Coronavirus: Michigan plotters attend multiple anti-lockdown protests

Adam Fox and five others have been charged in a plan to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, or in related cases, providing material support for a planned terrorist attack

Key moments from Trump's final day of campaigning

On April 30, outside the Michigan Capitol, protesters gathered to demand that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer end the business closures and other measures she had imposed to slow the transmission of the coronavirus.

Speaker after speaker denounced the Democratic governor. One Republican congressional candidate told protesters that they were "the tip of the spear" in the fight against tyranny. An aspiring official said that by supporting conservative candidates they could "slap Gretchen Whitmer right across the face."

In the crowd that day, according to photos and videos, were Adam Fox and at least five others who are now charged in the plot to kidnap Ms Whitmer or, in related cases, providing material support for a planned terrorist act.

According to court records, the defendants, with the 37-year-old Fox accused of being the plot leader, were members of extremist groups and aimed to "snatch" the governor and put her on "trial" for restrictions such as banning large public gatherings.

Charging documents placed them at one political rally, and a Washington Post examination of images and video found that the men were present at at least seven rallies in Michigan in the six months before their arrests. 

One of the defendants is seen in a widely circulated photo of several armed men - unidentified at the time - looking down on lawmakers in the Capitol from a balcony above. Three others are shown in a photo of masked men appearing to stand guard at an ornate entry outside the chamber, an image that has been published - without names - by news organizations.

At events where the men were present, protest organizers, conservative activists and law enforcement officers told crowds that the governor had grievously infringed on Michiganders' rights, the Post examination found. Some equated Ms Whitmer's stay-home orders to mass arrests that demanded that citizens resist - the kind of language she has said stoke threats against her.

At rallies, especially in the spring and early summer, defendants displayed a range of political opinions. One repeatedly promoted positions and slogans of President Donald Trump. Others attended a Black Lives Matter protest and held up signs expressing solidarity over excesses of authority, though some participants said they were disruptive. Still another called himself Libertarian in a live stream from Lansing.

Protesters join in ‘Operation Gridlock’ near the Michigan state Capitol in Lansing, Michigan, USA, 15 April 2020

But the examination also shows that the defendants increasingly came to display patches, insignias and other symbols identified with the "boogaloo" movement, a sometimes violent anti-government ideology that predicts a civil war and that has spread quickly online this year. In one case, an American flag on a defendant's hat was replaced in June with a boogaloo flag.

Of the six federally charged in October with conspiracy to commit kidnapping, the Post examination found three -  Mr Fox, Ty Garbin and Daniel Harris - who attended protests. Five of the eight men facing state charges - William Null, Michael Null, Joseph Morrison, Paul Bellar and Pete Musico - also were active since April in protests.

The men either have pleaded not guilty or not yet entered pleas, as prosecutors have sought delays in the cases. The U.S. attorney's office has filed for an extension until December, saying it needs time to analyse apparent bombmaking materials seized around the times of the arrests.

The Post placed the defendants at rallies by comparing booking photos and other confirmed images of the men against more than 20 hours of video and hundreds of images from the events. Beyond facial traits, The Post identified distinctive features such as tattoos, name tags and unusual clothing and tactical gear. In every case, the Post identifications were then confirmed by acquaintances of the defendants, including friends, family members, fellow protesters or - for  Mr Harris,  Mr Musico and Mr Garbin - their lawyers.

Mr Fox's public defenders and attorneys for the Nulls did not respond to emails and phone messages. An attorney for Morrison said he could not comment until he received more information from prosecutors. Attorneys representing Mr Bellar as he was extradited to Michigan did not respond to messages, and an attorney listed in court records on his state case did not respond to an email seeking comment.

April 30

The protest at the Michigan Capitol was organized by a newly formed group calling itself the American Patriot Council, which says its goal is to "restore and sustain" a constitutional government in the United States.

The messages from the podium against Ms Whitmer were heated.

Then-congressional candidate Mike Detmer, a Republican, told the crowd that the restrictions the governor imposed on Michiganders regarding the coronavirus were un-American and an attack on God-given freedoms.

"We are in a war, right now. We are in a war for the hearts, the soul, the traditions and the freedom of our state and our country . . . it is up to us to end the shutdown," he said. Mr Detmer, who came in second in a crowded field for the Republican nomination to represent the Lansing area, added that opposition to Ms Whitmer's measures needed to continue for "tyranny to go right back down that dark hole from whence it came."

"Governor, take your boots off our necks," said former Milwaukee sheriff David Clarke, a recent fundraiser for Trump.

Video, social media posts and images show Michael Null, 38, with his twin brother, William, standing near the speakers' podium and also on the steps.

The twins wore "Michigan Liberty Militia" patches and wore or held a credential for the event with the word "safety" on it. "Null" appeared to be handwritten on the front of the brothers' badges.

Organizers Jason Howland and Ryan Kelley confirmed in a recent interview with The Post that the Nulls were among those who provided security. "At the rallies, they seemed like perfect gentleman and very, very kind and polite guys," Mr Howland said.

