GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (CN) — A trial against four men accused of plotting to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer began in earnest Wednesday with opening statements and could shine a revealing light on violent extremism in the country.
The defendants are Adam Fox, 40, of Wyoming, Michigan; Barry Croft Jr., 45, of Bear, Delaware; Daniel Joseph Harris, 23, of Lake Orion, Michigan; and Brandon Caserta, 32, of Canton Township, Michigan.
In his opening statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Roth accused the men of a terrifying plan to kidnap the Democratic governor so they could “hogtie her and take her away.”
Roth said federal agents intervened when it was learned the plan included blowing up a bridge.
“Actions were louder and more disturbing than words,” he said.
The prosecutor detailed the group’s frustration over Covid-19 restrictions implemented by Whitmer but also said the anger was already there and simmering against politicians in general. He said the influence of the Boogaloo militia movement, in which Croft was recognized as national figure, was intertwined into the plot against Whitmer.
Roth made sure to point out that Croft changed his appearance for the trial and said that even though now he looks like a “middle school math teacher,” he was still capable of illegal acts.
“I’m going to burn motherfucker’s houses down,” Croft allegedly said in a statement captured by investigators. “I’m going to do some of the most nasty disgusting things that you have ever read about in the history of your life.”
Roth also said that Harris and Caserta were bloodthirsty and content to just kill the governor. Castera allegedly talked about crushing her skull.
Fox was able to convince the others that kidnapping the governor was the best plan, according to the prosecution. Fox knew what he was doing was wrong because he performed security checks for new group members and used codewords such as “cupcake” to describe bombs, Roth said.
In the fall of 2020, Roth claims the group engaged in intense training and built a model of Whitmer’s home so they could practice a siege.
Roth closed by asking the jury to set aside their views on government and think of the human element.
“What you have is defendants agreed to…break into a woman’s home where she slept with her family in the middle of the night…they would tie her up and take her from that home,” he said.
Christopher Gibbons of Gibbons & Boer, representing Fox, accused the federal government of going to great lengths to make his client look “nefarious.”
“There was no plan. There was no conspiracy,” he said.
Gibbons said the case was heavily reliant on a secret informant, who "is the backbone of the case. He is the framework which everything hangs on this case."
Julia Kelly of Willey & Chamberlain, representing Harris, said the 23-year-old was active on social media like many his age and he liked shooting guns and drinking beer.
“He’s not perfect, but he’s not guilty of what the government is accusing him of,” she said.
Michael Hills, representing Caserta, said his client only faces a charge of conspiracy to kidnap and was swept up due to his limited meetings with the group. The attorney added Caserta's 90-day stockpile of food and supplies was done for legitimate reasons.
“My client was concerned about society and what was going on…and he was looking to train…in case of societal breakdown…to protect his property,” Hills said.
Croft's attorney Joshua Blanchard painted a picture of a vengeful, thin-skinned federal government that was hell-bent on taking his client down when he posted critical comments of the FBI on Facebook when he suspected someone from the agency killed a friend.
Blanchard said that Croft was critical of government officials, but it often bordered on nonsensical.
“They should have known it was crazy stoned talk,” he said.
Chief U.S. District Judge Robert J. Jonker, a George W. Bush appointee, butted heads with defense lawyers as they attempted to pursue an entrapment defense in their opening statements. Jonker eventually agreed to let them pursue the angle after an extended discussion but allowed the prosecution a chance to respond.
In January 2021, Ty Garbin, 25, of Hartland Township, was the first from the initial group of six defendants to plead guilty. He was sentenced in August 2021 to more than six years in prison.
Kaleb Franks of Waterford, Michigan, pleaded guilty to a kidnapping conspiracy in a hearing on Feb. 9. He will be used by prosecutors to counter the claims the group was entrapped by the undercover agents. Franks could still face up to life in prison when he is sentenced but is expected to receive a lighter punishment.
When Whitmer locked down the state in April 2020 to slow the spread of Covid-19, right-wing activists — including some carrying assault rifles — descended on the Michigan Capitol soon after to protest her stay-at-home order in a scene that presaged the U.S. Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021.
In the original indictment from December 2020, prosecutors said Caserta sent a message to the other men saying they should give law enforcement one chance to retreat from any confrontation and then kill the officers if they refused.
Fox, Croft, Franks, 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.
The trial will continue Thursday with witness testimony and is expected to last four to five weeks.
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