'They're amateurs': Feds say plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was dangerous, poorly planned

Tresa Baldas, Detroit Free Press
·6 mins read
From left, defendant Brandon Caserta, his lawyer Michael Darragh Hills, along with defendants Adam Fox, center, and Ty Garbin attend a hearing at the Gerald R. Ford Federal Building in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Oct. 16.
From left, defendant Brandon Caserta, his lawyer Michael Darragh Hills, along with defendants Adam Fox, center, and Ty Garbin attend a hearing at the Gerald R. Ford Federal Building in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Oct. 16.

DETROIT – They weren't successful, but that doesn't mean they weren't dangerous.

That's what the prosecution argued in convincing a judge to order six men to stand trial on charges they plotted for months to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer because they were angry over her lockdown order.

"Was it a good plan?" Assistant U.S. Attorney Nils Kessler argued in court Friday. "It doesn't look like they discussed it much."

And it cost them, he said.

"These people got caught because they're amateurs," Kessler said.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Sally Berens concluded the government had probable cause to charge the six defendants with conspiracy to kidnap, despite objections by defense lawyers who called the claims "outlandish" and "absurd."

Berens denied bond to four defendants this week. The accused ringleader, Adam Fox, consented to detention, agreeing to remain locked up pending the outcome of his case. A sixth suspect was denied bond in Delaware and awaits extradition to Michigan.

All could face up to life in prison if convicted.

Watch: Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer wants men who sought kidnapping to be brought to justice

Oct. 13: FBI says Virginia Gov. Northam was also targeted in plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Whitmer

Defense attorneys argued in court this week that there was no real plan to kidnap Whitmer, just angry gun enthusiasts talking tough. They scoffed at allegations that the ringleader in the group wanted to take Whitmer out on a boat and leave her stranded in Lake Michigan.

They balked at another claim that the group wanted to drive her to Wisconsin and try her for treason.

"Really? Was there really an agreement here, or is it just loose talk?" defense attorney Scott Graham said, claiming "common sense" suggests it was "loose talk."

"It's so outlandish," Graham said. "Was the agreement to cast her in a lake? ... That's how absurd it all is."

After two days of testimony, Berens concluded there was sufficient evidence to support the conspiracy to kidnap charge, citing, among other things, the surveillance of Whitmer's vacation home in the middle of the night.

The five members ordered to stand trial are:

  • Adam Fox, 37.

  • Ty Garbin, 25.

  • Kaleb Franks, 26.

  • Daniel Harris, 23.

  • Brandon Caserta, 32.

Barry Croft, 44, of Bear, Delaware, was denied bond this week and awaits extradition to face the conspiracy charge.

A credible threat or just talk?

Defense lawyers tried for two days to convince the judge that their clients deserved to be free on bond, arguing that the suspects are lawful gun owners who held training exercises, potlucks and enjoyed playing paintball.

The FBI watched the group for months and embedded paid informants and undercover agents who recorded conversations and videotaped activities that led to criminal charges.

Attorney Mark Satawa, who represents Garbin, asked the judge to release his client on bond and let him live with his parents, with a tether for security. He argued that Garbin has "no criminal history at all" and has a good job making $28 an hour as an airline mechanic. His father, an Army veteran, could keep an eye on him.

"There is nothing that my client could do to endanger the community under those set of circumstances," Satawa argued. "Lock Mr. Garbin up, sure. But at home."

Kessler argued Garbin was more than a "bystander" in the plot. Kessler told the judge Garbin:

  • Cased the governor's vacation home at night.

  • Texted about blowing up a bridge to slow police down.

  • Offered to paint his boat for "night fishing" as part of the kidnapping mission on the lake.

  • Had the ability to manufacture guns.

Kessler said stressed that neither Garbin's parents nor electronic devices could ensure the public's safety.

"He could leave," Kessler argued. "And we wouldn't know where he was."

According to an FBI affidavit, the accused ringleader, Fox referred to Whitmer as a "tyrant b----itch" with "no checks and balances" who needed to be taken down. Fox lived in the basement of a Grand Rapids-area vacuum store with his two dogs, according to courtroom testimony.

Fox was a member of the Michigan Home Guard group but left for unknown reasons, FBI Agent Richard Trask testified this week. He became associated with members of the Wolverine Watchmen group, but it is not clear he became a member, Trask told the court.

Fox was also associated with a group called the Michigan Patriot 3% and was listed on a Facebook page as its leader or president, Trask testified.

An affidavit filed Thursday in a related case involving eight state defendants said the group was involved in planning "various acts of violence," including kidnapping politicians and storming the state Capitol in Lansing.

In court documents, the FBI portrays Fox as a rogue militia leader who looked for like-minded individuals on social media to wage a civil war against government officials he believed were overreaching. He was especially angry about Whitmer's lockdown order, court records show, and feared gun rights were at risk.

Fox's family has declined comment.

Defense: Case is just beginning

After court appearances Friday, lawyers for the suspects continued to try to cast doubt on whether it was a serious plan or just an idea that was tossed around.

"We heard them describe several things, from a talk at the Capitol, demonstration at the Capitol, to possible kidnapping, to other things that they planned to do but never did," said Douglas Parker, attorney for Daniel Harris, in an interview after his client's morning appearance in federal court.

Attorney Parker Douglas represents Daniel Harris.
Attorney Parker Douglas represents Daniel Harris.

"So it raised questions for me," he said. "I don't know all of the messaging that went around between members. I don't know how many ideas they had to do things that they never followed through with, and that's one thing we (the defense attorneys) were all pulling out was, there's a bunch of talk – is there anything to it?"

Parker said Harris did not participate in the nighttime surveillance of Whitmer's vacation home.

"We're in such an early period," Parker said. "All I want people to know is that we're still in the early part of this case. We don't even have all the evidence that the government does, so all I'd say is keep an open mind, and until a jury says otherwise, these people are as innocent as you and I."

Satawa, a Southfield-based lawyer for Garbin, echoed Parker during interviews after the hearing Friday. Satawa suggested freedom of speech and assembly would be issues in the defense strategy.

“Lots of people own lots of guns," he said. "If I sit here and I say, ‘We’ve got to take Trump down,’ referencing the Nov. 3 election, am I committing a crime just because I own guns? Or does it take more than that?

“We believe that when the full story is told our client will be vindicated in this case, but that needs to happen in there in the courthouse," Satawa said, "and not out here and in the newspapers.”

Contributing: Eric Seals and M.L. Elrick, Detroit Free Press; Carolyn Muyskens and Arpan Lobo, Holland Sentinel

Follow Tresa Baldas on Twitter: @Tbaldas.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer kidnap plot suspects head to trial