Whitmer kidnap trial opens with wild stories of pot, hog-tying governor, civil war
Jurors got more than earful Tuesday as the Gov. Gretchen Whitmer kidnapping trial kicked off with several wild tales, everything from alleged plans to hog-tie the governor and prepare for a second civil war to the suspects being so stoned that they talked about attaching her to a kite and flying her over a lake.
The jury also heard plenty of f-bombs, and stories of real bombs, with claims about lying FBI snitches thrown in the mix.
And it's just day one.
In a historic case that puts extremism on trial, the prosecution and defense offered conflicting stories about four self-proclaimed patriots and militia members who are accused of plotting to kidnap the governor out of anger over her COVID-19 restrictions.
One thing both sides agree on: The suspects were upset about the pandemic, the lockdowns, the masks.
But prosecutors allege that the defendants were so enraged by it all that they planned to kidnap the governor, hog-tie her, blow up a bridge and kill any police officers who got in the way.
The defense painted a different picture, maintaining the defendants never had any plan to kidnap the governor, that they were entrapped by undercover FBI agents and informants who ran the show and that any comments about Whitmer were merely tough talk.
These are the contrasting accounts that jurors will have to sort through as they listen to allegations about a group called the Wolverine Watchmen, whose members, prosecutors argue, did a lot more than talk. They cased Whitmer's vacation house, drew up maps, held training exercises and target shooting with human silhouettes and built practice bombs, prosecutors said, arguing this was all part of their bigger plan.
"They were going to break into the governor's home, kidnap her at gunpoint, hog-tie her and take her away," Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Roth told jurors. “This was not just talk. Their actions were louder than and just as disturbing as their words. It is their actions that show just how serious they were about doing this."
Roth laid out for the jury the government's case, which seeks to punish extremist behavior that has increased in the U.S. over the years. He told jurors that the Whitmer suspects were part of a growing violent movement in the United States, and that the government caught onto the suspects with the help of a former Wolverine Watchman who got upset by what he was hearing and seeing, went to the FBI and agreed to go undercover.
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"They believe a civil war is coming and they are getting ready for it," said Roth.
He told jurors about various disturbing comments the defendants allegedly made:
One suspect allegedly said he asked God for permission to kill, and that he got it.
Accused ringleader Adam Fox claimed to be anointed by God, wanted a hostage and wasn't satisfied with storming the Capitol, allegedly saying: "You take politicians — now you got human life. We just want the bitch/We want the tyrant bitch."
Another suspect "just wanted to murder her" and suggested shooting her when she came from work, and posing as a pizza delivery person.
Another allegedly talked about crushing her skull.
Roth also offered the jury a snippet of what's to come: testimony by two codefendants who pleaded guilty early on and have planned to testify against the others at trial.
"They will tell you how real this was," Roth said.
'COVID sent them overboard'
Christopher Gibbons, who is representing Fox, the accused ringleader in the case, was the first to approach the jury from the defense table.
"We couldn’t disagree more on our side of the table about what the evidence in this case suggests and means," Gibbons told the jury. "Adam Fox did not commit a crime in this case. Adam Fox did not agree with another person to kidnap the governor of Michigan. There was no plan. There was no conspiracy."
All there was, Gibbons said, was a group of disgruntled militia members who drank beer, held barbecues and talked a lot.
"You’re going to hear a lot of talk," Gibbons said, noting the case dates to mid-March 2020, when the pandemic took off. "Things for all Americans had drastically changed. We couldn’t go to work. We had to stay away from each other."
As for the defendants, Gibbons said: "They're already inclined to be upset, and COVID sent them overboard."
Gibbons told the jury that his client was egged on and used by a rogue undercover informant named Dan, who used to be in the group and was bent on helping the FBI build a case.
"Before Dan came on board, they drank beer, smoked pot and went out back and dumped a couple mags into a tree trunk," Gibbons told the jury.
According to Gibbons, it was Dan who recorded many of the conversations in the group, who planned events and training exercises, all while getting "envelopes of cash" from the FBI for his work.
"Dan is continuing to provide access (to the suspects), but there's no crime. The Watchmen aren't breaking the law. The Watchmen are talking. They're talking political talk, militia talk. But they're not breaking the law."
Gibbons described Fox as a broke "misfit" who lived and worked in the basement of a vacuum shop, had no access to running water or a toilet, and resorted to brushing his teeth at a nearby Mexican restaurant.
"Adam Fox talks big. He draws attention to himself, he’s trying to be cool," Gibbons told jurors.
But he had no plan to kidnap Whitmer, nor did he have money to put a down payment on any bomb materials, as prosecutors have alleged, Gibbons told jurors.
"He was broke as a joke. He had no money," Gibbons said, stressing: "There was no agreement. There was no conspiracy. The verdict at the end of this case is going to be not guilty."
'Stoned crazy talk'
Defense attorney Joshua Blanchard offered the jury another perspective on the defendants.
They were potheads who made absurd comments, even about the governor, he said, and the FBI knew it.
According to Blanchard, the suspects got so high that they talked about attaching Whitmer to a kite and flying her over a lake, about barking in the woods to get her to come out of her house, or playing loud music at night to get her attention.
"The FBI knew this was stoned crazy talk," Blanchard told the jury, arguing the FBI set up the suspects with an undercover informant who also got high with them.
