grows up and gets out of school without actually killing anybody? Perhaps they become Boogaloo Boys. I mean, it does make a certain amount of sense.

The Boogaloo Boys have no idea why they're angry, or they only think they know, but nonetheless, they’re angry and they have to blame somebody: Cops, socialists, surgical masks, Pizzagate, the Deep State, etc., etc., have all become stand-ins for an unseen, but strongly felt enemy.

In addition to Fox and Croft, both considered masterminds of the plot, Daniel Harris, 24, and Brandon Caserta, 33, are in court for their roles in the conspiracy. Harris and Caserta, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Roth, were considered the outfit’s “kill squad.”

According to Harris (via chat messages) merely kidnapping Whitmer would be rather lame. A better plan, he said, would be to pose as a pizza delivery guy, knock on the door, and shoot her when she answers (because the governor is likely to answer the door herself for a pizza she never ordered, I guess).

Caserta spoke about crushing the governor’s skull. During the trial, jurors heard a recording of him “ranting,” as BuzzFeed’s Ken Bensinger put it, “wanting to kill COVID contact tracers.”

The government’s case relies on whether or not it can convince a jury that the defendants had the intention and ability to attempt the kidnapping. Admittedly, that’s a pretty low bar. On the other hand, there is enough anger going around these days — and this state is just weird enough and libertarian enough — that if anyplace was going to let these guys off the hook, it would be Michigan.

The only thing I know for certain is that this whole disaster seems somehow inevitable. And avoidable.