US President Donald J. Trump speaks during his final campaign rally before Election Day, at Gerald R. Ford International Airport, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA, 02 November 2020.

After the speeches ended, members of the crowd had their temperatures taken as they filed into the Capitol, where the legislature was in session. They packed the rotunda and stairways outside the legislative chamber and chanted "Let us in" and "Lock her up."

A photo tweeted by state Sen. Dayna Polehanki, a Democrat, shows William Null standing in the public viewing gallery overlooking the Senate floor.

"I don't carry my guns for show. I am not afraid to use them," William Null said on a live stream from inside the Capitol. He identified himself as Libertarian and condemned Republicans and Democrats in the broadcast.

"This is what I keep trying to tell everybody," he said. "When you have a right wing and a left wing, it's on the same damn bird. You're flying the same ship, right?"

Among those visible in videos entering the Capitol are Mr Fox and Mr Musico.

State court documents call Musico, 42, a founding member of the anti-government group Wolverine Watchmen.

Mr Fox stands near the front of the crowd facing Michigan state troopers and Capitol security guards in video from MLive. Wearing a Hawaiian shirt, a baseball cap and green tactical vest, Fox chants, "Let us in!"

Mr Musico shouts "traitors" in the video. He is on the edge of the crowd in a camouflage jacket, a tactical vest and a hat reading "In God We Trust."

Hawaiian shirts have been adopted by the boogaloo movement, whose members sometimes call themselves "boogaloo boys" or "boog bois." The movement is decentralized and lacks cohesion, experts say. According to an affidavit filed in the state case, the term boogaloo references "a violent uprising against the government or impending politically-motivated civil war."

An employee of a vacuum store where authorities say Mr Fox was living in the basement confirmed that Mr Fox was the person pictured in protests at the Capitol. The employee - like some others who spoke to The Post for this report - did so on the condition of anonymity out of fear for their privacy and personal safety.

The Post sent Mr Musico's attorney, Kareem Johnson, images of what appeared to be Mr Musico at the April 30 Lansing protest and asked whether they show his client. Johnson replied, "We have no concern that he has been misidentified in the photos."

A separate video shows Musico speaking to Mr Bellar, 21, and Mr Morrison, 26, inside the building.

A Michigan man who is active in the boogaloo movement said Mr Morrison told other members via social media posts that he was present at the protest and that Morrison had shared images from inside the Capitol over a now-deleted local boogaloo Facebook group called "Motor City Liberty." Mr Morrison uses the online moniker "Boogaloo Bunyan," according to state charging documents.

Supportors of President Donald J. Trump hold signs during a campaign rally at MBS International Airport in Freeland, Michigan, USA, 10 September 2020.

Mr Bellar can be identified in images from that day because his tactical vest has a patch bearing his last name. He also is wearing a flag neck gaiter. In June, a Swedish news outlet published a profile of a man wearing the same gaiter who identified himself as "Paul Bellar." He was quoted as saying he identified with the boogaloo movement and was training for conflict.

Mr Trump tweeted support for Michigan's protesters on May 1: "The Governor of Michigan should give a little, and put out the fire. These are very good people, but they are angry. They want their lives back again, safely! See them, talk to them, make a deal."

May 14

Before another major protest at the Capitol, Facebook removed pages for groups organizing and promoting the event. One such page - People of Michigan vs. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer - contained comments advocating violence against Whitmer, according to the Detroit Metro Times, which published comments from the pages before they were deleted.

The Metro Times quoted commenters saying Whitmer should be shot, beaten or beheaded.

Michigan United for Liberty, which organized the event, branded it "Judgement Day" and posted advertisements online with images of lightning bolts striking the Capitol.

Amid the growing threats, Michigan State Police closed the Capitol and legislators canceled the day's session.

Photos from that day show Mr Fox and dozens of protesters near the Capitol entrance. The rifle and a red decal on the lower receiver of Mr Fox's gun match an image, published by WOOD TV, from Mr Fox's Facebook page. The decal shows the comic book character Deadpool, who is popular in the boogaloo movement.

The Null brothers, in black hoodies, are visible in a video. Speakers at the event included local business owners who encouraged colleagues to reopen and urged the public to defy Ms Whitmer's stay-home orders.

Mr Bellar is in a tactical vest - but without his name tag - and wearing an American flag face covering that appears to be the same the one he wore at a protest the previous month.

May 18

Days later, the American Patriot Counsel organized an event in Grand Rapids called "American Patriot Rally - Sheriffs speak out."

Fluttering in the crowd were anti-Whitmer posters and an assortment of flags including one for the anti-government militia-style organization Three Percenters, named for the debunked notion that 3% of colonists fought in the American Revolution.

Mixing with the armed men and addressing the demonstrators this time were prominent Michigan Republicans, including state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey.

