In one of the most high-profile domestic terrorism cases in recent memory, prosecutors framed Barry Croft Jr. and Adam Fox as violent anti-government extremists who planned to capture Whitmer at his vacation home in northern Michigan, make blowing up a bridge to disrupt responding police. and, in doing so, trigger a civil war ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
“They wanted to start a second American Civil War and a second American Revolution, something they called the ‘boogaloo,'” Assistant U.S. Attorney Nils Kessler, one of the lead prosecutors, said during his closing argument.
The verdicts came against the politically charged backdrop of a deeply divided America where politicians, including Whitmer, say they continue to face threats from extremists.
The Grand Rapids, Michigan jury deliberated for eight hours over two days before convicting Croft and Fox of two counts of conspiracy – one related to the kidnapping plan and the other to obtain and use a weapon of mass destruction. Croft was also convicted of another explosives charge. The men risk life in prison.
The decision was a vindication for the Department of Justice. A different jury in April was unable to reach a unanimous decision on Croft and Fox, but acquitted two other alleged co-conspirators – an outcome that led to the second trial this summer.
The result shocked observers – including Whitmer, who later called the acquittal and mistrial “horrible” and told the Washington Post that the jury’s decision left her questioning the ” value” of his life. Whitmer said the way the case was portrayed as a kidnapping rather than an “assassination plot” had “diminished its seriousness” as she believed the men likely would have killed her had their plot succeeded.
The Michigan governor, who is seeking a second term in November, has repeatedly faulted Trump for stoking distrust and anger over coronavirus restrictions and refusing to condemn extremists like those involved in the plot.
Although the men were initially arrested and charged while in office, Trump recently called the Michigan plot a “fake deal,” suggesting Whitmer was in no real danger.
In a statement Tuesday, Whitmer said the verdicts “prove that violence and threats have no place in our politics, and those who seek to divide us will be held accountable.”
“But we also need to look carefully at the status of our policy,” she added. “Plots against officials and threats against the FBI are a disturbing extension of the radicalized domestic terrorism simmering in our country, threatening the very foundation of our republic.”
Federal and state officials initially charged multiple people in the conspiracy against Whitmer, arresting the men in an October 2020 sting that involved the use of informants and undercover FBI agents. The officers integrated the men, who were associated with a militia group known as the “Wolverine Watchmen”.
According to prosecutors, the defendants conspired from June to October 2020 to remove Whitmer from his vacation home in Elk Rapids, Michigan, because they were angered by what they viewed as his overly restrictive policies during the pandemic.
Several of the men are believed to have been present when armed protesters stormed the Michigan Capitol building in May 2020 in response to a stay-at-home order Whitmer approved to stem the spread of the coronavirus. The following month, prosecutors said the group began plotting to kidnap Whitmer.
Two of the men – Ty Garbin and Kaleb Franks – pleaded guilty in the federal case and testified in both trials. Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta were acquitted at the April trial in which the jury deadlocked over the roles of Fox and Croft, whom prosecutors described as ringleaders in the plot.
Ten other defendants in the plot have been named on state indictment and are awaiting separate trial.
Jurors in the previous federal trial appeared to agree, at least in part, with defense attorneys’ arguments that FBI agents framed the men in the violent plot, pointing to how one of the undercover federal agents offered explosives to men.
Attorneys for Croft and Fox repeated these arguments at the second trial, portraying their clients as nothing more than big talkers who would have done nothing had they not been spurred on by undercover FBI agents.
Defense lawyers have drawn attention to text messages from investigators who called the men “morons” and claimed their clients had said outrageous things because they regularly smoked weed. The attorneys said their clients would have been unable to do anything they were accused of had not undercover federal agents pressured them to do so.
“In America, the FBI is not supposed to create domestic terrorists so that the FBI can arrest them,” Fox attorney Christopher Gibbons told the jury in closing argument. “The FBI is not supposed to create a conspiracy so that the FBI can stand up and call for disruption.”
Prosecutors say the conspiracy began when Fox, 39, of Wyoming, Michigan, and Croft, 46, a truck driver from Delaware, began communicating on social media. They then met in person in Ohio in June 2020 to talk about Croft’s plan to hang a governor for starting a civil war. Prosecutors said the pair shared their idea of kidnapping Whitmer with the other men and began training and planning how they could do it.
In a trial that lasted about two weeks, prosecutors presented testimony and evidence to the jury that painted a violent picture of what the men did to further their plot – including video of the men surveilling Whitmer’s vacation home and video and audio of the men discussing their plans to kidnap the Governor, bring her to justice and hang her for “treason”.
Prosecutors told jurors Fox compiled a list of tools the group would need to carry out the abduction, including handcuffs and a balaclava to cover Whitmer’s head, and plotted where to place explosives to destroy the bridge near Whitmer’s house. Jurors saw video of Croft making explosives and heard testimony about how he believed God had given him permission to kill.
“These defendants believed their anti-government views justified the violence,” Special Agent in Charge James A. Tarasca, who works at the FBI’s Detroit field office, said Tuesday. “Today’s verdict sends a clear message that they got their assessment wrong. Violence is never the answer. The FBI will continue to investigate and hold anyone who seeks to engage in violence in the service of any ideological cause.