By MICHAEL TARM, ED WHITE and SARA BURNETT Associated Press
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) — Prosecutors in the trial of four men charged with plotting to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Thursday played covertly recorded audio for jurors in which one of the men specifically discusses a plan to abduct the Democrat.
In the recording, made by a government informant during a meeting in mid-July 2020 in Wisconsin, Barry Croft Jr. describes the possibility of using explosives to “rain down” fire on law enforcement “with a team standing by” to abduct Whitmer.
He adds without providing details that it should be “a quick precise grab” of the governor.
In another recording made by the same informant, jurors heard the sound of an explosives test Croft was conducting. He’s later heard speaking almost giddily about the damage he could cause, saying it would be “devastating.”
Prosecutors say the men — Croft, Adam Fox, Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta — planned to snatch Whitmer from her Michigan vacation home because they were angry about pandemic restrictions she imposed. They also planned to blow up a nearby bridge to slow the police response.
The audio played in the federal courtroom in Grand Rapids, Michigan, marked the first time the jury heard a defendant talking specifically about abducting Whitmer. In other recordings played, Croft and Fox mentioned Whitmer and spoke excitedly about taking action that would terrorize people.
“I’m gonna hit soon,” Croft is heard saying during what prosecutors say was a crucial June 6, 2020, meeting of antigovernment activists in Ohio. ” I’m going to terrorize people. The right people. The people who have been terrorizing my people.”
A little later, Fox also is heard on audio recorded by an FBI informant, tossing out ideas and telling the group: “You need to take hostages. There’s your value.”
FBI agent Todd Reineck testified earlier Thursday that the men were arrested in fall 2020 because there was a “real concern they might obtain real live explosives.” He also testified about social media posts and messages by the men, including some made months before any contact from FBI agents or informants.
“I want to bring formal charges against our governor and tyrants in our state. … Let’s do something … bold,” Fox said in a December 2019 Facebook video. In it, Fox is seen intermittently laughing and cursing the government while waving two AR-style assault rifles at a camera.
Fox’s attorney, Christopher Gibbons, questioned Reineck about the process of paying informants in cash, vetting them before undercover work, and the choice of electronic devices they used. Reineck also acknowledged under questioning by Gibbons that Fox participated in some legal protests at the Michigan Capitol.
During opening statements Wednesday, defense attorneys said the FBI tricked the men into participating in a plot to kidnap Whitmer and U.S. District Judge Robert Jonker allowed them to address an entrapment defense.
Entrapment is a high-risk defense because it’s a concession that crimes may have been committed.
Croft’s lawyer said informants secretly recorded the men when virtually everyone was “stoned, absolutely out-of-your-mind stoned,” leading to fantastical ideas, including using a kite to transport Whitmer.
“They knew it was stoned-crazy talk and not a plan,” Joshua Blanchard said of the FBI.
Harris’ attorney, Julia Kelly, said the former Marine liked an FBI informant called “Big Dan” because he presented himself as a gun training instructor.
“Big Dan was the leader,” she told jurors. “How do I shoot out of a vehicle? Yeah, you go ask Big Dan. That’s what Daniel was looking for in the summer of 2020.”
Caserta’s attorney, Michael Hills, said attack training sessions in Michigan and Wisconsin were “Fed-sponsored events.”
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Roth said evidence would prove the defendants’ desire to commit violence regardless of anything the informants did or suggested, telling jurors the men were “willing and eager” and preparing for the crime “long before” law enforcement got involved.
“If the defendant was already willing to commit the crime, that is not entrapment,” Roth said.
He described Fox and Croft as masterminds of the plot, and said the four wanted to create a “war zone here in Michigan.”
In one recording, Croft says Whitmer needs to be “hung.” After Croft was arrested in October 2020 on the East Coast as he made deliveries at his job as a truck driver, agents found a receipt for $353-worth of what the FBI agent described as “mortar-style fireworks,” which he said could become a makeshift bomb if packed with pennies.
“These were not people who were all talk,” Roth said. ” These were people who wanted to separate themselves from people who were all talk.”
Two critical insiders, Ty Garbin and Kaleb Franks, have pleaded guilty to the conspiracy and are expected to testify for the government.
In 2020, Whitmer was trading taunts with then-President Donald Trump over his administration’s response to COVID-19. Her critics, meanwhile, were regularly protesting at the Michigan Capitol, clogging streets around the statehouse and legally carrying semi-automatic rifles into the building.
Whitmer, who is seeking reelection this year, rarely talks publicly about the case and isn’t expected to attend the trial. She has blamed Trump for stoking mistrust and fomenting anger over coronavirus restrictions and refusing to condemn hate groups and right-wing extremists like those charged in the plot. She has said he was also complicit in the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.
White reported from Detroit and Burnett reported from Chicago. Reporter John Flesher contributed from Traverse City, Michigan.