The Wolverine Watchmen had been talking for months, in person and online, over the course of 2020. While this loose assembly of far-right men from in and around Michigan had various ideas to overthrow the government and install their own constitutional leadership, according to the FBI, by June 2020, the strategy began to narrow down to one target: Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who had courted intense hatred from right-wing militias and extremists for her efforts to “lock down” the state amid an unprecedented spread of COVID-19.
Initially, the plan had allegedly fixated on a 200-person storming of the Michigan State Capitol, followed by the kidnapping of Whitmer and a consequent “trial” for her crimes against freedom. With further discussion, it narrowed to a smaller plot to capture or kill Whitmer at her own home, either through a commando-style breach or a solo suicide mission.
What the 14 suspects who were eventually indicted in the plot didn’t know at the time was that the group, assembled on social media, had multiple confidential informants in its ranks. It all started with a far-right chat-room discussion, in which impassioned talk about killing police officers caught the suspicion of a U.S. Army veteran in the group, who forwarded his concerns to law enforcement and eventually agreed to serve as a snitch for the FBI.
This initial hook brought the feds to Adam Fox, 40, and Barry Croft, 45, two of the main alleged co-conspirators in the plot to catch Whitmer. Over the course of the summer of 2020, their close-knit group of six plotters allegedly began to devise how to raid the governor’s home, even building a rudimentary “shoot house” for tactical arms training and debating the use of homemade explosives to slow a police response down.
They didn’t suspect that new informants had infiltrated the group in the previous few months, ultimately leading to the October 7th raid and arrest of 14 people. They also didn’t know that one of their closest allies would eventually turn tail and testify against the core group in trial two years later.
Last Wednesday saw the testimony of Ty Garbin, 25, who was the first of the six main defendants to plead guilty in January 2021. In return for a shortened sentence (he will serve just over six years in prison), Garbin has become a critical informant for prosecutors, helping build a case while also shedding light on the vast missteps and security failures that landed the crew in a courthouse. On the stand last week, Garbin described how the plotters were fueled by ideology of the “Boogaloo,” or the far-right plan to trigger a mass civil war in America and bring about revolutionary change: “The plan was for us to basically be… the ignition to it and hopefully other states and other groups follow suit.”
According to Garbin, group leader Croft suggested they secure cash through a series of robberies to help fund the kidnapping, and also bomb police cars in advance of the operation in order to stymie law enforcement from catching up to them. He also described how one co-conspirator, 23-year-old Daniel Joseph Harris, was determined to kill Whitmer and had a sociopathic air in planning sessions.
Garbin’s spilling of all these details, including unflattering characterizations of his supposed peers and friends, is another unfortunate chapter in the story of how far-right extremist ambition so often outruns their ability to maintain loyalty in the ranks. All it took for this Whitmer plot to begin falling apart was one pissed-off veteran who didn’t like all this talk of cop-killing. All it took for the spiral to continue was the main conspirators’ inability to vet new members or keep tactics on a need-to-know basis.
We’ve seen far-right snitches sowing uncertainty and finger-pointing anger in the past: Consider the gossip and accusations that unfolded when it came to light that Enrique Tarrio, the loudmouthed former leader of the Proud Boys’ national chapter, had a history of being a confidential informant for cops. He’s come under fire again after being charged for conspiracy in the January 6th insurrection, but he’s hardly the only one to earn suspicion after getting caught in a plot; Proud Boy pal Dominic Pezzola, also newly charged for his involvement in January 6th, once claimed he was interested in a plea deal, too.
But doesn’t honor and brotherhood, both so integral to far-right extremist camaraderie, mean something, even under the metaphoric gun of the feds? Apparently not, at least according to Brian Hughes, associate director of the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (or PERIL) at American University. As he told me last year, it’s not surprising that people who thrive off bigoted, violently self-righteous energy also end up being self-serving and disloyal when time runs out on their ambitions. “We saw a lot of this in the post-war U.S., with the Ku Klux Klan having a massive share of informants and snitches from the 1950s through the 1980s and 1990s,” he explained. “It’s not only very common for extremist groups to have informants — it’s common for members to flip when they get into legal trouble.”
And this is a key factor in why so many right-wing groups, especially ones with a fixation on terrorism or violence, often fracture without maintaining much momentum or growth over time, as Anti-Defamation League expert Mark Pitcavage also told me last year. “For one reason or another, most of them fall apart after a few years, and paranoia over security is a big factor,” Pitcavage said.
The Whitmer plot could’ve ended up so much worse than it was — but in predictable fashion, it disintegrated due to a lack of attention to detail, and a come-what-may attitude about the risks of kidnapping the governor of a state. The right is full of snitches and rats, and while their plans for violence may get more sophisticated, it’s going to take more than chat-room recruiting and janky backyard shoot houses for another group to pull off a plot without springing a leak.