Anti-government extremists or big talkers enticed by zealous federal agents? That’s the question that a jury will begin deliberating Monday in the trial of four men charged in a plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
During final arguments on Friday, prosecutors painting the defendants as being “filled with rage” against Whitmer in retaliation for her COVID-19 restrictions, but who also sought to create chaos in the days leading up to the 2020 general election.
Daniel Harris, Adam Fox, Barry Croft Jr., and Brandon Caserta are charged with conspiring to kidnap Whitmer from her vacation home in northern Michigan as well as related weapons charges.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Nils Kessler wrapped up the government’s case with a reminder that what makes America great is the ability for citizens to remove their elected representatives at the ballot box, without resorting to violence.
“What we can’t do is kidnap them, kill them or blow them up,” said Kessler. “That’s also what makes America great.”
Defense attorneys, however, called the government’s case an “embarrassment” that was based on “smoke and mirrors” and allowed to grow out of control by federal agents seeking to advance their careers.
The accused plotters were arrested in October 2020 after authorities say they discussed raising $4,000 to purchase an explosive that would be used blow up a bridge near Whitmer’s vacation home in order to slow up police responding to the kidnapping.
Evidence presented during the trial indicated Fox twice traveled to northern Michigan to scout out the area around Whitmer’s second home with Croft and an undercover agent coming along on one of the trips.
Also assisting the prosecution was testimony from two other defendants, Ty Garbin and Kaleb Franks, who earlier pleaded guilty as part of a deal. Garbin testified that the group’s goal was to cause as much a disruption as possible so that Joe Biden couldn’t defeat then-President Trump.
The FBI arrested the group a month before the election, including raiding Garbin’s home in Livingston County.
The 26-year-old Garbin, an airplane mechanic, said the men trained at his other property near Luther, Michigan, constructing a “shoot house” to resemble Whitmer’s vacation home and “assaulting it with firearms.”
Franks backed up Garbin’s testimony, saying the men willingly entered into the plot, the goal of which was to kidnap Whitmer.
However, the main piece of the government’s case came through an informant, Dan Chappel. The U.S Army veteran said he joined the group, who called themselves the Wolverine Watchmen, in order to maintain his firearm skills. But agreed to become an FBI informant after discussion among the group turned to making plans for attacking police.
Prosecutors praised Chappel for his efforts, saying he did so “at great personal risk.”
Defense attorneys presented a different view, focusing on the approximately $50,000 Chappel was paid for his services and the hours of recorded conversations he had with Fox, described by the government as the group’s leader.
Fox was described by his own attorney, Joshua Gibbons, as lacking those skills, saying “Adam Fox is not the leader the government wants him to be.“
Instead, Gibbons said Fox was usually high from smoking marijuana while living in the basement of a Grand Rapids-area vacuum shop. Gibbons also said Fox sought the approval of Chappel, known as Big Dan, who he said led his client on.
“That’s unacceptable in America,” said Gibbons. “That’s not how it works. They don’t make terrorists so we can arrest them.”
Croft’s attorney, Joshua Blanchard, took a similar tack, calling his client “a stoned pirate”, referring to the tri-cornered hat the trucker from Delaware was often seen wearing in social media posts, and saying he was “ashamed” of the FBI’s behavior in carrying out an investigation he called “an embarrassment.”
Attorneys for Harris and Caserta stressed that neither of their clients were present on the trip during the training weekend in Luther that Fox and Croft took to scope out Whitmer’s vacation home, while also trying to discredit the testimony of Garbin and Franks, who despite pleading guilty and facing prison time, were portrayed as “liars.”
Garbin was sentenced to six years in prison last August. Franks has yet to be sentenced. The others face up to life in prison.