For three weeks, jurors in western Michigan heard all sorts of testimony in the alleged Gov. Gretchen Whitmer kidnap plot trial, everything from wild pot stories about wanna-be soldiers to heavily armed militiamen casing the governor’s cottage at night.
The Detroit Free Press has covered the now 17-day trial in its entirety. As the jury deliberates the case, here are some key moments from the trial, during which both the prosecution and defense sought to convince the jury to believe their version of events.
- ‘Honey, I’m building explosives’
- ‘He’s a b—-‘ Defendant’s wild testimony
- ‘I’m not being hypothetical’
- Casing Whitmer’s cottage
- Defense mocks boat theory
- Convicted plotter: There was no entrapment
- ‘Blow up’ vaccine plants; kill doctors
- Defendant on a suicide mission
- Defense challenges suicidal kidnap plotter
- Fox was misfit looking for friends
- ‘Stoned for 5 straight months?’
- ‘A citizen’s arrest’
‘Honey, I’m building explosives’
On March 17, jurors heard a secretly recorded conversation that captured defendant Barry Croft Jr. talking to his 12-year-old daughter, who had interrupted his militia group meeting.
«Daddy … do you want a Dorito?» the girl asked.
«Honey, I’m making explosives, can you get away from me please?» Croft is heard telling his daughter while his alleged cohorts laughed in the background.
Croft is accused of building and possessing explosives as part of a bigger plan to blow up a bridge near Whitmer’s house to slow down law enforcement. Croft and his codefendant Daniel Harris are also accused of twice trying to blow up balloons filled with BBs in a stove, but failing both times.
The defense argued that the balloon-in-the-stove experiment was a benign exercise carried out by amateurs who were just having fun blowing up stuff.
‘He’s a b—-‘ Defendant’s wild testimony
Perhaps the most explosive testimony came from Daniel Harris, the only defendant who took the stand in his own defense — and came off as a defiant hothead, if his comment about an undercover informant is any indication.
«He’s a b——,» 24-year-old Harris said, referring to Big Dan, the undercover informant he grew to admire and trust.
Harris caught the prosecutor off guard with his slur about the informant, so the prosecutor asked him to elaborate.
«Nope,» Harris responded.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Roth persisted, asking Harris to explain why he called the man a «b—-.»
«He got scared by memes,» Harris said, alleging that Big Dan was weak because he expressed concern over a meme that depicted violence.
«You went to Iraq, came out hurt, but words hurt you, words scare you?» Harris testified, referring to Dan. «You’re a b—-. Words are words.»
Harris also had cross words for one of his codefendants who testified against him.
«He’s a liar,» Harris said.
Harris testified that he never plotted to kidnap the governor, possess weapons of mass destruction, blow up a bridge or harm Whitmer’s security detail.
Outside the courtroom, Harris’ lawyer, Julia Kelly, explained that her client was upset with Big Dan because he looked up to him like a father, and he had betrayed him.
‘I’m not being hypothetical’
Jurors heard and saw numerous anti-government rants made by all the defendants, who vented on Facebook, in texts and in encrypted group chats.
«Which governor is going to end up being dragged off and hung for treason first?» Croft wrote in one Facebook post, which was shown to the jury.
The prosecution argued Croft was serious about harming people, not just talking.
“I want to hurt people. I want to burn houses down and blow things up. Burn a family to the ground. I am going to do it … I might murder a cop, put his uniform on and murder feds. I am not being hypothetical,” Croft stated.
Croft’s lawyer said his client’s Facebook posts were mostly jokes, that Croft was a heavy pot smoker who couldn’t be taken seriously, and was merely venting, mostly about the rioting following the police killing of George Floyd.
«Start putting these tyrants addresses out here for rioters,» Croft posted on Facebook during the 2020 civil unrest.
Fox’s social media rants and taped conversations also were used against him at trial, including one which he allegedly wanted a hostage and wasn’t satisfied with storming the Capitol, saying: «You take politicians — now you got human life. We just want the bitch/ We want the tyrant bitch.»
Casing Whitmer’s cottage
Prosecutors argued repeatedly at trial that the suspects’ nighttime surveillance of Whitmer’s cottage was among the most damning pieces of evidence against the group.
«Casing the governor’s house was overt,» Assistant U.S. Attorney Nils Kessler told jurors. «They didn’t have to agree when or how or why — they just had to agree that they were going to do it.»
