Whitmer conspiracy allegations tied to 'boogaloo' movement

Several of the men charged with a conspiracy to kidnap Michigan's governor have histories of anti-government organizing, according to their online profiles.

NBC News/October 8, 2020

By Ben Collins, Brandy Zadrozny, Tom Winter and Corky Siemaszko

Several of the six men charged in federal court Thursday with a conspiracy to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer have histories of anti-government organizing, as well as interest in countering what they saw as an "uprising" against President Donald Trump, according to their online profiles and comments.

In addition, several of the seven men facing separate state terrorism charges for their activity with a group called the Wolverine Watchmen also posted pro-Trump and anti-government content.

The men have not yet appeared in court or entered pleas.

A senior federal law enforcement official said federal agents found that the group of seven tied to the Wolverine Watchmen believes in the "boogaloo" movement, which is largely dedicated to eradicating the government and killing law enforcement officers. Their social media profiles showed connections to a wide variety of known anti-government groups.

Around the country, self-described members of the boogaloo movement have committed acts of violence and killed police officers in recent months, often in attempts to ignite what they believe will be a second civil war. Authorities said a California man accused of killing a police officer and a federal agent in June scrawled the word "Boog" in blood on the hood of a car during a standoff with police. Federal agents arrested two other members of the boogaloo movement whom they accused of offering to work with the terrorist group Hamas last month.

The Michigan kidnapping suspects' online lives revealed boogaloo ties and swift online radicalization.

In the Whitmer case, Adam Fox, Barry Croft, Ty Garbin, Kaleb Franks, Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta were charged with conspiracy to commit kidnapping. They are being held in U.S. marshals' custody pending their detention hearing Tuesday morning.

NBC News analyzed numerous social media profiles connected to the men charged in the cases that were connected by biographical information and email addresses tied to public records.

The profiles detail how some of the men who held anti-government views were spurred to action after Whitmer declared coronavirus lockdowns, which sparked protests that included members of armed right-wing groups, some of which called themselves militias.

In a social profile verified by date of birth, Croft wore a tricorn hat and a sweatshirt with the insignia of the Three Percenters, an armed anti-government movement. Croft's online footprint shows what appears to have been years of involvement in armed movements.

In 2016, while he was living in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, Croft pushed pro-Trump conspiracy theories that absolved Russia of meddling in the 2016 election, calling investigations of Trump an "uprising."

Croft added that he would be willing to fight for his beliefs and that he would be joined by millions of others, adding that they had more firearms than their perceived enemies.

Caserta's social media timelines showed a more rapid radicalization path that accelerated after the pandemic forced Michigan into lockdown.

In a YouTube video from May, Caserta claimed in a 30-minute diatribe that "the enemy is government." Caserta recorded the video in front of an anarchist's flag and a map of Michigan. He did not post on YouTube again until three weeks ago. In that video, Caserta does not speak and simply loads and poses with a long gun while wearing a shirt that says "F--- The Government." Fox, also charged Thursday, responded to the video shortly after it was posted, saying "that safety lol," an apparent reference to the safety lock on Caserta's gun.

On TikTok, Caserta posted selfie videos railing against the state, along with antigovernment hashtags.

"The price of freedom is eternal vigilance," he said in a video posted Wednesday. In one video, Caserta is wearing a Hawaiian shirt, which is typically associated with the boogaloo movement. On Facebook, he posted about guns and Covid-19 conspiracies and espoused conflicting political ideologies, including anarchism.

Caserta's Twitter timeline appears to show his rapid descent into radicalization. In 2018 and early 2019, Caserta largely liked and posted about comedy shows, podcasts like "The Joe Rogan Experience," motivational quotations and selfies. Caserta's only likes after the onset of the pandemic mention conspiracy theories about Bill Gates and a meme about hogtying police officers.

Extremism researchers first noticed the boogaloo movement in 2019, when fringe groups from gun rights and "militia" movements to white supremacists began referring to an impending civil war using the word "boogaloo," a joking reference to "Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo," a 1984 sequel movie about break dancing.

The word is used to describe an uprising against a seemingly tyrannical or left-wing government, often in response to a perceived threat of widespread confiscation of guns. For many, the word "boogaloo" is used jokingly or ironically, but others share the boogaloo alongside violent text and images, seemingly to inflame an eventual confrontation.

Others in the group facing federal charges had similar anti-government memes and posts on their social media profiles before they were deleted. Fox, who was a member of the public Facebook Group "Open Michigan," had as his profile picture a skull and crossbones with a Three Percenter label and the phrase "Liberty or Death."

Fringe anti-government groups in Michigan have agitated for months against what they have claimed are illegal orders the state government put in place to contain the coronavirus. The groups got a boost in April when Trump tweeted "LIBERATE MICHIGAN," which some online extremist movements at the time took as a call to arms.

Amy Cooter, a sociology professor and militia expert at Vanderbilt University, said Wolverine Watchmen is "a relatively new group that was spurred to action specifically by the pandemic and by Whitmer's response to it."

"I absolutely believe that Trump plays a role in encouraging actions like this, in calling individuals to be members of groups like this in the first place and encouraging folks to show up in person to protests — by stoking fears and making them feel like it is their responsibility to do something about it," Cooter said.

A second law enforcement action Thursday involved state charges against seven more members of the Wolverine Watchmen.

The men, identified as Paul Bellar, Shawn Fix, Eric Molitor, Michael Null, William Null, Pete Musico and Joseph Morrison, face an array of state charges, including counts of threat of terrorism or material support of terrorist acts.

Musico had a YouTube channel on which he railed against Whitmer and praised Trump.

"So sick and tired of hearing about Donald Trump, Donald Trump, Donald Trump. Well guess what?" Musico said, pointing to a Trump 2020 hat on his head. "I hope that triggered a whole lot of people."

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