Jury hearing closing arguments in Gov. Whitmer kidnap trial

Posted at 12:51 PM, April 1, 2022 and last updated 7:57 PM, July 12, 2023

By JOHN FLESHER and ED WHITE Associated Press

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) — A prosecutor urged jurors Friday to convict four men in a plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, saying they were anti-government extremists “filled with rage” and intent on igniting a civil war.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Nils Kessler summed up the evidence on the 15th day of trial in federal court in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The case was built with informants, undercover agents, secret recordings and two star witnesses who pleaded guilty and cooperated.

FILE – This combination of photos provided by the Kent County Sheriff and the Delaware Department of Justice shows, top row from left, Brandon Caserta and Barry Croft; and bottom row from left, Adam Dean Fox and Daniel Harris. The four members of anti-government groups are facing trial in March 2022 on federal charges accusing them in a plot to abduct Michigan’s Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in 2020.  (Kent County Sheriff, Delaware Department of Justice via AP File)

Adam Fox, Barry Croft Jr., Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta are charged with conspiracy. Three of the men also face additional charges involving weapons.

“They were filled with rage,” Kessler told jurors. “They were paranoid because they knew what they were doing was wrong and they feared they could be caught.”

The four men deny any scheme to get Whitmer at her vacation home, though they were livid with the government as well as restrictions the governor imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fox’s attorney, Christopher Gibbons, spent much of his closing argument hammering away at informant Dan Chappel, who was paid by the FBI and talked to Fox almost daily for months, recording their conversations.

He said Fox was a hapless man living in the basement of a vacuum shop, smoking marijuana whenever possible and totally incapable of leading the wild scheme.

“The plan was utter nonsense. It wasn’t real to Adam Fox. He was LARPing,” Gibbons said, referring to role playing. “Adam Fox is usually impaired. He’s just playing his game. … A person cannot accidentally enter into a conspiracy.”

The men were arrested in October 2020 amid talk of raising $4,000 for an explosive that could blow up a bridge and stymie police after a kidnapping, according to trial evidence. Fox twice traveled to northern Michigan to scout the area.

Kessler highlighted the testimony of Ty Garbin, who was arrested with the group but quickly agreed to cooperate and pleaded guilty.

“The boogaloo is this whole idea of kicking off a second civil war in the United States. That’s what bound these defendants together,” the prosecutor told jurors.

Defense attorneys insist the men were under the spell of informants and agents who got them to say and do violent, provocative things.

Only one defendant, Harris, chose to testify in his own defense. But his denial of any crime Thursday was met by an aggressive cross-examination in which prosecutors used his own words to show his contempt for Whitmer and even suggestions about how to kill her.

Harris repeatedly answered “absolutely not” when asked by his lawyer if he was part of a plot. His testimony was perilous because he exposed himself to numerous challenges by prosecutors who had been offering evidence against the group for days.

Harris was confronted with his own chat messages about posing as a pizza deliveryman and killing Whitmer at her door. The former Marine was also reminded that he worked with explosives while training with the group, especially in Luther, Michigan, in September 2020, about a month before their arrest.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Roth played a conversation of Croft talking about militias overthrowing governments in various states and “breaking a few eggs” if necessary.

“When this man talks to you at a diner about killing people, you don’t stand up and walk out, do you sir?” Roth asked. “You don’t say, ‘This group is not for me,’ do you sir?”

“No,” Harris answered.

Garbin and Kaleb Franks pleaded guilty and cooperated with investigators. Garbin last week said the group acted willingly and hoped to strike before the election, cause national chaos and prevent Joe Biden from winning the presidency.

Whitmer, a Democrat, rarely talks publicly about the kidnapping plot, though she referred to “surprises” during her term that seemed like “something out of fiction” when she filed for reelection on March 17.

She has blamed former President Donald Trump for fomenting anger over coronavirus restrictions and refusing to condemn right-wing extremists like those charged in the case. Whitmer has said Trump was complicit in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.