And it didn’t matter if it was a good plan, or a bad plan, the judge told the jury.
According to trial testimony, the surveillance of Whitmer’s vacation house took place after Fox scouted the area first.
«That’s it! That’s f—— it!,» Fox is heard shouting excitedly when he spotted the governor’s house from a distance in a car. «Turn around. Survey the whole area.»
Fox also allegedly drew a map of the area around Whitmer’s vacation house, which was shown to the jury.
According to an undercover informant and an FBI agent who were with the group, here’s how the surveillance went down:
There was first a «circle of trust» meeting to make sure the group had the right house, that they could handle the governor’s security detail and that they had enough people.
The group went to the cottage in three separate cars: One looked for the house. The other was on the lookout for law enforcement. A third went to a boat launch.
Croft, who was at the boat launch, peered from a distance and said: «She should be right around those three lights.”
He was referring to the governor.
Jurors also were shown videos captured by an informant during the surveillance.
According to the informant and the FBI agent, the group had mapped out a plan to transport the governor from her home to a boat waiting in Lake Michigan, where the men planned to take her out to the middle of the lake and desert her.
In a recording played for the jury, Adam Fox could be heard laying out a plan to steal a boat to approach the governor’s residence, shoot her security detail, then head to Lake Michigan.
Defense mocks boat theory
Defense attorneys argued the FBI came up with the surveillance plan and coaxed the others to go along.
The boat story was especially unbelievable, they argued.
Attorney Joshua Blanchard, who is representing Croft, fixated on a discussion about the alleged plan to leave Whitmer stranded in the middle of Lake Michigan. He had many questions for the undercover witnesses.
Who would pilot the boat? Would there be two boats, or one? Who would drop the motor in the lake? And how would the others get back to land?
Blanchard argued the plot had too many flaws to be taken seriously.
An undercover agent on the stand testified that Fox had a name for people who didn’t take the plan seriously.
«He called them posers,» the agent testified.
Defendants Daniel Harris and Ty Garbin were not part of the nighttime surveillance. They opted to stay back and get drunk and high, according to trial testimony.
Convicted plotter: There was no entrapment
More than a year after pleading guilty to his crimes, former militia member Ty Garbin testified against his comrades, telling jurors that no one convinced him or any of the others to join the plot to kidnap Whitmer.
The idea was theirs, testified the 26-year-old former airline mechanic, who said that he was OK being labeled «a domestic terrorist» when he joined the militia group accused in the plot.
And so were his codefendants, testified Garbin, who told the jury the group took several actions to pull off their plan, everything from building explosives and casing the governor’s house to constructing a «shoot house» and creating secret chat rooms to avoid detection.
Garbin was part of all of this, he testified, saying that he built a makeshift version of Whitmer’s cottage on his property so the group could practice breaking in and snatching the governor. Whitmer’s COVID-19 restrictions had brought the group to a breaking point, he said.
But Garbin told the jury that the kidnap plot was part of an even bigger plan to spark a civil war, stressing: «We wanted to be the first to kick it off.»
Garbin, who could have gotten life if convicted at trial, received a six-month prison sentence for his cooperation and could get more time trimmed off because of his testimony.
Defense attorneys sought to hold that against him, and urged the jury to discredit his testimony, calling him a lawyer who was just trying to save himself. On cross-examination, the defense grilled Garbin about his plea deal, which contradicted comments he made during the summer 2020, when he allegedly called the kidnapping plot a bad idea numerous times.
Defense lawyers also challenged Garbin about the comments he made to the FBI following his arrest, when he said thought the kidnapping plot was «a turnoff,» that field training exercises were really just hangouts where men would drink beer, and that he «flipped» out on Fox after he brought up wanting to kidnap Whitmer.
Garbin said he didn’t remember saying any of those things to the FBI, and that the transcripts of his comments didn’t refresh his recollection.
‘Blow up’ vaccine plants; kill doctors
Mike Hills, Brandon Caserta’s lawyer, argued throughout trial that his client was a minor character in the Wolverine Watchmen and that he was not involved in any plot to kidnap the governor. He said Caserta was mostly worried about mandatory vaccines, which the jury heard plenty of ranting about.
