'They're amateurs': Feds say scheme to abduct Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was risky, organized poorly
DETROIT – Only that they weren't effective indicates they weren't risky.
That's what the prosecutors argued in court Friday in persuading a judge to order six men to face trial on allegations they tried for months to abduct Gov. Gretchen Whitmer because they were upset at her lockout.
"Was it a good plan?" U.S. Attorney's assistant Nils Kessler argued in court Friday, adding: "It doesn't look like they've discussed it much."
And it's costing them, he added.
"These people get trapped because they're amateurs," Kessler said, adding that "it doesn't mean it wasn't risky just because the scheme failed."
The United States Magistrate Judge Sally Berens agreed that the government was likely to charge the six defendants with conspiracy to kidnap, despite objections by defense lawyers who called the kidnap claims "outlandish" and "absurd."
Berens has rejected four defendants this week. The alleged ringleader, Adam Fox, consented to incarceration, which means he decided to stay locked up awaiting a case resolution. A sixth suspect was denied bail in Delaware and awaits extradition to Michigan.
All face jail life if sentenced.
13 Oct.:FBI claims Virginia Gov. Northam was also plotted to abduct Michigan Gov. Whitmer
Defense lawyers protested consistently in court this week that there was no concrete plot to abduct Whitmer, but only disgruntled firearms enthusiasts talking tough one another. They scoffed at claims that the group's ringleader tried to take Whitmer out on a cruise, leaving her trapped in Lake Michigan.
They also balked at another suggestion that the party was attempting to abduct Whitmer and drive her to Wisconsin for treason.
Who'd take her to Wisconsin? Where'd she be tried? Defense lawyers asked, implying no concrete scheme, only puffery.
"Really? Was there really a contract here, or is it just loose talk?" said defense attorney Scott Graham, saying "common sense" implies "loose talk."
"It's incredible," Graham said. "Is the agreement to cast her into a lake? ... That's how ludicrous it's."
However, after two days of testimony, Berens believed there was ample evidence to support the abduction allegation plot, noting, among other items, Whitmer's midnight vacation home surveillance.
The five members ordered to stand trial for a kidnapping plot are:
- Adam "Alpha F—- Fox, 37, Potterville
- Ty Garbin, 25, of Hartland
- Kaleb Franks, 26, "Red Sweet"
- Daniel Harris, 23, "Beaker"
- Brandon Caserta, 32, "Debased Dictator"
Barry Croft, 44, from Bear, Delaware, was also refused this week's bail, facing extradition to Michigan to face the conspiracy charge.
A credible threat or talk?
Defense attorneys sought to persuade the judge that their clients deserved to be out on bail for two days, arguing that the defendants were legitimate gun owners who performed drills, potlucks and even liked playing paintball.
However, the FBI had watched the party for months and embedded paying spies and undercover agents in the party who monitored communications and monitored some events that contributed to criminal charges.
Attorney Mark Satawa, defending Garbin, argued that his client is a decent family hard worker and has no criminal background. He urged the judge to free his client on bail and let him remain with his parents for additional protection. He argued that Garbin has "no criminal background," has a decent job as an airline mechanic earning $28 an hour, and that his father, an army veteran, should keep an eye on him.
"In those cases, there's nothing my client might do to endanger the environment," Satawa claimed. "Lock Mr. Garbin, but at home."
Kessler objected, arguing that Garbin took part in a risky attempt to abduct the governor and was more than a "bystander." Kessler told the prosecutor that Garbin was involved in the plot in many ways, including:
- He cast the Governor's holiday home at night.
- He wrote about blowing a bridge to slow down officers.
- He offered to paint his "night fishing" boat as part of the lake abduction mission.
- He had weapons producing capacity.
All this, Kessler claimed, explained keeping Garbin locked up, stressing that neither his parents nor mobile devices could guarantee public safety.
"He should go," Kessler claimed. "We'dn't know where he was."
According to an FBI affidavit, the alleged ringleader, Fox called Whitmer a "tyrant b——-itch" with "no checks and balances" to be taken down. According to court testimonies, Fox stayed in a Grand Rapids-area vacuum shop with his two companions.
The FBI claims Fox was a member of the Michigan Home Guard militia party, but for unexplained reasons, FBI agent Richard Trask testified this week. He then got affiliated with Wolverine Watchmen party members, but it's not obvious he's ever been a part of the group, Trask told the court.
Fox was also affiliated with a party called Michigan Patriot 3 percent and was testified on a Facebook page as its representative or president. The agent testified that he was unaware of Fox 's links to a party known as "bugaloo," a far-right anti-government organization.
An affidavit filed Thursday in a separate lawsuit involving eight state defendants said Fox was a "Michigan III percent ers" representative who said the affidavit was interested in organizing "various acts of terror," including kidnapping lawmakers and storming Capitol State in Lansing.
The FBI describes Fox in legal records as a rogue paramilitary chief who pursued like-minded people on social media to launch a civil war against government authorities he claimed were overreaching. He was extremely furious at Whitmer's lockout order, court documents, and feared gun rights were at risk.
Fox 's family denied comment.
Defense: Case only begins
Following court hearings on Friday, suspect attorneys appeared to cast doubt on whether it was a serious proposal or simply an idea that was thrown around.
"We heard them explain many things, from a talk at the Capitol, protest at the Capitol, probably abduction, to other things they intended to do but never did," said Douglas Parker, Daniel Harris' counsel, in an interview after his client's morning appearance in federal court.
"And it raised questions for me. I don't know all the messages that went through between members. I don't know how many plans they had to do stuff that they never went through with, because that's one thing we (the defense attorneys) were all pulling out was, there's a lot of talk — is there more to it?"
Parker said his client, Harris, did not attend Whitmer 's holiday home nighttime surveillance. Prosecutors have used the surveillance trip as evidence that the plot was something more than "big talk."
"We're too early on," Parker said. "All I want people to know is that we are really in the early part of this investigation. We don't yet have all the facts that the prosecution does, but all I'd suggest is keep an open mind, because before a jury decides otherwise, these people are as innocent as you and I."
Satawa, Garbin's Southfield-based counsel, echoed Parker during Friday's hearing interviews. Satawa indicated free expression and assembly would be crucial defense policy concerns.
"People buy lots of weapons. If I sit here and say, 'We must take down Trump,' relating to the Nov. 3 election, am I committing a crime just because I own guns? Or takes more than that?
"We think our client will be vindicated in this case until the whole tale is told, but that must happen in the courtroom," Satawa said, "and not out here and in the media."
Find Tresa on Twitter: @Tbaldas. Contributing: Eric and M.L. Elrick; Carolyn Muyskens, Holland Sentinel.