Were they gullible, foul-mouthed men duped by undercover agents? Or is it a rogue cast that is so enraged that they want to kidnap Michigan’s governor?
The trial of four men accused of conspiring to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in a stunning scheme to retaliate against her stay-at-home policies and other COVID-19 restrictions during the early months of the pandemic begins Tuesday.
Whitmer, a Democrat, was taunting then-President Donald Trump about his administration’s response to COVID-19 in 2020. Meanwhile, her detractors were regularly protesting at the Michigan Capitol, clogging streets around the statehouse and legally carrying semi-automatic rifles inside.
Prosecutors say Adam Fox, Brandon Caserta, Barry Croft Jr., and Daniel Harris were plotting to kidnap Whitmer at the time. They’re accused of taking crucial steps over a period of months, including secret messaging, gun drills in the woods, and a late-night drive to northern Michigan to scout her second home and figure out how to blow up a bridge.
The FBI, which had infiltrated the group, announced in October 2020 that it had thwarted the plan with the arrests of six men. Two of them, Ty Garbin and Kaleb Franks, have pleaded guilty and will testify for the government, providing jurors with an inside look at what was planned.
Garbin, for example, stated that Fox, the alleged ringleader, wanted the men to contribute to a $4,000 explosive large enough to destroy a bridge near Whitmer’s home and distract police during a kidnapping.
“Tyrants’ blood must be shed,” Garbin quoted Caserta as saying during a meeting.
Garbin and Franks insist that no one in the group acted as a result of undue influence from agents or undercover informants.
“It’s not the end of the case for the defense, but it’s a big hurdle to overcome,” former federal prosecutor John Smietanka said of the pair’s cooperation. “It’ll come down to the credibility of witnesses, as well as the impact of any extrinsic evidence, such as tapes.”
Indeed, prosecutors have stated that a large portion of the evidence will be the defendants’ own words gathered during secret recordings. The government will also provide screenshots of text messages, photos, and videos posted on social media.
Defense attorneys panned the case ahead of the trial, particularly the “staggering use” of informants. They have denied any plot to kidnap Whitmer and have hinted at an entrapment defense.
“The agents and informants recruited the defendants, arranged meetings, paid for travel, paid for hotels, rented cars, produced promotional videos demonstrating explosives, purchased equipment, vetted new members, hatched the ideas, and directed the operations,” Croft’s attorney, Joshua Blanchard, said. Fox, according to defense lawyer Christopher Gibbons, did not intend to kidnap Whitmer despite making “many inflammatory remarks” about the governor and what he considered unconstitutional acts.
In a court filing, Gibbons stated that agents and informants were the “binding force and catalyst for every event, impassioned speech, and nearly every suggestion of criminality.”
According to Assistant U.S. Attorney Nils Kessler, informants were paid to gather information, not to commit crimes.
“What they recorded was the defendants’ own words.” “That’s what gives the defendants the appearance of guilt,” Kessler told a judge on Friday.
According to Smietanka, a successful entrapment defense requires evidence that the government induced someone to commit a crime that they would not otherwise be inclined to commit. Whitmer, who is running for reelection this year, rarely speaks publicly about the case and is unlikely to attend the trial, which is expected to last more than a month in federal court in Grand Rapids. She accused Trump of “giving comfort” to antigovernment extremists with his rhetoric after charges were filed in 2020, just weeks before the fall election.
“No matter how disturbing the plots and threats against me were, they couldn’t stop me from doing everything I could to save as many lives as possible by listening to medical and health experts,” Whitmer said last summer, referring to COVID-19.
Separately, eight men are being prosecuted in state court for allegedly assisting the group.