Caserta was captured on secret recordings saying he wanted to blow up COVID-19 vaccine plants and kill contact tracers, lawyers and doctors who pushed vaccination.
«Doctors who advocated mandated vaccines — bullet to the face,» Caserta is heard saying in recordings captured by an informant.
«Any lawyer that supports a vaccine mandate, decapitate them in their own home,» Caserta said.
Prosecutors portrayed Caserta as an angry conspiracy theorist who didn’t want to follow rules, and made comments like «I want Zionist banker blood» and wanting to «drink blood from their skulls.» The jury heard these comments.
Caserta’s lawyer said the comments may have been in bad taste, but they had nothing to do with kidnapping the governor.
The prosecution painted a different picture, telling the jury that Caserta was fed up with COVID-19 restrictions, believed they had taken away his ability to earn a living, and as a result agreed to join the plan to kidnap Whitmer.
«This is my personal choice to be here,» Caserta is heard saying during a meeting with his militia members in a conversation that was played for the jury. «I accept responsibility for what happens here … I’ll do my time.»
Caserta’s anger with Whitmer grew over time, prosecutors said, citing his Facebook posts, which were also shown to the jury:
«… To be plain and harsh, the 2A (Second Amendment) is there to secure the ability to kill agents of the government when they become tyrannical,» Caserta posted in a January 2020 Facebook comment.
Five months later, he posted this: «I think it’s about time Americans use the 2A for its intended purpose.»
Two days later, Caserta posted again: «I may kill dozens of agents but eventually die in the process.»
Defendant on a suicide mission
Among the government’s two star witnesses was defendant Kaleb Franks, a Waterford man who cut a deal with the government one month before trial and agreed to testify against his codefendants.
Franks, 27, a coach for recovering addicts, told the jury that he joined the plan to kidnap Whitmer because he was on a suicide mission.
«I was hoping that I would be killed in the process,» Kaleb Franks testified. «I no longer wanted to live.»
Franks explained that he had mentally fallen apart following the deaths of three family members in recent years: his mom, stepdad and stepbrother. He testified that he was looking for an escape, and so he joined a scheme that he believed would trigger a shootout with police, and end with his death.
Franks admitted to the jury that he lied about his involvement in the kidnap plot when he was arrested by the FBI in 2020, stating: «I didn’t want to go to jail.»
During his two-hour testimony, Franks told the jury about numerous aspects of the alleged kidnap plot, including: how the group got tired of peaceful protests and wanted to do something more intense, how they discussed what would happen if they got caught, how he spent $3,600 on a pair of night vision goggles for the plan, and how “concern was very high” that FBI agents had infiltrated their group — which they had.
That paranoia about the feds listening in triggered the formation of a new encrypted chat room, which cost 99-cents to download, Franks testified, noting the new chat deleted everything anyone said after they sent it.
Franks testified that Adam Fox was the person who was most pushing the kidnap plan, and that he and the other defendants joined the mission voluntarily.
Franks said that his role was to be an operator — one of the gunmen on the front line outside Whitmer’s home who would help grab the governor. Daniel Harris, Brandon Caserta and Garbin would also serve in that same role, he said.
Franks said that he wasn’t sure what role Fox would play, but that Croft “discussed attacking (Whitmer’s) security detail” using a modified AR-15 outfitted with a grenade launcher.
Defense challenges suicidal kidnap plotter
As the defense sought to challenge Frank’s testimony, they ran into a logistical problem: a sleeping juror.
Defense attorneys complained to the judge about the juror, then went on to grill Franks about his testimony.
On cross-examination, Franks admitted that he didn’t like Fox, that he told the FBI he thought Fox’s kidnap plan was unrealistic after his arrest, and that he made some disparaging comments about Fox to the FBI.
Specifically, Franks admitted he told the FBI he thought Fox was a horrible shooter, a bad leader and a «LARPer» — or someone who engages in make-believe or role play, often involving costumes and props.
«That is what I said at the time, yes,» Franks said, stressing he was lying to avoid going to jail.
But the defense tried to convince the jury that Franks was lying again, for the same reason.
«You’d like to spend as little (jail) time as possible, right,» Fox’s lawyer asked Franks.
«Without a guarantee, I don’t expect anything,» Franks said. «I would like that, yes, but they didn’t promise anything.»
Franks, 27, of Waterford, has not yet been sentenced.
