GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (CN) — Five of six men accused of planning to kidnap Democratic Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer must stand trial, a federal magistrate ruled Friday.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Sally Berens is presiding over the preliminary hearing in Grand Rapids, Michigan, that began on Tuesday. She found the evidence is strong enough to support the conspiracy charges against the men.
“The evidence that has been presented in this case shows a series of events as laid out in the complaint…the defendants trained and planned for an operation in which they intended to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer,” she said. “There is sufficient evidence to support the charge.”
Berens also found there was enough probable cause to keep defendants Kaleb Franks, Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta detained without bond until trial.
The alleged ringleader of the operation, Adam Fox, agreed Friday afternoon to waive his bond hearing and will be held in custody until trial.
“Yes, your honor,” he responded to several questions from the judge when she asked if he understood his rights.
Ty Garbin of Hartland Township was denied bond. Garbin, who was nicknamed “Gunny,” according to federal prosecutors, held a substantial gun collection that included an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle as well as a camouflaged silencer. Garbin was also accused of manufacturing guns without serial numbers and urging his co-conspirators to keep a low profile until the plot came to fruition.
Judge Berens considered a request from Garbin’s lawyers that he be released to his parents under strict supervision and acknowledged his lack of criminal history, but said she could not ignore his gun collection and his documented behavior and statements collected by FBI agents. The guns may be legal, she said, but the purposes in which he allegedly planned to use them were not.
“I do find by clear and convincing evidence that he is a danger to the community,” she said.
The group had become angry with the government response to the Covid-19 pandemic that has wreaked havoc across the U.S. since March, according to prosecutors.
Fox was described as a driving force behind the alleged kidnapping plot in the initial affidavit. Prosecutors claim he sought to assemble more than “200 men” to storm the Michigan Capitol building in Lansing to take hostages, including Whitmer. Fox allegedly said they would try the Democratic governor for “treason” in a trial that would occur before the November election.
Prosecutors say the defendants sought to organize a movement that strictly followed the U.S. Bill of Rights. Although peaceful methods were discussed, the affidavit accompanying the criminal court said several individuals spoke about Whitmer violating the U.S. Constitution and discussed “murdering tyrants” or “taking a sitting governor.”
After Whitmer locked down the state in the spring to slow the spread of Covid-19, right-wing activists, including some carrying assault rifles, descended on the Michigan Capitol to protest her stay-at-home order. She has also been a target of criticism by Republican officials, including President Donald Trump, over her handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
FBI Special Agent Richard Trask was put on the witness stand Friday and responded to questions from Fox’s counsel, who suggested Fox suffered from anxiety, would regularly shoot his mouth off with empty statements and had no criminal history. Trask confirmed that Fox was not a member of the Wolverine Watchmen militia that is said to have been involved in the plotting. Trask said that FBI agents spent “hundreds of hours probably” around Fox gathering evidence.
Gary Springstead, lawyer for Garbin, relentlessly grilled Trask during his testimony. Springstead suggested Garbin was only part of a Facebook group and not a true militia. He tried to sow doubt by questioning if every single meeting was recorded and said the alleged plot to kidnap the governor was merely “various ideas bandied about.”
Garbin never approved of any plans and there was no recording of him saying he did, Springstead said.
Prosecutors say Harris was recorded advocating for the assassination of the governor in the secret meetings.
“Have one person go to her house. Knock on the door and when she answers it just cap her…at this point. Fuck it,” Harris allegedly said. “I mean…fuck, catch her walking into the building and act like a passers-by and fixing dome her then yourself whoever does it.”
Fox grew increasingly agitated in subsequent meetings and pined for a massive assault on the local government even if it meant collateral damage, according to the criminal complaint affidavit.
“In all honesty right now…I just wanna make the world glow, dude. I’m not even fuckin’ kidding. I just wanna make it all glow dude. I don’t fuckin’ care anymore, I’m just so sick of it,” he allegedly said.
A sixth defendant facing federal charges, Barry Croft of Delaware, is in the process of being transferred to Michigan for his preliminary hearing.
On Thursday, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office announced the 14th person to be charged in the interstate scheme.
Brian Higgins, a 51-year old man from Wisconsin, was arrested for allegedly intending to help storm the Michigan Capitol building and kidnap Governor Whitmer. The Detroit News reported that Higgins participated in staking out Whitmer’s vacation home, according to a Michigan State Police affidavit.
Six of the defendants have been charged in federal court, while the eight other men are charged at the state level on counts that include possession of a firearm in commission of a felony and supporting terrorist acts.
During the first part of the hearings on Tuesday, it was revealed by Trask that the group was also interested in targeting Virginia Governor Ralph Northam. Trask did not specifically name Virginia’s Democratic governor during his testimony. He said the members, some who had traveled from other states, held a meeting where they brainstormed possible actions against the government.
“They discussed possible targets, taking a sitting governor, specifically issues with the governor of Michigan and Virginia based on the lockdown orders,” Trask said.