“I no longer wanted to live,” Kaleb Franks told jurors, minutes after settling into the witness chair in federal court in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “A large portion of my family had died. I was struggling financially. Just wasn’t happy.”
Franks, 27, figured kidnapping someone as prominent as Whitmer was very risky: “In my opinion, you would be bound to die.”
Franks and another man, Ty Garbin, pleaded guilty to the scheme and are testifying against four former allies who are on trial for conspiracy: Adam Fox, Barry Croft Jr., Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta.
Garbin, 26, told jurors Wednesday that Whitmer’s kidnapping could have been the “ignition” for a U.S. civil war involving antigovernment groups, possibly before the 2020 election.
“We wanted to cause as much a disruption as possible to prevent Joe Biden from getting into office. It didn’t have to be,” Garbin said of a pre-election blitz. “It was just preferred.”
Defense attorneys are trying to show the jury that there was no credible plot, just a lot of profane, violent talk aimed at Whitmer and other politicians about the men’s perceived loss of rights during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The group was arrested in October 2020, a stunning bust near the end of a national campaign that polarized the country. Investigators said the men were extremists who were trying to come up with $4,000 for an explosive to blow up a bridge in northern Michigan during the kidnapping.
The trial has linked, at times indirectly, the kidnapping plot to a series of events, especially right-wing protests at the Michigan Capitol and elsewhere in response to pandemic orders. Challenges to the results of the 2020 presidential election followed, culminating in the U.S. Capitol riot on Jan. 6.
During questioning by the defense, Garbin said there was discussion about taking Whitmer by boat to Lake Michigan after kidnapping her from her vacation home, dropping the motor and leaving her there.
But he also acknowledged that the group didn’t have a boat lined up, and he wasn’t certain how they would get back to shore in northern Michigan.
“The purpose of this was to be a massive inconvenience, right? Because she would just get picked up on the lake,” said defense attorney Joshua Blanchard, referring to a rescue of Whitmer.
“At some point, yes,” Garbin replied.
A day earlier, Garbin explained the Whitmer plan to jurors, taking them through days of training during summer 2020, secret messages and a late night trip to her weekend home. He talked about how he built a “shoot house” with wood, tarp and scrap materials so the men could practice an eventual assault.
The goal was “to kidnap the governor,” Garbin said.
“There was no question in your mind that everybody knew?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Nils Kessler asked.
“No question,” Garbin said.
Defense lawyers claim the men were entrapped by the government. Garbin, however, told jurors that he never heard anyone talk about being swayed by informants.
He said he invited the group to his property in Luther, Michigan, to train for a violent assault on Whitmer’s second home. He put together a crude structure so the men could practice going in and out of tight spaces.
“I was kind of ballparking it,” Garbin said of the layout. “Every house had a front door. Every house had a living room.”
In September 2020, Garbin, Fox, Croft and others traveled to Elk Rapids for night surveillance of Whitmer’s property. Garbin said his job was to find it and flash a light to others at a boat launch.
He said his ultimate assignment would be to “perform the actual kidnapping.”
Garbin said Fox and Croft were leaders of the cabal. Fox attorney Christopher Gibbons wondered how Garbin could be inspired by a guy who lived in the basement of a Grand Rapids-area vacuum shop, with the living space divided by hanging blankets.
Garbin acknowledged he called Fox “Captain Autism” and that his shooting skills “weren’t top-notch.”
The airplane mechanic began cooperating with prosecutors soon after the group was arrested. Garbin was rewarded with a relatively light six-year prison sentence, a term that could be reduced after the trial.
Whitmer, a Democrat, rarely talks publicly about the case, though she referred to “surprises” during her term that seem 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.
White reported from Detroit.