Federal trial to begin against men accused of plotting to kidnap Whitmer. Here's what to know.
Tuesday morning, inside a sixth-floor courtroom in downtown Grand Rapids, the federal trial over one of the most shocking alleged crimes in Michigan history is set to begin.
During the trial, prosecutors will try to prove that four men hatched a plan to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer from her vacation home in Elk Rapids, and take her by boat to the middle of Lake Michigan to leave her floating, alone.
The plan, prosecutors say, first started coming together on June 6, 2020, when a group of “patriots” from more than a dozen states met in Dublin, Ohio, to discuss what to do about the restrictions put in place to stop the spread of a pandemic; restrictions that some among them believed were illegal.
Over the next four months, a team of undercover FBI agents and confidential informants tracked the group’s communications, recording more than 1,000 hours of audio and collecting screenshots from encrypted group chats.
According to prosecutors, the men discussed storming Michigan’s Capitol building, attacking Michigan State Police, and assassinating the governor, before settling on a plan to kidnap her from her vacation home up north. They twice visited the area near her home, once in daylight, and once during a nighttime reconnaissance mission. They also took pictures of a bridge nearby, which they planned to blow up in order to slow the police response.
But buried in those conversations, defense attorneys say, is the evidence that will exonerate their clients.
There really was no plot to kidnap the governor at all, they say. From the very beginning — starting with the Ohio meeting — the informants and undercover agents were the ones who orchestrated the scheme, defense attorneys argue.
“Like music producers seeking out young, talented, musicians that can be combined into a money-making act, each of these defendants was selected and groomed by the government’s agents and informants for their role as member of this ‘conspiracy,’” attorneys for Adam Fox, one of the defendants, wrote in a brief to the court in February.
Attorneys for both sides have spent the past 17 months filing arguments and counterarguments for what should be included in the upcoming trial, all while the men remained locked up in a Newaygo County jail.
A total of 14 men were arrested and charged for the alleged domestic terrorism plot. Eight are still facing charges in state courts. Six were charged in federal court, but two have already pleaded guilty. Those two are now expected to testify in the trial that starts Tuesday against the remaining four.
The man in the hat
“I'm going to do some of the most nasty, disgusting things that you have ever read about in the history of your life."Barry Croft, according to recordings played in court hearing last year.
Barry Croft was a 45-year-old truck driver from Delaware who cared for three children and wore a trademark Revolutionary War-era tricorn hat that’s now in the possession of the federal government.
"I'm going to burn motherf—ing houses down and blow sh— up,” Croft said, in one statement captured by investigators and played during a court hearing last year. “I'm going to do some of the most nasty, disgusting things that you have ever read about in the history of your life."
The magistrate judge presiding over the hearing called the statements “chilling.”
Prosecutors say Croft bought a 37mm launcher to shoot projectiles at a security convoy, and tested out an improvised explosive device, loaded with pennies, to do more damage when it exploded.
“[T]his is probably the most committed violent extremist of the entire group,” assistant U.S. attorney Nils Kessler told the judge at the hearing last January.
A "citizen's arrest"
Adam Fox was living in the basement of a vacuum repair shop at the edge of Grand Rapids and had already been kicked out of one militia.
Like the other men, he first connected with the group in Dublin, Ohio, at the invitation of Stephen Robeson. Robeson organized the Dublin meeting, and one other training for the group at his home in Cambria, Wisconsin. He was also an informant for the FBI. Prosecutors now say he was playing both sides.
According to Fox’s attorneys, he spoke at the Dublin meeting about repairing the image of militias in the U.S., to make them appealing to more diverse groups of people, not just white men. But Fox also identified with the Boogaloo movement, a loose group of people who believe in an impending American civil war. Some in the Boogaloo seek to incite violence, to help it along.
The Dublin meeting is also where Fox first proposed the idea of a “citizen’s arrest” of Whitmer, according to his attorneys. Fox thought that Whitmer’s pandemic shutdown orders exceeded her authority. After arresting her, he said, the men could turn her over to local sheriffs in Michigan who also opposed those orders. In the summer of 2020, he claimed he contacted five sheriffs to discuss the plan. None was on board. So, prosecutors say, Fox’s plan pivoted.
“Snatch and grab, man,” Fox told an FBI informant named “Dan” in July. “Just grab the b—. Because at that point, we do that, dude – it’s over.”
Fox’s attorneys say he had been smoking marijuana before this conversation, and that he was often high while talking through his ideas to the informant.
None of it was a serious plan, his attorneys say.
Daniel Harris was a clean-cut, Marine veteran from Lake Orion with a nervous energy.
Harris was the one who urged the men to switch their group chat to an encrypted app, and set up a weekend meeting at his parents’ house in Lake Orion where everyone had to bring three pieces of ID to prove they were who they said they were. Harris was also the one who suggested, in the new encrypted chat group that included at least one informant, to abandon the kidnapping idea and just kill the governor outright.
“Knock on the door and when she answers it just cap her…. At this point. F— it,” Harris wrote, according to screenshots of the chat presented in court.
