GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) — A prosecutor urged jurors Friday to convict four men in a plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, saying they were anti-government extremists “filled with rage” and intent on touching off a civil war in the final weeks of the polarizing 2020 general election.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Nils Kessler summed up the evidence on the 15th day of trial, tracing the group's secretly recorded words as well as testimony from agents, an extraordinary informant and two star witnesses who pleaded guilty.
Defense attorneys, meanwhile, panned the government's case: One said the men were turned into "terrorists” by rogue investigators, while another pleaded with jurors to put the brakes on the FBI.
After listening to hours of closing arguments, the weary jury said its deliberations would start Monday.
Kessler began his final remarks by saying there are boundaries when it comes to scorn for people in power.
“If you don't like your elected representatives, you can vote them out at the ballot box. That's what makes this country great," Kessler told the jury. “What we can't do is kidnap them, kill them or blow them up. That's also what makes America great.”
Adam Fox, Barry Croft Jr., Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta are charged with conspiracy to kidnap. Three of them also face charges related to weapons.
The men were arrested in October 2020 amid talk of raising $4,000 for an explosive that could blow up a bridge and stymie police responding to a kidnapping, according to trial evidence. Fox twice traveled to northern Michigan to scout the area; one of those trips included Croft and undercover agents.
Kessler said the group's motive was to spark the “boogaloo,” a reference to a U.S. civil war, by kidnapping Whitmer.
“That's what bound these defendants together. ... They were filled with rage,” the prosecutor said. “They were paranoid because they knew what they were doing was illegal and were afraid of getting caught.”
The four men deny any scheme to abduct Whitmer from her vacation home, though they clearly were livid with the government and with restrictions imposed by the governor during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ty Garbin, who pleaded guilty and testified against the men, said the goal was to get Whitmer before the election and create enough chaos to stop Joe Biden from winning the presidency.
Kessler took the jury back to events in summer and fall 2020: a national meeting of militias in Ohio, training in Wisconsin and Michigan, and a September night excursion to see the governor’s property on Birch Lake and inspect the bridge.
The men had constructed a crude “shoot house” in Luther, Michigan, to replicate Whitmer’s home and practiced going in and out with guns, according to evidence.
The investigation began when Army veteran Dan Chappel joined a militia, the Wolverine Watchmen, to maintain his firearm skills. Chappel testified that he was alarmed when he started hearing talk about attacking police and agreed to become an FBI informant.
“Thank God for Dan Chappel. ... He went back at great personal risk,” Kessler told the jury.
But jurors got a different view from the defense. Fox's attorney, Christopher Gibbons, hammered away at Chappel, who was paid roughly $50,000 by the FBI, including expenses, and talked to Fox almost daily for months, recording their conversations.
Gibbons said Fox was a hapless man living in the basement of a Grand Rapids-area vacuum shop, smoking marijuana whenever possible — and totally incapable of leading the wild plot.
“The plan was utter nonsense. It wasn't real to Adam Fox. He was LARPing,” Gibbons said, using an acronym for live action role playing. “Adam Fox is usually impaired. He’s just playing his game. ... A person cannot accidentally enter into a conspiracy.”
He accused the government of “radicalization.”
"Inviting citizens that they think are susceptible to a theater where they are given full senses of who and what they are, and somebody rattles the chains, somebody beats the drum and gets them all worked up," Gibbons said.
“That's unacceptable in America," he said. “That's not how it works. They don't make terrorists so we can arrest them.”
Croft, a trucker from Bear, Delaware, vented on social media about hanging governors for treason, and he was repeatedly recorded talking about violence and explosives. Prosecutors noted that he made four trips by car to the Midwest.
His attorney, however, called it “crazy talk” from a “stoned pirate,” referring to marijuana and Croft's three-cornered hat, not a plan to attack Whitmer.
“I am ashamed of the behavior of the leading law enforcement agency in the United States. ... This investigation was an embarrassment," Joshua Blanchard told the jury.
Lawyers for Harris and Caserta emphasized that neither man went to Elk Rapids with Croft and Fox to surveil Whitmer's home during the training weekend in Luther.
Julia Kelly said Garbin and Kaleb Franks, who both testified against the group, are “liars,” though they pleaded guilty and are facing prison.
The defense used a big screen to complement closing remarks. Some jurors smiled when attorney Michael Hills showed a cartoon bobblehead dog to highlight that Caserta supposedly nodded in agreement to the kidnapping plan but wasn't recorded as saying he was in.
Whitmer, a Democrat, rarely talks publicly about the plot, though she referred to “surprises” during her term that seemed like “something out of fiction” when she filed for reelection on March 17.
She has blamed former President Donald Trump for fomenting anger over coronavirus restrictions and refusing to condemn right-wing extremists like those charged in the case. Whitmer has said Trump was complicit in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
Find AP’s full coverage of the Whitmer kidnap plot trial at: https://apnews.com/hub/whitmer-kidnap-plot-trial
White reported from Detroit.