GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Federal prosecutors on Tuesday revealed new and sometimes shocking details of the case they have built against six men accused of plotting to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
Defense attorneys began their efforts to shoot holes in the government’s story, suggesting through questions they directed at an FBI agent that some of the plotting was just talk and that there was no specific kidnapping plan, just a range of ideas being tossed around.
Five of the six defendants sat with chains around their waists and wrists, sometimes nodding to family members or friends in the courtroom in the Grand Rapids federal building, as assistant U.S. Attorney Nils Kessler showed photos and videos and drew testimony from an FBI special agent.
The sixth federal defendant is still in Delaware, where he was arrested. All six are charged with conspiracy to kidnap and have been held in custody since their Oct. 7 arrests.
Seven other defendants face state charges brought by Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, including supporting terrorism, gang membership, and possessing a firearm in commission of a felony.
Among the details to emerge Tuesday in testimony from FBI Special Agent Richard Trask, who counts domestic terrorism among this areas of specialty:
► Accused ringleader revealed more intentions: Adam Fox, 37, an accused ringleader who lived in the basement of a vacuum shop near Grand Rapids, told FBI agents after his arrest that he planned to take Whitmer out to the middle of Lake Michigan in a small boat, disable the engine, and leave her there.
Under the ‘trap door’ of a vacuum shop: Where kidnap plot unfolded
► Virginia governor named: In early discussions, before the alleged conspirators focused more exclusively on Whitmer, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, who like Whitmer is a Democrat, was mentioned as a possible kidnap target.
Like Whitmer, Northam was discussed as a possible target because of “lockdowns” he ordered to combat the coronavirus pandemic, Trask testified.
FBI:Virginia Gov. Northam was also targeted in plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Whitmer
► Surveillance of cottage: Fox and others took close-up still photos and videos outside Whitmer’s northern Michigan cottage as part of the planning for a plot to kidnap her from there prior to the Nov. 3 election. Prosecutors showed in the courtroom photos of Fox shooting the photos just outside the cottage, in daylight. The photos were taken by a confidential informant, Kessler told the court.
By the time the defendants conducted a second surveillance outside the cottage — this time at night — they had been so thoroughly infiltrated by the FBI that two undercover FBI agents and two confidential informants were part of the surveillance group.
► A ‘pizza guy’ disguise: During another plotting exercise, sending a fake delivery person to Whitmer’s door to shoot her was discussed, according to Trask and exhibits shown in court. Defendant Daniel Harris, a 23-year-old former Marine from Lake Orion, Michigan, suggested the conspirators could “just mug the pizza guy and take his shir(t),” adding: “Just take a pistol and like 3 rounds.”
Kessler said the comments were reminiscent of a recent attack on a federal judge in New Jersey in which the shooter, who killed the judge’s son and wounded her husband but left the judge unharmed, was disguised as a FedEx delivery person.
► Training regiment: Defendants took part in training exercises that included use of silencers on guns, exercises in busting down a door and extracting a hostage, and reloading weapons quickly, according to photos, videos and testimony introduced as evidence Tuesday.
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Two defendants request more time before hearing
Both preliminary examinations and detention hearings were planned for Tuesday.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Sally Berens said that two of the defendants — Fox and Ty Garbin, 24, of Hartland Township, want more time to prepare for their preliminary examinations and detention hearings. Hearings for Fox and Garbin will likely be completed at a later date, most likely on a Friday, she said.
Awaiting detention hearings Tuesday were: Kaleb Franks, 26, of Wexford; Daniel Harris, 23, of Lake Orion; and Brandon Caserta, 32, of Canton Township.
Security at the federal courthouse appeared stepped-up but not extreme. A dog trained to detect explosives was led through the courtroom by federal agents in advance of the hearing.
Four of the five defendants wore protective masks throughout most of Tuesday’s hearing. Fox did not.
No bond expected, experts say
Though presumed innocent until proven guilty, six defendants charged with plotting to kidnap Gov. Whitmer are likely to remain locked up pending the outcomes of their cases, legal experts say.
The charges are just too serious, they argue. And with the men facing potential life sentences, legal experts say, the suspects can’t be trusted not to flee – or worse, become violent.
“Courts will consider a number of factors, but in this case, the nature of the charges, the weight of the evidence and the potential life sentences seem to make this a very strong case for detention,” former U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade said on the eve of detention hearings for six suspects facing federal charges.
How the plot was foiled:How the FBI spent months tracking the plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer
The suspects are among 13 men arrested last week on charges they plotted a revolt against the government that the FBI says included kidnapping the governor, blowing up cop cars and storming the state Capitol in Lansing. The alleged plan was thwarted with the help of social media, confidential informants and undercover FBI agents who embedded themselves in the group and tracked the group’s steps.
During those surveillance missions, the FBI has alleged, the suspects plotted out their course of action and discussed a plan to blow up a nearby bridge to prevent the police from getting to Whitmer’s home during the kidnapping.
Separately, seven men were charged in state court with related terrorism and gun crimes.
The FBI has described the accused as militia members who met online, held meetings and training exercises in rural areas of Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin, and have a strong mistrust and hate of government, especially Whitmer and her emergency orders during the pandemic.
“Based on my experience in previous cases, they’re not going to get bond,” criminal defense attorney Bill Sworsaid. “The charges are quite serious, and the government will urge the court to find that they are a danger to the community.”
What goes into bond being granted?
Among the factors that judges consider when deciding whether to grant bond are:
- The seriousness of the charges.
- The safety of the community – are the defendants a threat to the public?
- Are they a flight risk? In other words, are the charges so serious that they may flee, or do they have a history of violating bond or missing court appearances?
- Are there any reasonable measures that can be taken to assure that they won’t be a flight risk? Such as, can a tether be used, or are their family members who can be trusted to keep an eye on them?
The Michigan defendants facing federal charges are: Adam Fox, 37; Ty Garbin, 24; Kaleb Franks, 26; Brandon Caserta, 32; and Daniel Harris, 23.
Barry Croft Jr., 44, of Bear, Delaware – who was pardoned by Delaware Gov. John Carney last year, according to public documents – is being extradited to Michigan.
Six others – who state officials said are members of a paramilitary group, Wolverine Watchmen – were arraigned Friday on terrorism charges, with the seventh awaiting extradition to Michigan.
They are: Shawn Fix, 38; Eric Molitor, 36; Pete Musico, 42; Joseph Morrison, 26; Michael Null, 38; and William Null, 38.
Paul Bellar, 21, is the seventh and youngest of all the men charged. He was arrested in South Carolina and is being extradited to Michigan.
Musico and Morrison are scheduled for a probable cause conference on Oct. 16 and a preliminary hearing on Oct. 21.
Michael Null, William Null, Molitor and Fix are scheduled for a probable cause conference in Antrim County on Oct. 21, with preliminary exams Oct. 28.
Contributing: Frank Witsil, Detroit Free Press; Carolyn Muyskens and Arpan Lobo, Holland Sentinel
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