Brandon Caserta was at work when FBI agents finally arrested the men on October 7, 2020. From Canton, Caserta has a long red beard, which he combed meticulously while appearing by video in one court hearing in January.
Caserta, who was low on money, was frequently absent from the group’s activities, his attorneys point out. The only reason he was even able to make it to some of the meetings was because the FBI’s confidential informants either drove him, or paid for him to come.
Nonetheless, prosecutor’s say Caserta wasn’t shy about telling the group his interests in the plot. One interest he had in particular: killing any police officers who tried to thwart them.
“If this s— goes down,” he says in one video, “I’m taking out as many of those motherf— as I can. Every single one, dude.”
“[I]t's inflammatory rhetoric, I'll give you that,” Caserta’s attorney, Michael Hills, argued after the video first played during a preliminary hearing in court. “[B]ut it's perfectly legal. We might not like it … But it doesn't have anything to do with kidnapping the governor or a conspiracy to kidnap the governor.”
Investigating the investigators
What, really, was the plan? And how serious were they about carrying it out?
In dozens of legal filings leading up to the trial, defense attorneys have tried to argue there wasn’t a plan at all. Not one that everyone in the group could agree on. And the only thing they appeared to be serious about was talking about the government and continuing to train for something that might never happen. The only people who appeared serious about making something happen, defense attorneys have argued, are the undercover agents and paid informants who swarmed the case.
It was Stephen Robeson, an informant, who organized the meeting in Dublin. Who hosted a training exercise in Wisconsin. It was the informant “Dan” who offered to drive people to events they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to attend. It was an undercover agent known as “Mark” who engaged Adam Fox on the idea of kidnapping the governor, even as Fox admitted the men were divided on the idea during the summer.
And when the men decided to go on a nighttime reconnaissance mission to Whitmer’s home in Elk Rapids in September of 2020, it was the undercover FBI agents who gave them the address.
This is what defense attorneys have been arguing in court appearances and filings for the past 17 months. It is the version of the story they will tell the jurors, when the trial finally gets underway.
But it is not the only version of the story.
The men who flipped
Adam Fox had the idea to kidnap Governor Whitmer before he ever met the FBI’s informants, prosecutors say. Barry Croft had strikingly specific plans for how he wanted it carried out. Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta lamented that others in the group weren’t as serious about “offing” people. Caserta even made a promise to the group he wouldn’t rat them out.
“So I voluntarily consent, and I, uh, accept responsibility for anything that happens to me, Caserta wrote in the encrypted group chat, according to a court filing from prosecutors. “[I]f I ever get hemmed up, I’ll do, do my time.”
In the lead-up to trial, defense attorneys have revealed a number of unsavory, and even alarming facts about the agents and informants who helped tracked the group of alleged domestic terrorists. The FBI’s lead investigator in the case is no longer with the FBI, after brutally assaulting his wife last year. Another investigator appeared to be pitching himself as a private consultant during the same time he was handling the kidnapping investigation. A third investigator was accused of perjury in a separate case (prosecutors say the allegation is unsubstantiated and irrelevant to this case).
And then there was Stephen Robeson, the informant who prosecutors now say was a “double agent” the entire time. If Robeson shows up at the trial at all, it will be to testify for the defense.
But these revelations are really distractions, prosecutors say — attempts to “put the FBI on trial” in an effort to “mislead and confuse the jury.”
These men were serious, prosecutors will argue. They had a plan. They prepared diligently for that plan. They were domestic terrorists.
And, no matter what jurors make of the conduct of the FBI and its informants in the case, prosecutors have two more witnesses they can call to reveal the group’s thinking: Ty Garbin and Kaleb Franks. In October of 2020, they were co-defendants. Now, they’ve pleaded guilty, and both are expected to testify for prosecutors.
As recently as two months ago, Franks’ attorney was among the most aggressive in trying to push evidence of entrapment in the case. On February 9, Franks entered his guilty plea, telling a judge that he entered freely into the plot to kidnap the governor, and no one from the FBI entrapped him or the other men.
Prosecutors say they plan to call 48 witnesses in the case, which could last as long as six weeks. After that, there will be the trials of the eight men charged in state courts for their role in the alleged plot. By then, it will be more than two years since the alleged plot first started.
In that time, a new president was elected, a violent insurrection was thwarted at the U.S. Capitol, and hundreds of thousands more Americans died in the pandemic.
Through it all, the person at the center of this trial – Governor Gretchen Whitmer – has said very little publicly about it. Her most direct comments came in a victim’s impact statement last year, as Ty Garbin was sentenced:
“For me, things will never be the same,” the governor wrote to the court.
“I have always enjoyed being out in the community, meeting people, learning about them, hearing what they have to say and trying to see the world from their perspective. That is what made me want this job in the first place and I will continue to do that because it is what the job requires. Disagreement and even disrespect come with the territory but now there is an element of danger that wasn’t there before.”
“The damage this will do to us is hard to predict, but I am certain that there must be consequences for those who try to take us down this dark path.”
Starting Tuesday, 12 people from this state will be chosen to decide whether the men charged were trying to take us down a dark path, or just venting about the government while they played with guns.