DETROIT — The landmark trial of Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s kidnapping plot ended without a conviction on Friday, dealing a blow to the government as it failed to convince a jury that four men were domestic terrorists bent on harm the Governor due to his COVID-19 restrictions.
The jury acquitted Daniel Harris on all four counts and Brandon Caserta was acquitted on the single count of kidnapping conspiracy – so both men are free to go.
The jury is deadlocked on the charges against Adam Fox and Barry Croft, so a mistrial has been declared for those defendants.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Grand Rapids said it would retry the men and was “obviously” disappointed with the outcome of the case.
In a statement released after the verdicts, Whitmer expressed concern that the outcome of the case could embolden future extremists.
“The plot to kidnap and kill a governor may seem like an anomaly. But we have to be honest about what it really is: the result of violent and confrontational rhetoric that is all too common in our country,” Whitmer said. “There must be accountability and consequences for those who commit heinous crimes. Without accountability, extremists will be emboldened.”
The move came after the jury twice announced it was deadlocked.
“FILLED WITH RAGE” OR “CRAZY SPEECH”? :Jury gets case of 4 men charged in Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s kidnapping plot
In a case that highlighted the growth of violent extremism in the United States, the jury spent three weeks listening to testimony about how four like-minded men bonded on social media, expressed that the government was in control of their lives, then came together through a group called the Wolverine Watchmen – a self-proclaimed militia from Michigan who wanted to start a second civil war and use Whitmer’s kidnapping as a starting point .
To carry out the kidnapping plan, witnesses said, the group also plotted to blow up a bridge near Whitmer’s vacation home to slow law enforcement and experimented with explosives to achieve this. — an allegation that sparked the weapons of mass destruction charges which carry a life sentence.
The plot, however, was foiled on October 7, 2020 in an FBI sting outside a warehouse in Ypsilanti, a Michigan town just east of Ann Arbor. An undercover informant had led the suspects to the warehouse, leading them to believe they were going there to make a deposit on explosives, pick up military equipment, and then head to Buffalo Wild Wings for beer and chicken.
Instead, FBI agents waited in handcuffs.
The defendants spent 18 months in prison awaiting trial. They argued they were entrapment and the FBI came up with the idea of a kidnapping and pushed them to say and do things they wouldn’t have done otherwise.
“What the FBI did was unconscionable,” Caserta attorney Michael Hills said outside the courthouse. He has long maintained that his client and the others were framed by informants and rogue FBI agents, including one who ran a cybersecurity firm while investigating the case.
“To me, it was a signal,” Hills said of the verdict. “A rogue FBI agent trying to line his own pockets with his own cybersecurity company, pushing a plot that never was, was never going to be. Our governor was never in danger. And I think the jury – they didn’t get it all – but they felt enough.”
According to trial testimony, the suspects spent months discussing different ways they could attack the government for what they believe would infringe on their freedoms. There was also talk of storming the state capital. But the suspects didn’t think it was feasible, so they decided to kidnap the governor instead, according to trial testimony from undercover FBI agents and informants.
The alleged kidnapping plan involved snatching Whitmer from her cabin, driving her to the shore of Lake Michigan, putting her in a boat and leaving her stranded in the lake or transporting her to Wisconsin to be hanged.
The defense argued that these were fanciful speeches made by men who were stoned most of the time, and that they had no real plan or ever intended to kidnap Whitmer – that it was all harsh talk by men blowing off steam.
The defense also argued that the FBI ran the whole show and orchestrated the whole kidnapping plot to advance his own career.
The prosecution disagreed, arguing that there was no evidence at trial that an informant or agent engineered the kidnapping plot or encouraged anyone to kidnap the governor.
The suspects did more than talk, prosecutors said, saying the defendants took numerous steps to make this happen, including: locking up the governor’s vacation home twice, drawing a map of the area, buying binoculars for $3,800, build a model of his cabin to practice extracting a person, communicating over encrypted chats to conceal their activities, and using explosives to carry out their plan. According to multiple witnesses, the suspects practiced building and detonating explosive devices to help carry out their kidnapping plan.
A defendant admitted to blowing up balloons filled with BBs in a stove, although he considered it a benign experience. The prosecution disagreed and said people could have died or been injured, including the suspect’s 12-year-old daughter, who was taking part in the militia group training exercise that day. .
The witness who helped solve the case was a former Wolverine Watchmen who told jurors he left the group after hearing the men talk about killing police officers. The witness said he told his cop friend about it, then got a call from the FBI asking if he wanted to go undercover. He accepted and became known to the group as Big Dan.
The defense argued that Big Dan was the backbone of the government case and the real leader of the kidnapping plot, saying he instigated the suspects, organized most of the meetings and trainings, and ran the whole show.
It was Big Dan, the defense noted, who led the suspects to a warehouse in Ypsilanti, tricking them into thinking they were going for beers and wings, but had them arrested instead.
Two of those men who were arrested in the case were co-defendants Ty Garbin and Kaleb Franks. The pair made deals in the case, pleaded guilty and testified against the others at trial, telling the jury they were willing participants in the kidnapping plot, just like their cohorts. No one framed them, they said, nor their co-defendants.
Only one of the defendants spoke in his own defense at trial: Daniel Harris, who was combative with the prosecutor. Harris denied being part of a plot to kidnap the Governor, telling the jury that Big Dan was the real leader of the whole thing.
Two of the four defendants presented no defense but let the jury decide the case based on what the government presented.
Several undercover FBI agents and informants who had infiltrated the group also testified at trial and corroborated numerous taped statements that were played to the jury.
The defendants are Adam Fox, 38, of Potterville; Daniel Harris, 24, of Lake Orion; Brandon Caserta, 33, of Canton and Barry Croft, 46, of Delaware. All are charged with conspiracy to kidnap and three are charged with weapons of mass destruction.
Croft and Harris were also charged with possession of an unregistered destructive device, and Harris was charged with possession of an illegal short-barreled shotgun.