By MICHAEL TARM, ED WHITE and SARA BURNETT Associated Press
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) — The four men charged with planning to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer were swayed by informants and federal agents who targeted them for their anti-government views, defense attorneys said Wednesday, portraying the men as big talkers and wannabes who never meant what they said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Roth argued that the men were “willing, eager, if not already preparing” to get Whitmer before investigators infiltrated the group. He said the men — angry about COVID-19 restrictions the Democratic governor imposed early in the pandemic — recruited militia and prepared to break into Whitmer’s home, tie her up and take her.
Investigators stepped in and stopped a “tragedy” when the men were planning to acquire a bomb to blow up a bridge near Whitmer’s home to stop police from quickly responding, Roth told jurors during his opening statement in federal court in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
“These were not people who were all talk,” he said. “These were people who wanted to separate themselves from people who were all talk.”
Four men face trial: Adam Fox, Brandon Caserta, Barry Croft Jr. and Daniel Harris. They’re accused of taking critical steps over several months, including secret messaging, gun drills in the woods and a night drive to northern Michigan to scout Whitmer’s second home and figure out how to blow up the bridge.
After the prosecutor and three of four defense lawyers made opening statements, the U.S. District Judge Robert Jonker took the unusual step of allowing them to speak again to specifically address an entrapment defense — a claim that the government induced the men to commit crimes that they wouldn’t otherwise have committed.
Defense attorney Joshua Blanchard said the FBI lined up an informant with a long criminal history to reach out to Croft and lure him to militia meetings and gun training in Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan. Another informant, Blanchard said, drove Croft all the way to Wisconsin from Delaware.
“There was no plan, there was no agreement and no kidnapping,” Blanchard said.
Roth said jurors would see social media posts and hear secretly recorded conversations full of angry, vulgar and sexist language about violence and plans to take down a “tyrant.”
Jurors also will hear from two critical insiders, Ty Garbin and Kaleb Franks, who pleaded guilty to the conspiracy and will testify for the government, Roth said.
“They will tell you how real this was. … They will tell you that they’re going to prison for it,” he said.
Roth described Fox and Croft as masterminds of the plot. He said the four wanted to create a “war zone here in Michigan,” and urged jurors to set their thoughts aside about the men’s views or Whitmer’s job.
“What you have is that defendants agreed, planned, trained and were ready to break into a woman’s home as she slept with her family in the middle of the night and with violence and at gunpoint they would tie her up and take her from that home,” Roth said. “And to accomplish that they would shoot, blow up and kill anybody who got in their way.”
As Roth began his opening, he pointed a finger at each defendant, saying they took active steps to implement their plot. The courtroom lights dimmed and prosecutors projected photos of the defendants at different stages of the alleged plot.
Roth pointed at Croft, seated a defense table in a gray suit and tie, and told jurors that he may cut the figure of a “harmless … middle school teacher” now. As he said that, a picture of Croft clutching a rifle in camouflage clothing appeared on the screen.
“He looked quite a bit different then,” the prosecutor said.
But Croft’s attorney said when informants secretly recorded Croft and others, all were “stoned, absolutely out-of-your-mind stoned.”
“The FBI is supposed to protect us from dangerous criminals and terrorists,” Blanchard said. “They’re also an agency that’s supposed to protect our freedoms. And when they’re doing that, they’re expected to have thick skin. That means in protecting our rights, they don’t punish people for saying mean things about them. And they’re not supposed to target people that they’re angry with.”
Lawyers for Caserta and Harris tried to distance them from Fox and Croft, emphasizing that the pair didn’t travel to northern Michigan to scout Whitmer’s home.
Defense attorney Julia Kelly said Harris, a veteran, was unhappy with the direction of the country and attended rallies in support of gun rights and protests against Whitmer’s stay-home orders. Kelly said Harris joined a group known as the Wolverine Watchmen to keep his military skills sharp for possible security work in Afghanistan, not as part of a sinister plot.
Attorney Christopher Gibbons, representing Fox, told jurors he was practically homeless, living in the basement of a vacuum shop, not a mastermind of the plot as prosecutors allege.
The first witness, FBI agent Todd Reineck, testified about social media posts by Fox and Croft in spring 2020, including some profanity-filled messages between the two. They included a Facebook video in which Fox stated: “We have the numbers. We have the arms. We have the ammunition … that we need to just go take our country back.”
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.
The FBI said it thwarted the kidnapping plot with the arrests of six men in October 2020.
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.