The FBI had many opportunities to shut down this investigation, and should have done so early on, Blanchard told jurors. But the government was determined to build a case that it knew didn't exist, he argued, alleging there were many pot-induced conversations that should have prompted the FBI to call off the investigation.
One such conversation, Blanchard said, occurred as the undercover informant taped the men talking about how they could get the governor to come out of her house. "Maybe we should go hide in the woods and go bark and the governor — she’ll know the animals were against her," they stated.
Blanchard is representing Barry Croft, a Delaware truck driver who the government says helped start the kidnapping plan in April 2020 in a conversation with Fox.
“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 allegedly said.
Fox was in, Roth, the assistant U.S. attorney, said.
“They began plotting to kidnap the governor of Michigan,” Roth said. “(Fox) said the whole point is ‘we’re sending a message to them that if we can get her, we can get you.’ ”
According to Blanchard, Croft came under investigation by the FBI in 2017, when it noticed that Croft was criticizing the FBI on Facebook. Croft believed the FBI had one of his friends killed, his lawyer said. He was investigated as a result, but nothing came of it.
Then came the 2020 FBI investigation of the Wolverine Watchmen, the militia group at the center of this case. Prosecutors say Croft joined this group and planned to kidnap the governor, though his lawyer says there was no such plan.
Blanchard alleges the government targeted his client specifically for criticizing Whitmer on Facebook.
"The FBI is supposed to protect us. They're expected to have thick skin. They don't punish people for saying mean things about them," Blanchard argued to the jury, repeatedly stressing: "There was no plan. There was no agreement. And there was no kidnapping."
The defense argues this case is all about entrapment, telling the jury that the FBI ran the whole show, used rogue undercover informants and agents to egg on the defendants and entice them to say and do things they wouldn't have otherwise.
As one defense lawyer said: "The FBI directed it all."
The government's case has been fraught with allegations about misbehaving FBI agents and undercover informants, including two who got booted from the case.
The defense told the jury that undercover informant Dan is the backbone of the case, the one who is present in all the meetings, enticing the defendants with false tales of being a war hero.
Among those who was taken in by Dan was 23-year-old Daniel Harris, a defendant in the case and former Marine who enlisted at age 17.
According to his lawyer, Julia Kelly, Harris joined the Wolverine Watchmen after growing frustrated with the state of affairs in the country. He had "watched the murder of George Floyd" and the protests that followed, she said, and was "unhappy about the direction of our country."
So he joined the Wolverine Watchmen, a group of like-minded individuals who needed training that he felt he could offer.
That's where he met Dan, the pretend war hero.
"Daniel (Harris) was immediately drawn to Dan and trusted him, even called him 'Dad,' " Kelly said. "Most of the Watchmen looked to Dan as the leader."
Kelly said that while in the group, Harris "made many inappropriate and immature comments," like quoting from "South Park" and talking about drinking and girls.
"He was not perfect in the summer of 2020," Kelly said. "But he has not done what the government has accused him of."
Defense attorney Mike Hills, who is representing Brandon Caserta, made similar arguments, saying his client was upset about the pandemic and the shutdowns, and worried the "fabric of the country" was being torn apart.
"My client was concerned about society and what was going on," Hills said.
But Caserta never planned to kidnap the governor, nor agreed to be part of any such plan, he said.
The government adamantly denied the defense's entrapment claims, arguing no one was trapped into doing or saying anything.
"They chose this plan. They chose this crime — because they wanted it," countered Roth, who argued several other Wolverine Watchmen left the militia because they were upset with the group.
Roth told jurors that giving someone a ride to an event is not entrapment, nor is it entrapment if a defendant is willing to commit the crime. He also noted that Croft has a tattoo that shows his commitment to a "second civil war," and argued that no one forced him or the others to do anything.
"These defendants were willing and eager, if not already preparing, to commit this crime long before law enforcement got involved," Roth said.
'This is all parlor tricks'
According to the government, the Whitmer kidnap plot was conceived in April 2020, just as COVID-19 was taking over the country and world, and the militia members were stewing. The suspects plotted over the next six months in secret chat rooms, meetings and military training sessions, which included building a house that looked like Whitmer’s and practicing shooting human silhouettes around it, prosecutors said.
Roth said the suspects were followers of the so-called Boogaloo movement who wanted to target politicians because they felt the “country is broken … and in their own words, create a war zone in Michigan.”
In pushing the Boogaloo narrative, prosecutors showed the jury a photo of Fox carrying a rifle on the lawn of the state Capitol in 2020, wearing a floral Hawaiian shirt, which is common Boogaloo attire.
The photo drew a sharp rebuke from Fox’s lawyer.
“This is all parlor tricks,” Gibbons said, arguing his client was merely a big talker who was upset about the pandemic.
“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.”
The government painted a different picture of Fox, describing him as a violent and angry militia member who feared losing his gun rights, and hated the governor so much that he wanted to hurt her and kill anyone who got in his way.
The prosecution showed jurors a Facebook video in which Fox talks about the state taking away firearms, and asks, "Who else is ready for the boogaloo?" which the FBI says means second civil war. Fox talks about firing the first shot, says he's "fed up" and that it’s the only way "we take back our country right here, by brute f----- force, physical violence." He adds he's prepared for it and it's going to "pop off" in 2020.
The trial resumes Thursday morning in U.S. District Court in Grand Rapids with an FBI agent taking the stand.
Contact Tresa Baldas: email@example.com
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Whitmer kidnap trial opens with wild conflicting tales