And this time it was a member of law enforcement who ratcheted up the rhetoric against Ms Whitmer. Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf, a Republican, took the stage and equated the travel restrictions put in place by Ms Whitmer with the state's definition of "unlawful arrest."

"The definition of an arrest is basically taking away your right to free will, your right to move about. That's an arrest, and an unlawful arrest is when we do it unlawfully," the sheriff said. "So when you are ordered to your home, are you under arrest? Yeah, by definition, you are."

A lone protester, who only gave name as Mikey, carries a sign criticising participants in ‘Operation Gridlock’ near the Michigan state Capitol in Lansing, Michigan, USA, 15 April 2020.

Video shows William Null standing behind Leaf during his speech. By this time, Null, has a boogaloo patch in addition to a militia patch on his tactical vest.

Mr Fox also is in the crowd, a photo shows. As the event came to an end, Mr Fox joined the Null brothers onstage at the request of event organizers, who invited everyone "that is open carry" to gather for a photo-op, a WOOD TV video shows.

May 20

As the shutdown persisted, "Operation Haircut," a protest organized by the Michigan Conservative Coalition, drew hundreds of people in support of a 77-year-old barber who defied orders to shutter his shop, according to the event's Facebook page.

In images of the event, Mr Musico is seen with Daniel Harris, 23, who faces federal charges in the plot to kidnap Ms Whitmer. Harris carried a Hawaiian-print holster similar to those marketed and sold online as associated with the boogaloo movement. Musico wore a Hawaiian shirt. In a separate photo, Harris is behind Morrison, who also wore a Hawaiian-patterned shirt.

In an email to The Post, Harris's attorney Parker Douglas wrote, "Each of these photos appear to include Mr. Harris."

June 6

A little more than two weeks later, on June 6, Mr Harris and Mr Bellar were in Lake Orion, Michigan, during a demonstration against racial injustice in the aftermath of George Floyd's death in police custody, according to images posted on Facebook by the Lake Orion Review. Mr Harris stood with men carrying signs saying "boog bois for justice" and "boogaloo stands with you." The same images show Bellar holding a sign referring to Black Lives Matter: "B.L.M. - A badge is not a license to murder."

An interview with the Oakland County Times quotes Harris supporting protests surrounding Floyd's death and condemning police brutality. "It is a shame what happened with George Floyd and instances where law enforcement officers murder an unarmed man/woman who isn't resisting arrest, was complying with the orders is wrong and need to be stopped," he said in the article.

On that same day, prosecutors allege, Mr Fox and Mr Croft traveled to Dublin, Ohio, for a meeting with at least 13 others from different states. According to an FBI affidavit, the group discussed "creating a society that followed the U.S. Bill of Rights" and talked about state governments they believed to be in violation of the Constitution, including Michigan and Virginia, where Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam had also faced criticism from Trump and conservatives for imposing coronavirus-related safety measures.

Some at the Dublin gathering discussed peaceful ways to achieve their goals, the court filing says. However, several talked about "murdering 'tyrants' or 'taking' a sitting governor" according to the FBI affidavit.

June 18

By June 18, Mr Fox was recruiting others for the planned attack on the Capitol in Lansing, according to information captured on a wire worn by a confidential informant and described in court filings. Days earlier, in a recorded call, Mr Fox allegedly had shared details of the operation to storm the building and the plan to take hostages and arrest the governor for "treason."

Mr Fox can be seen at a gathering organised by the American Patriot Council that was advertised as a rally in support of Second Amendment rights. On the APC's website, organisers said the event would "encourage armed patriots to unite."

The Post found photos showing Mr Bellar, Mr Musico, Mr Morrison, Mr Fox, Mr Harris and 25-year-old Ty Garbin - another of the federal defendants - speaking among themselves at the June 18 event.

Gary Springstead, a lawyer for Garbin, confirmed in a phone interview that pictures from that rally included his client. Mr Springstead, a former FBI agent, said he looks forward to defending Mr Garbin and challenging allegations that Mr Garbin was involved in the alleged plot.

A local television crew interviewed members of the group at one point during the day, asking why they wore Hawaiian shirts. Mr Fox responded, "It is just a shirt."

"It doesn't mean anything?" News 8 reporter Susan Samples asked again. "No, not that I know of, what does it mean?" replied Mr Musico, flashing a broad smile at the camera.

In other images from that day, Mr Musico has a "Boojahadeen" patch on his vest, and the spot on Morrison's cap where an American flag had been visible at earlier rallies shows a boogaloo-associated flag.

A freelance photographer captured a picture of Mr Null speaking at one point during the rally. Video of his remarks could not be located.

In a Detroit News photo taken later, after protesters against police brutality arrived about an hour into the rally, Mr Harris is flanked by Mr Morrison and Mr Bellar.

Through late September, prosecutors say those involved in the alleged kidnapping plot staked out the governor's weekend house and participated in firearms trainings. But they had become leery of appearing in public together, the federal case says.

Federal court records say Mr Fox said he intended to act before Election Day.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments