Wednesday, August 17, 2022 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Jury urged to convict men charged in plot to kidnap Michigan governor

Defense lawyers have attempted to portray the accused kidnappers as a rag-tag group of empty talkers who were set up by the FBI for their anti-government views.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (CN) — The trial of four men accused of plotting to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer progressed quicker than expected as attorneys finished closing statements Friday and put the case in the hands of the jury.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Nils R. Kessler began his closings by highlighting the rights of Americans to protest government officials.

“What we can’t do is kidnap them and blow them up,” he said.

Kessler dismissed the claims from the defense that it was just boys talking with no real direction.

“It wasn’t just talk,” he said. “They were training for this for a long, long time.”

The prosecutor said that the defense team's tactics to describe the actions of the accused as a series of separate legal acts – like driving by the governor’s house – were disingenuous because the combined efforts reveal an evil narrative.

Adam Fox led the group, Kessler said, because he felt humiliated living in a basement and wanted to blame Whitmer. Kessler explained that Fox’s lust for weapons of mass destruction had grown so hot that the FBI was forced to step in.

Kessler also picked apart Daniel Harris’ testimony and told jurors that his initial calm demeanor was an act that was unmasked as phony when prosecutors asked him pointed questions and he snapped at them.

“That’s the real Dan Harris,” he declared.

The prosecutor said the government provided enough to convict the four defendants, which in addition to Fox and Harris include Barry Croft Jr. and Brandon Caserta.

“The evidence you heard proves they are guilty,” he concluded.

Christopher Gibbons of Gibbons & Boer, representing Fox, said his client was the victim of manipulation from the FBI.

“The plan was utter nonsense,” he said.

Gibbons said Fox was a financially disadvantaged blowhard without a criminal record who was constantly running his mouth about the government, but it never went further than that.

Julia Anne Kelly of Willey & Chamberlain spoke on behalf of Harris and said the accusations from prosecution witnesses were inaccurate and the government had not met its burden of proof.

“Daniel Harris said Ty Garbin and Kaleb Franks were liars, and they are,” she said, referring to two men who were also charged but pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against the other four.

Kelly told the jury Harris never sent information about bombs to anyone, did not place any orders for explosive materials and never had any conversations about improvised explosive devices.  

Michael Hills, representing Caserta, told jurors they were not there to decide whether they approve of his client’s anti-government views.

The attorney said Castera’s anger was primarily directed towards the idea of mandated quarantines and vaccinations during the Covid-19 pandemic. He conceded Castera was recorded saying “I accept responsibility for what happens here...I’ll do my time,” but stressed there was no evidence he discussed kidnapping Whitmer.

Croft's attorney Joshua Blanchard was adamant about his client’s innocence in closing arguments.

“There was no plan to kidnap the governor,” he said. “They tried to make them look like they did.”

He added, “This investigation was an embarrassment.”

Blanchard said that Croft was simply a big talker who was angriest at civil rights protesters he believed were burning down the country. The attorney acknowledged there was talk from Croft seeking to blow up police cars but an agreement to do so with the group was never reached.

During the trial, jurors heard testimony from several FBI agents as well as the girlfriend of one of the accused and one of the defendants himself.

FBI agent Timothy Bates, who was known as “Red” while undercover, testified Monday about his contact with the accused and how he convinced them he had access to bomb-making materials. Bates said the explosives were coveted by Fox, who allegedly wanted to blow up a bridge near the governor’s home in order to slow the police response.

Croft's girlfriend Chasity Knight, 40, testified nervously Wednesday. She said that Croft was angry at the government and tried to recall his attempts to construct a bomb. She added she heard a “big boom” at one point but during cross-examination Knight admitted she had a brain injury that affected her memory at times.

Harris was the only defendant to take the stand. His testimony on Thursday began calmly with his lawyer asking him several times between other questions if he planned to kidnap the governor.

“Absolutely not,” he responded with an incredulous tone that sounded like a spoken whisper at times.

Harris became agitated when answering questions from the prosecution and called his co-defendants liars but had to concede that he did make comments about dressing up as a pizza delivery person to kill Whitmer at her front door when confronted with recordings.     

Garbin, who pleaded guilty in January 2021, was sentenced to more than six years in prison and agreed to testify against the four men on trial,

Taking the stand last week, Garbin detailed how the group rehearsed by building a “shoot house” meant to simulate the inside of Whitmer’s vacation home.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Roth also asked Garbin to describe what “boogaloo” meant.  

“The boogaloo is a movement…the foundation of it is basically we need a second civil war, another revolution,” Garbin responded.

In his opening statement on March 9, Roth said the group was mad over the coronavirus lockdown implemented by Whitmer, a Democrat, but their anger was already simmering against politicians in general.

The sixth defendant, Franks, pleaded guilty to kidnapping conspiracy during a hearing on Feb. 9.

Fox, Croft, Harris and Caserta each face up to life in prison if convicted of kidnapping conspiracy charges. Fox, Croft and Harris could also get a separate life sentence if convicted of conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction. In addition, Croft and Harris each face up to 10 years in prison if they're found guilty of possession of an unregistered destructive device. Harris could further be sentenced to a decade behind bars if convicted for possession of an unregistered short barrel rifle.

Chief U.S. District Judge Robert Jonker, a George W. Bush appointee, is presiding.

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.

Loading
Loading...