Whitmer Kidnap Plotters Wanted to Help Spark Second Civil War, Feds Say


GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Prosecutors marked the start of the domestic terrorism trial of four men accused of scheming to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Wednesday by cataloging the alleged acts of angry men who built bombs, hatched violent plans and amassed an arsenal in hopes of sparking a nationwide wave of terror targeting politicians.

Opening statements started 17 months after FBI agents said they thwarted a domestic terrorism attack that involved kidnapping Whitmer and using bombs during the attack. The accused plotters are a mix of self-described patriots and militia members who prosecutors say were angered by restrictions imposed during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The plot was hatched in April 2020, weeks into the pandemic and unfolded over the next six months across encrypted chat rooms, in militia meetings in Ohio, while building bombs in rural Wisconsin and at a secluded wooded training camp in northern Michigan where plotters practiced with an arsenal of weapons and launched surveillance of the governor's cottage, according to the government.

"They were going to break into the governor's home, kidnap her at gunpoint, hogtie her and take her away," Assistant U.S. Attorney Nils Kessler told jurors. “This was not just talk."

Four men are standing trial on kidnapping conspiracy charges in a case that has focused national attention on violent extremism in Michigan and raised questions about whether that team of FBI agents and informants orchestrated the conspiracy and entrapped the alleged plotters.

The case is high stakes — defendants Adam Fox of Potterville, Barry Croft of Delaware, Daniel Harris of Lake Orion and Brandon Caserta of Canton Township face up to life in prison if convicted of kidnapping conspiracy — and a high-profile test of federal laws being used to punish extremist behavior that erupted nationally in 2020 and 2021 around the presidential election and COVID-19 pandemic.

“They agreed, planned, trained and were ready to break into a woman’s home while she slept with her family in the middle of the night, with violence, at gunpoint, to tie her up, take her from that home, shoot, blow up and kill anybody who got in their way,” Kessler told jurors. “And in their own words: create a war zone in Michigan.”

The government's opening statements launched what is expected to be a high-profile, multimedia trial featuring secret audio and video recordings, online chats testimony from FBI agents, at least one informant and two convicted plotters.

Six members of the alleged conspiracy were charged in federal court with kidnapping conspiracy in October 2020. Eight others are facing charges in related cases pending in state courts.

Prosecutors in October 2020 said FBI agents thwarted a plot to bomb a bridge near Whitmer's vacation home, kidnap the governor and have her stand trial for treason. The group also mulled abandoning Whitmer — who prosecutors say was referred to as a "tyrant b----" by alleged ringleader Fox — in the middle of Lake Michigan as punishment for her leadership during the pandemic.

Croft helped launch the conspiracy in April 2020 in a recorded call to action, the prosecutors said Wednesday.

“All it’s going to take is one state to burn out and hang its governor and then those dominos will start to fall,” Croft wrote.

Fox accepted that call to action, Kessler told jurors.

“They began plotting to kidnap the governor of Michigan,” Kessler said. “He said the whole point is ‘we’re sending a message to them that if we can get her, we can get you.’”

Whitmer, a Democrat, was the main target among a group that also discussed attacking Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, along with a second Democrat, former Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, according to prosecutors.

"I say we hang everything currently governing us, they're all guilty!!!," Croft wrote in one Facebook post, which also included an image of then-President Donald Trump. "Wanna hang this mf'er too..."

Six men were charged in federal court while eight others were charged in state court, where their cases are pending. Two convicted plotters originally charged in federal court — Ty Garbin of Hartland Township and Kaleb Franks of Waterford Township — are expected to testify for the government that the four defendants were not entrapped by the government.

Defense lawyers have said there was no plot and that their clients were merely using coarse language to voice complaints about the government's response to the pandemic.

“Adam Fox did not commit a crime in this case,” his lawyer, Christopher Gibbon, told jurors Wednesday. “There was no plan. There was no conspiracy.

"There was a lot of talk."

Fox was not a leader of a militia or ringleader of a kidnapping plot.

“This is all parlor tricks,” Gibbons said.

He was broke. Unemployed. One rung above homeless, living in the basement of a Grand Rapids vacuum shop.

“If he wanted to brush his teeth, he had to go to a Mexican restaurant,” Gibbons said.

Gibbons downplayed the significance of a June 2020 meeting in Dublin, Ohio, that prosecutors portrayed as an inciting moment when the kidnap plot crystallized around anger over COVID-19 restrictions.

“There was no agreement,” Gibbons told jurors. “There was a lot of anti-government talk. Who wasn’t upset about COVID and COVID restrictions? But there was no conspiracy.”

Gibbons blamed FBI informant Stephen Robeson for propping Fox up as the leader of the so-called Michigan Three Percent Patriot Militia.

“There’s nobody in it,” Gibbons said. “It’s just Adam.”

Until July 2020.

One member joined, Gibbons said.

An FBI informant.