Attorneys for four men charged with planning to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer told jurors Wednesday that they were swayed by informants and federal agents who targeted them for their anti-government views.
They portrayed the men as big talkers, wannabes who never meant what they said and, in one case, a pot-smoking “misfit” influenced by an FBI informant he met at a protest.
Attorney Joshua Blanchard said the FBI lined up an informant with a long criminal history to reach out to Barry Croft Jr. and lure him to militia meetings and gun training in Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan. Another informant, Blanchard said, drove Croft all the way to Wisconsin from Delaware.
“There was no plan, there was no agreement and no kidnapping,” Blanchard said during his opening statement in a federal courtroom in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Prosecutors say Croft, Adam Fox, Brandon Caserta and Daniel Harris came up with the plan to snatch Whitmer because they were angry about pandemic restrictions imposed by the Democrat.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Roth said during his opening statement that the men’s actions went well beyond talking. He said the men recruited militia, prepared to break into Whitmer’s home, tie her up and take her, and planned to blow up a bridge to stop police from quickly responding. Investigators stepped in and stopped a “tragedy” when the men were planning to acquire a bomb to blow up a bridge near Whitmer’s home, Roth said.
He also said jurors would see social media posts and hear secretly recorded conversations full of angry, vulgar and sexist language about violence and plans to take down a “tyrant.”
Jurors will hear from two critical insiders, Ty Garbin and Kaleb Franks, who pleaded guilty to the conspiracy and will testify for the government, Roth said.
“They will tell you how real this was. … They will tell you that they’re going to prison for it,” he said.
Roth described Fox and Croft as masterminds of the plot. He said the four wanted to create a “war zone here in Michigan,” and urged jurors to set aside the defendants’ political views and their desire for a “civil war,” and Whitmer’s job or their thoughts about her.
“What you have is that defendants agreed, planned, trained and were ready to break into a woman’s home as she slept with her family in the middle of the night and with violence and at gunpoint they would tie her up and take her from that home,” Roth said. “And to accomplish that they would shoot, blow up and kill anybody who got in their way.”
As Roth began his opening, he turned away from jurors and pointed a finger at each defendant, saying they didn’t just talk but took active steps to implement their plot. The courtroom lights dimmed and prosecutors projected photos of the defendants at different stages of the alleged plot on a giant screen above the defendants.
Roth pointed again at Croft, wearing a gray suit and tie, telling jurors that he may cut the figure of a “harmless … middle school teacher” now. As he said that, a picture of Croft clutching a rifle in camouflage clothing appeared on the screen.
“He looked quite a bit different then,” the prosecutor said.
But Croft’s attorney said when informants secretly recorded Croft and others, all were “stoned, absolutely out-of-your-mind stoned.”
“The FBI is supposed to protect us from dangerous criminals and terrorists,” Blanchard said. “They’re also an agency that’s supposed to protect our freedoms. And when they’re doing that, they’re expected to have thick skin. That means in protecting our rights, they don’t punish people for saying mean things about them. And they’re not supposed to target people that they’re angry with.”
Lawyers for Caserta and Harris tried to distance them from Fox and Croft, emphasizing that the pair didn’t make the trip to northern Michigan to scout Whitmer’s home.
Defense attorney Julia Kelly said Harris, a veteran, was unhappy with the direction of the country and attended rallies in support of gun rights as well as protests against Whitmer’s stay-home orders. Kelly said Harris joined the Wolverine Watchmen to keep his military skills sharp for possible security work in Afghanistan, not as part of a sinister plot.
Attorney Christopher Gibbons, representing Fox, told jurors he was practically homeless, living in the basement of a vacuum shop and brushing his teeth in a restaurant restroom, not a mastermind of the 2020 plot as prosecutors allege.
“Adam Fox did not commit a crime in this case,” Gibbons said.
The first witness, FBI agent Todd Reineck, testifed about social media posts by Fox and Croft in spring 2020, including some profanity-filled messages between the two. They included a Facebook video in which Fox stated: “We have the numbers. We have the arms. We have the ammunition … that we need to just go take our country back.”
Eleven women and seven men were selected Tuesday to serve as jurors. Six are alternates, although they won’t know until the end of trial.
In 2020, Whitmer was trading taunts with then-President Donald Trump over his administration’s response to COVID-19. Her critics, meanwhile, were regularly protesting at the Michigan Capitol, clogging streets around the statehouse and legally carrying semi-automatic rifles into the building.
The FBI said it thwarted the kidnapping plot with the arrests of six men in October 2020. Garbin and Franks insist no one acted because of excessive influence by agents or undercover informants.
Whitmer, who is seeking reelection this year, rarely talks publicly about the case and isn’t expected to attend the trial. She has blamed Trump for stoking mistrust and fomenting anger over coronavirus restrictions and refusing to condemn hate groups and right-wing extremists like those charged in the plot. She has said he was also complicit in the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.
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