Defense lawyers asked Franks whether he ever disclosed his suicidal thoughts to the group, or if he ever sought out any resources for his problems. Franks said he did not.
«Those three (family) losses … were enough to get you to join a conspiracy to end your life,» one defense lawyer asked him.
Franks said yes, noting he had attempted suicide before and was also facing financial problems in the summer of 2020.
The defense lawyer then asked him why, if he was trying to die, did he take «affirmative steps» at meetings and training exercises to protect his safety, like building walls to prevent bullets from flying everywhere.
Franks said he was concerned about the safety of others.
Fox was misfit looking for friends
Adam Fox was a broke, vulnerable stoner who just wanted to make friends in the summer of 2020, but instead fell under the spell of conniving federal agents and informants who set him up in a fake plot to kidnap Whitmer, his lawyer told the jury.
«Adam Fox wanted to please. He was looking for connections,» defense attorney Christopher Gibbons argued, stressing repeatedly: «Adam Fox is not the leader the government wants him to be. He never became a leader … because he isn’t a leader. He didn’t have the skills. He didn’t have the equipment.»
But what he did have, Gibbons argued, was the «love and affection» of a man he knew as Big Dan — the onetime Wolverine Watchmen who left the militia group in the spring of 2020 and became an undercover informant for the FBI.
Big Dan testified at trial, telling the jury he left the Wolverine Watchmen out of concern the group was planning to kill police officers.
Gibbons urged the jury to believe none of that, alleging that Dan was a bought-and-paid for informant who made $54,000 from the government trying to radicalize Fox with the help of his FBI handler.
Gibbons argued that Big Dan tried to entice Fox in many ways, including offering him a credit card with a $5,000 spending limit on anything he wanted. Big Dan made this offer five times, though Fox never took the credit card, even though he was «broke as a joke» and living in the basement of a vacuum shop, his lawyer argued.
Big Dan also organized the militia meetings, trainings and nighttime surveillance, Gibbons argued, all while pretending he was Fox’s friend so that he could set him up and advance a career with the FBI.
«That’s unacceptable in America,» Gibbons argued. «That’s not how it works. We don’t make terrorists so we can arrest them.»
In closing, Gibbons urged the jury to acquit his client, stating: «You guys are our last chance.»
‘Stoned for 5 straight months?’
The defendants’ use of marijuana came up almost every day at trial, with the defense arguing the men were stoned most of the time, and the government knew it and took advantage of it.
For example, when an FBI agent told the jury that the reason defendant Brandon Caserta wasn’t at the surveillance of Whitmer’s cottage because he was off getting high, his lawyer quipped: «Objection! He chose getting high over this plan.»
The defense attorneys maintained throughout trial that this case was about «stoned crazy talk» by defendants who made all kinds of wild comments while smoking weed. There was talk of attacking airships, attaching Whitmer to a kite and flying her over a lake, barking in the woods to get her to come out of her house, or cutting down all the trees at the Ohio and Michigan border.
Nothing they said was believable, the defense argued, because they were high all the time, even when they vented about Whitmer.
The prosecutor urged jurors not to buy it, stating: “Do you know anybody who is stoned for five straight months?”
‘A citizen’s arrest’
Jurors heard repeated testimony about the suspects’ anger over Whitmer’s handling of the pandemic. For example, after the state Supreme Court in 2020 struck down a law that Whitmer used to impose restrictions, Fox texted the group:
“When’s the lynching?» Fox wrote. “She should be arrested now, immediately. Who wants to roll out.”
Fox added: “We can make a citizens arrest of her. Who’s down? Game on. I got cuffs, just saying.”
Then Fox repeated his other alleged plans for Whitmer: “I still want to hog tie her ass.”
Fox’s lawyer argued that the citizen’s arrest comment showed that Fox wasn’t really up for kidnapping the government, but instead suggested an alternative. As for hog-tying Whitmer, that was puffery, the defense lawyer claimed.
“This is all parlor tricks,” Fox’s lawyer, Chris Gibbons argued.
“There was a lot of anti-government talk. Who wasn’t upset about COVID and COVID restrictions?” Gibbons said, stressing repeatedly: “There was no conspiracy.”
Contact Tresa Baldas: email@example.com
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Key moments in Whitmer kidnap plot trial: What the jury heard, and saw