In the inky darkness of a late summer night last September, three cars filled with armed men began circling Birch Lake in northern Michigan, looking for ways to approach Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s three-bedroom vacation cottage, subdue her — using a stun gun if necessary — and drag her away.
One vehicle stopped to check out a boat launch while a second searched in vain for the right house in the thick woods ringing the lake. The third car ran countersurveillance, using night vision goggles to look out for cops and handheld radios to communicate with the others.
Earlier, they had scoped out a bridge over the Elk River, just a few miles away, scrambling down under the span to figure out where plastic explosives would need to be placed to blow it sky-high. That would slow police response, giving the men time to escape with the governor — who had infuriated them by imposing COVID lockdowns, among other outrages — and either take her to Lake Michigan, where they could abandon her on a boat, or whisk her to Wisconsin, where she would be tried as a “tyrant.”
“Everybody down with what’s going on?” an Iraq War veteran in the group demanded to know when they ended their recon mission, well past midnight, at a campsite where they were all staying.
“If you’re not down with the thought of kidnapping,” someone else replied, “don’t sit here.”
The men planned for all kinds of obstacles, but there was one they didn’t anticipate: The FBI had been listening in all along.
For six months, the Iraq War vet had been wearing a wire, gathering hundreds of hours of recordings. He wasn’t the only one. A biker who had traveled from Wisconsin to join the group was another informant. The man who’d advised them on where to put the explosives — and offered to get them as much as the task would require — was an undercover FBI agent. So was a man in one of the other cars who said little and went by the name Mark.
Just over three weeks later, federal and state agents swooped in and arrested more than a dozen men accused of participating in what a federal prosecutor called a “deeply disturbing” criminal conspiracy hatched over months in secret meetings, on encrypted chats, and in paramilitary-style training exercises. Seven of the men who had driven to Birch Lake that night would end up in jail.
The case made international headlines, with the Justice Department touting it as an example of law enforcement agencies “working together to make sure violent extremists never succeed with their plans.” Prosecutors alleged that kidnapping the governor was just the first step in what some on the right call “the Big Boog,” a long-awaited civil war that would overthrow the government and return the United States to some supposed Revolutionary War–era ideal.
The defendants, for their part, see it very differently. They say they were set up.
The audacious plot to kidnap a sitting governor — seen by many as a precursor to the Jan. 6 assault on the US Capitol by hundreds of Trump-supporting protesters — has become one of the most important domestic terrorism investigations in a generation.
The prosecution has already emerged as a critical test for how the Biden administration approaches the growing threat of homegrown anti-government groups. More than that, though, the case epitomizes the ideological divisions that have riven the country over the past several years. To some, the FBI’s infiltration of the innermost circle of armed anti-government groups is a model for how to successfully forestall dangerous acts of domestic terrorism. But for others, it’s an example of precisely the kind of outrageous government overreach that radicalizes people in the first place, and, increasingly, a flashpoint for deep state conspiracy theories.
The government has documented at least 12 confidential informants who assisted the sprawling investigation. The trove of evidence they helped gather provides an unprecedented view into American extremism, laying out in often stunning detail the ways that anti-government groups network with each other and, in some cases, discuss violent actions.