By JOEY CAPPELLETTI and ED WHITE Associated Press
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) — Two anti-government extremists sought to spark a “second American revolution” by kidnapping Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a prosecutor told jurors Wednesday, as the government tried for a second time to get convictions in an alleged plot to shock the country into chaos before the 2020 election.
Adam Fox and Barry Croft Jr. are on trial again, four months after a jury couldn’t reach a unanimous verdict while acquitting two other men.
The jury heard competing themes during opening statements. Prosecutors will present angry, profanity-filled conversations, text messages and social media posts to show that a band of homegrown rebels was serious about snatching the Democratic governor.
The steps included gun drills in a handmade “shoot house,” two rides to see Whitmer’s northern Michigan home and a stop at a nearby bridge where an explosive might be placed, Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher O’Connor said.
Defense attorneys, however, attacked the tactics of undercover FBI agents and informants who had infiltrated the group and built the investigation. They argued that government operatives were embedded at every critical turn, even supplying a pen and paper for Fox to make a crude map of Elk Rapids.
“No conspiracy, no crime,” Christopher Gibbons told jurors, adding that Fox was poor, lonely, practically homeless and incapable of leading anything.
“It’s not a crime to not like your governor or your president or anybody else who sits in elective office. … It’s not a crime to be a big talker, an empty talker, no matter how ugly or offensive the subject matter is to you personally or anyone else,” Gibbons said.
Fox and Croft are charged with two counts of conspiracy. Croft faces a third weapons-related charge.
Fox, 39, lived under a vacuum shop in the Grand Rapids area, and Croft, 46, is from Bear, Delaware. They regularly communicated with other extremists who were disgusted with Whitmer and various public officials over COVID-19 restrictions.
But O’Connor said seeds were planted ahead of the pandemic and prior to the FBI getting involved.
“They called for a second American revolution,” he told jurors. “They wanted to violently overthrow elected government officials because they believed those officials were tyrants who were constantly violating their rights.”
The first witness, FBI agent Todd Reineck, introduced social media posts and audio messages, starting in 2019. Croft, complaining about efforts at gun control, said “brute force” was the only way to protect rights. Fox referred to organizing an army to “take real action.”
“It’s a new game out here. I don’t think you understand the patriot movement has a role,” Croft said in 2020. “We understand exactly the enemy that confronts us, and we ain’t playing with it anymore.”
Prosecutors displayed a photo of Croft in a tri-cornered hat with “Expect Us” tattooed on his arm, a contrast to his appearance in court wearing a suit and tie. Fox, too, wore a dress shirt. Roughly a dozen people were in the gallery, mostly reporters.
In remarks to the jury, defense attorney Joshua Blanchard repeated an argument that he vigorously made in the first trial, accusing the FBI of targeting Croft and pulling him in because he had encouraged violence and protest.
Blanchard played an audio clip of an agent telling an informant: “A saying we have in my office is, ‘Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.’ Right?”
He didn’t offer jurors any context to the sound bite.
“Because they weren’t willing to let the facts get in the way of a good story they wanted to tell, Barry has been sitting in jail for the last 672 days waiting for you to tell the FBI that the facts do matter,” Blanchard said.
Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta were found not guilty in April. Ty Garbin and Kaleb Franks pleaded guilty and will testify again for prosecutors.
Whitmer has blamed then-President Donald 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.
Trump referred to Whitmer last weekend during a speech in Texas.
“Gretchen Whitmer was in less danger than the people sitting in this room right now, it seems to me,” said Trump, who called the plot a “fake deal.”