GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (CN) — Five of the six men accused of scheming to kidnap Democratic Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer pleaded not guilty before a federal judge Thursday after a grand jury found the night before there was enough evidence to indict them.
The indictment returned late Wednesday did not add additional charges against the men but a chilling detail emerged: one defendant, Brandon Caserta, allegedly sent a message to the others saying they should give law enforcement one chance to retreat from any confrontation and then kill the officers if they refused.
Caserta, 32, of Canton Township, is charged alongside Adam Fox, 37 of Wyoming, Michigan; Kaleb Franks, 26, of Waterford; Daniel Harris, 23, of Lake Orion; Ty Garbin, 24, of Hartland Township; and Barry Croft Jr., 44, of Bear, Delaware.
Fox was described as a driving force behind the alleged kidnapping plot in an 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.
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.
Fox grew increasingly agitated in meetings with co-conspirators 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.
The conspiracy fell apart when FBI informants infiltrated the meetings. Four of the suspects were apprehended in Ypsilanti on Oct. 7, where they planned to meet up with an associate who sought to collect a down payment on explosives and related supplies.
Public defenders Sean Tilton and Helen C. Nieuwenhuis, who were appointed to represent Fox, said they were able to read the indictment to their client Thursday morning.
“Yes, your honor,” Fox replied when U.S. Magistrate Judge Sally Berens asked if he understood the kidnapping conspiracy charges against him, which he pleaded not guilty to.
Harris was the first to face Berens via video conference Thursday. He acknowledged he went over the indictment with his lawyer and understood the charges that could send him to prison for life along with a $250,000 fine. He too pleaded not guilty.
Garbin was up next and entered a plea of not guilty as well. He also told Berens he reviewed the indictment against him.
Nicknamed “Gunny,” Garbin held a substantial firearm collection that included an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle as well as a camouflaged silencer, according to federal prosecutors. He is accused of manufacturing guns without serial numbers and urging his co-conspirators to keep a low profile until the kidnapping plot came to fruition.
Franks followed Garbin, also pleading not guilty after answering several questions from the judge. “Yes, your honor,” he replied when asked if he saw the indictment and understood the charges against him.
Caserta was the last to appear before the judge. He also entered a not-guilty plea.
“Yes, I understand it,” he responded when asked if he could comprehend the allegations against him.
The sixth defendant in the federal indictment, Croft, of Delaware, has not yet appeared in Michigan court on the charges.
Another man, 52-year-old Brian Higgins of Wisconsin, is facing a separate state charge in the alleged kidnapping plan. He is fighting his extradition to Michigan.
Higgins remains in Wisconsin but lost his bid to stay there on Tuesday, when Columbia County Circuit Court Judge Todd Hepler rejected a motion from Higgins’ attorney Christopher Van Wagner to invalidate the extradition based on the theory that Whitmer had a conflict of interest when she signed the paperwork since she was the alleged target.
Van Wagner argued that the lieutenant governor should have signed the extradition papers and appealed Hepler’s ruling, according to a Detroit News report. The judge granted a stay of his order pending appeal.