A prosecutor urged jurors Friday to convict four men in a plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, saying they were anti-government extremists “filled with rage” and intent on touching off a civil war in the final weeks of the polarizing 2020 general election.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Nils Kessler summed up the evidence on the 15th day of trial, tracing the group’s secretly recorded words as well as testimony from agents, an extraordinary informant and two star witnesses who pleaded guilty.
Defense attorneys, meanwhile, panned the government’s case; one said the men were turned into “terrorists” by rogue agents.
Kessler started his closing remarks by saying there are boundaries when it comes to scorn for those in power.
“If you don’t like your elected representatives, you can vote them out at the ballot box. That’s what makes this country great,” Kessler told the jury. “What we can’t do is kidnap them, kill them or blow them up. That’s also what makes America great.”
Adam Fox, Barry Croft Jr., Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta are charged with conspiracy to kidnap. Three of them also face additional charges involving weapons.
The men were arrested in October 2020 amid talk of raising $4,000 for an explosive that could blow up a bridge and stymie police after a kidnapping, according to trial evidence. Fox twice travelled to northern Michigan to scout the area; one of those trips included Croft and undercover agents.
Kessler said the group’s motive was to spark the “boogaloo,” a reference to a U.S. civil war, by kidnapping Whitmer.
“That’s what bound these defendants together. … They were filled with rage,” the prosecutor said. “They were paranoid because they knew what they were doing was illegal and were afraid of getting caught.”
The four men deny any scheme to abduct Whitmer from her vacation home, though they clearly were livid with the government as well as restrictions the governor imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ty Garbin, who pleaded guilty and testified against the men, said the goal was to get Whitmer before the election and create enough chaos to stop Joe Biden from winning the presidency.
Kessler took the jury back through events in summer and fall 2020: a national meeting of militias in Ohio, training in Wisconsin and Michigan, and a September night excursion to see the governor’s property on Birch Lake and inspect the bridge.
The men had constructed a crude “shoot house” in Luther, Michigan, to replicate Whitmer’s home and practised going in and out with guns, according to evidence.
The investigation began when Army veteran Dan Chappel joined a militia, the Wolverine Watchmen, to maintain his firearm skills. Chappel said he was alarmed when he started hearing talk about attacking police and decided to become an FBI informant.
“Thank God for Dan Chappel. … He went back at great personal risk,” Kessler told the jury.
But jurors got a different view from the defence. Fox’s attorney, Christopher Gibbons, hammered away at Chappel, who was paid by the government and talked to Fox almost daily for months, recording their conversations.
He said Fox was a hapless man living in the basement of a Grand Rapids-area vacuum shop, smoking marijuana whenever possible and totally incapable of leading the wild plot.
“The plan was utter nonsense. It wasn’t real to Adam Fox. He was LARPing,” Gibbons said, using an acronym for live action role playing. “Adam Fox is usually impaired. He’s just playing his game. … A person cannot accidentally enter into a conspiracy.”
Gibbons accused the government of “radicalization.”
“Inviting citizens that they think are susceptible to a theater where they are given full senses of who and what they are, and somebody rattles the chains, somebody beats the drum and gets them all worked up,” Gibbons said.
“That’s unacceptable in America,” he said. “That’s not how it works. They don’t make terrorists so we can arrest them.”
Whitmer, a Democrat, rarely talks publicly about the kidnapping plot, though she referred to “surprises” during her term that seemed like “something out of fiction” when she filed for re-election on March 17.
She has blamed former President Donald Trump for fomenting anger over coronavirus restrictions and refusing to condemn right-wing extremists like those charged in the case. Whitmer has said Trump was complicit in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
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