Francis X. Donnelly and Chris duMond
Luther — Shotgun shells litter the ground. Human silhouettes are spray-painted in red on a wooden wall. Bullet holes are everywhere.
This is a training ground of a group of men who plotted to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, according to the FBI. Buried deep in the northern Michigan woods, 30 miles southwest of Cadillac, it also was allegedly used by the group as a meeting place and possible launching pad for their scheme.
Neighbors occasionally heard gunshots coming from the site, but that’s a common sound in the hunting-crazed region, they said.
That changed last month when residents heard what sounded like a bomb.
Cliff Demos, whose farm is a half-mile from the site, said the blast was followed by automatic gunfire, approximately 30 rounds of it.
“This is Luther. We hear gunshots at 3 or 4 in the morning,” he said. “But that was scary.”
Barry Croft, 44, of Bear, Delaware, one of six men accused of being part of the conspiracy to kidnap the governor, had brought what he called his “chemistry set” to the site that day, according to the FBI. It contained the components of an improvised explosive device.
The device comprised a commercial firework that was packed with extra black powder, an FBI agent wrote in an affidavit. It was then wrapped with pennies and electrical tape as shrapnel.
The group ignited the device in a clearing surrounded by the human silhouettes to see if they would be struck by the shrapnel, the agent said.
The alleged activities of Sept. 12 and 13 are known because the group was joined by an informant and undercover agent who secretly recorded the proceedings. Also alleged to be present with Croft during the training are the other five accused in the conspiracy: Adam Fox, 37, of Potterville; Ty Garbin, 24, of Hartland; Kaleb Franks, 26, of Waterford Township; Daniel Harris, 23, of Lake Orion; and Brandon Caserta, 32, of Canton Township.
According to the FBI, Fox discussed the merits of trying to kidnap Whitmer at her northern Michigan home.
“And it’s a perfect f—— setup,” Fox allegedly said during the recorded conversation. “Out of everywhere that she resides, this is the only one that’s probably actually feasible with a success rate.”
Later that night, several members of the group drove 80 miles to the summer home of Whitmer in Elk Rapids, the FBI said. Traveling in three cars, Croft asked Fox whether the group was armed.
“Fox confirmed that they were, and Croft suggested they take the opportunity to conduct an act of violence that night,” wrote the FBI agent.
Croft was talked out of the action, and the next day, the group met at the training grounds to confirm their plan to kidnap the governor, said the FBI.
“An FBI (undercover employee) told Fox that it will cost approximately $4,000 to procure the explosives that Fox and Croft want to use, to blow up the bridge leading to the vacation home,” the agent wrote.
The group scheduled a final training exercise for late October, according to the FBI.
According to federal and state officials, wider plans also included seven members and associates of a Michigan militia known as the Wolverine Watchmen. State officials have accused them of wanting to overthrow Michigan’s Capitol, target police and “instigate civil war.” Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel charged the seven with the state’s anti-terrorism law, a 20-year felony.
Meanwhile, Fox, Garbin, Franks, Harris and Caserta are scheduled to appear for detention hearings at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday in federal court in Grand Rapids. Croft is in custody in Delaware and will face a hearing there on Tuesday. He could be transferred to Michigan soon.
The conspiracy charges filed against them last week are punishable by life in prison.
‘A lot of places to get lost’
At first blush, the training facility might appear to be a hunting campsite.
Lake County, one of the poorest counties in Michigan, is rich with state and federal land. The heavy woods are popular with trail-riding ATVs and snowmobilers, but the real draw is the deer.
The dirt road leading to the site looks like every other two-track in Michigan, passing private plots of land with small campsites and bountiful hardwood and pines. The fall colors make it look like paradise.
“There is a lot of land here,” Cliff Demos said. “A lot of places to get lost.”
A half-mile down the road leads to a clearing with a travel trailer with two sheds and a burn barrel. The trailer window has an Air Force sticker and a second sticker with two confederate flags that reads “Pride not prejudice.”
But it’s the area behind the camper that makes this site stand out.
The oval-shaped grounds are just 20 feet behind the camper but aren’t visible until a person is right upon it.
It has stacks of old tires on both ends. Sheets of plywood and sawed lumber are nailed to pine tree posts six feet up. Homemade target stands that are moveable once had paper stapled to them.
The sand soil, laden with pine needles, also contains numerous rifle casings and shotgun shells. The human silhouettes were marked with bullet holes.
Demos was nonplussed when he learned what the site had been used for.
“Are you kidding me?” he said. “This is the United States of America. Things like that aren’t supposed to happen here.”
His wife, Bonnie, said she was disheartened to learn such people were coming to northern Michigan.
“When they promote hate like that, I’ve never seen that in my life,” she said.
The 10-acre site was bought by Garbin a few years ago. Gregory Wood said he sold the property on a land contract on behalf of a friend through the website NWMichiganLand.com.
The site, which was for sale for $28,900, was described as beautifully wooded and touching 80 acres of state forest.
Wood was shocked when he learned what the buyer was allegedly involved in.
“Everybody in Michigan wants to have their 10 acres up north,” he said. “Sometimes people use the land for hunting; sometimes they build.”
‘Sophisticated terrorist plot’
Javed Ali, a terrorism expert who teaches at the University of Michigan and a former senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council, said the fact the men had an apparent training ground showed how serious they were.
He also was alarmed by the construction of the explosive device and the surveillance of the governor’s summer home.
“This wasn’t a hoax,” he said. “This was a sophisticated terrorist plot.”
Cliff Demos is still shaking his head about what he has been alleged about his neighbors.
“This is vicious,” he said. “These are people who want to hurt people.”