Three years after plot to kidnap Michigan’s Gov Gretchen Whitmer failed, final defendants go on trial

The final three alleged plotters in the Gretchen Whitmer kidnapping case face trial  (Antrim County Sheriff’s Office/AP/iStock)
The final three alleged plotters in the Gretchen Whitmer kidnapping case face trial (Antrim County Sheriff’s Office/AP/iStock)

The world had shut down, and they were angry.

In 2020, a group of men surveilled Michigian Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s vacation home in Elk Rapids, Michigan, watching and plotting. To them, she was the embodiment of what they viewed as the government’s overreach to Covid-19, using her state mandates to bring their lives — and businesses — to a halt.

With the 2020 election looming just weeks away, the men hatched a plan to kidnap the governor. The brothers, their bonds forged by mutual hatred for the Democrats, would train and plan, but they would never get a chance to attempt their scheme, as not all among them were who they appeared. It was not until they were in federal custody did the men realize that FBI agents had been secretly monitoring them from within their ranks.

The militia plot to kidnap the Democratic governor was foiled by the FBI, and the 14 men involved were arrested just weeks before the November 2020 election. Now, almost three years later, the last three members of the scheme to be tried will plead their cases in court.

Opening arguments began Monday for Eric Molitor and brothers William and Michael Null, a trio of men who prosecutors say are anti-government extremists angry with the governor's decision to enforce Covid-19 mitigation policies such as shutting down schools and closing businesses.

The defendants were members of a large right-wing gang that had reportedly discussed attacking the state capitol in Lansing with the hopes of kicking off a civil war, according to prosecutors. Nine men involved in the plot have been convicted already. Four entered guilty pleas and two others were acquitted.

The defendants

Mr Molitor and the Null brothers allegedly intended to storm Ms Whitmer's vacation residence in Elk Rapids, a village on Lake Michigan, and take her hostage ahead of the 2020 election.

But FBI agents infiltrated the militia and brought down the plot before it could begin. This has led to the defendants to claim they had been entrapped by the government, a defense that did not help stave off conviction for several of the plotters.

The three men currently standing trial have been charged with providing material support for terrorist acts and illegally possessing firearms. They have pleaded not guilty. If convicted, they face up to 20 years in prison.

Prosecutors have painted the Null brothers as loyal confidants of the leader of the plot, Adam Fox, who spoke highly of the men during a meeting the basement of a vacuum shop in Grand Rapids where the group was planning their doomed operation. An FBI agent made a recording of the session.

“Like, they’re willing to go die ... if need be. They don’t want to die in vain though,” Fox said in the audio, speaking of the brothers.

Both the Null brothers and Mr Molitor were present during a training session in Luther, Michigan, during which a "shoot house" was built to replicate the interior of Ms Whitmer's Elk Rapids house, according to previous witness testimony. During the same weekend the Null brothers joined Fox and other plotters on a nighttime surveillance trip in the same area.

“The assignment for that vehicle was to be a look out for ‘suspicious’ vehicles in Gov. Whitmer’s neighborhood and to interact with the other two vehicles participating in the surveillance by using hand-held radios,” prosecutors said.

Mr Molitor had allegedly already visited the residence weeks earlier to perform a daytime surveillance, according to the prosecution. He reportedly said he was "in" for Mr Fox's plan, so long as it was done "professionally”.

Previous rulings

Fox, the ringleader of the would-be kidnappers, was convicted in federal court on conspiracy charges and has been sentenced to 16 years in prison. He has refused to testify in the current trial, invoking his right against self-incrimination.

Barry Croft, another leader of the group, was convicted of kidnapping conspiracy, conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction and possessing an unregistered destructive device. He was sentenced to 19 years and is incarcerated in a federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.

Two other men charged in the plot, Brian Higgins and Shawn Fix, have pleaded guilty in exchange for reduced charges and have agreed to cooperate with the prosecution.

Another three members of the militia were convicted in a trial in Jackson County — in the south of the state — where the group's primary training ground was located.

Two men, Brandon Caserta and Daniel Harris, were acquitted on conspiracy to commit kidnapping charges after a jury determined that FBI involvement in the scheme instigated participation by the defendants.

Whitmer vs Trump

After the kidnapping plot was foiled by the FBI, Ms Whitmer placed the blame for the failed scheme squarely on the shoulders of then-President Donald Trump.

“Hate groups heard the president’s words not as a rebuke, but as a rallying cry,” Ms Whitmer said at the time. “When our leaders speak, their words matter. They carry weight. When our leaders meet, encourage or fraternize with domestic terrorists, they legitimize their actions and they are complicit. When they stoke and contribute to hate speech, they are complicit.”

Mr Trump responded by echoing the sentiments of the would-be kidnappers regarding Covid-19 closures while simultaneously distancing himself from the incident.

“I do not tolerate ANY extreme violence,” he said at the time. “Defending ALL Americans, even those who oppose and attack me, is what I will always do as your President! Governor Whitmer — open up your state, open up your schools, and open up your churches!”

Ms Whitmer said she was “shocked” and “appalled” at the president’s response.