DETROIT – The historic Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer kidnap plot trial ended with no convictions Friday, delivering a blow to the government as it failed to convince a jury that four men were domestic terrorists determined to harm the governor because of her COVID-19 restrictions.
The jury acquitted Daniel Harris on all four counts, and Brandon Caserta was acquitted on the one count of kidnapping conspiracy — so both men are free to go.
The jury deadlocked on charges against Adam Fox and Barry Croft, so a mistrial was declared for those defendants.
The U.S. Attorneys office in Grand Rapids said it will retry the men, and that it is “obviously” disappointed in the outcome of the case.
In a statement released after the verdicts, Whitmer expressed concern that the outcome of the case may encourage future extremists.
“The plot to kidnap and kill a governor may seem like an anomaly. But we must be honest about what it really is: the result of violent, divisive rhetoric that is all too common across our country,” Whitmer stated. “There must be accountability and consequences for those who commit heinous crimes. Without accountability, extremists will be emboldened.”
This decision came down after the jury twice announced it had deadlocked.
‘FILLED WITH RAGE’ OR ‘CRAZY TALK’?:Jury gets case of 4 men charged in Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer kidnap plot
In a case that highlighted the growth of violent extremism in the U.S., the jury spent three weeks listening to testimony about how four like-minded men bonded over social media, vented about the government controlling their lives, and then came together through a group called the Wolverine Watchmen — a self-proclaimed Michigan militia that wanted to spark a second Civil War and use the Whitmer kidnaping as a starting point.
To carry out the kidnap plan, witnesses testified, the group also plotted to blow up a bridge near Whitmer’s vacation house to slow down law enforcement and experimented with explosives to make that happen — an allegation that triggered the weapons of mass destruction charges that carry a life in prison sentence.
The plot, though, was foiled on Oct. 7, 2020 in an FBI sting outside a warehouse in Ypsilanti, a Michigan city just east of Ann Arbor. An undercover informant had driven the suspects to the warehouse, tricking them into thinking they were going there to make a down payment on explosives, pick up some military gear and then head to Buffalo Wild Wings for beer and chicken.
Instead, FBI agents were there waiting with handcuffs.
The defendants spent 18 months jailed as they waited for their case to go to trial. They maintained they were victims of entrapment and the FBI came up with the kidnap idea and pressured them into saying and doing things they wouldn’t have otherwise.
“What the FBI did was unconscionable,” Caserta’s lawyer, Michael Hills, said outside the courthouse. He has long argued that his client and the others were entrapped by rogue FBI informants and agents, including one who ran a cybersecurity company while investigating the case.
“To me, this was a signal,” Hills said of the verdict. “A rogue FBI agent trying to line his own pockets with his own cybersecurity company, pushing a conspiracy that just never was, never was going to be. Our governor was never in any danger. And I think the jury – they didn’t get all of it — but they smelled enough of it.”
According to trial testimony, the suspects spent months discussing different ways they could attack the government for, as they saw it, infringing on their freedoms. There was also talk about storming the state capitol. But the suspects didn’t think that was doable, so they decided to kidnap the governor instead, according to trial testimony by undercover FBI agents and informants.
The alleged kidnap plan involved snatching Whitmer from her cottage, driving her to the shoreline of Lake Michigan, putting her in a boat, and either leaving her stranded in the lake or transporting her to Wisconsin to hang her.
The defense argued that was all fantasy talk carried out by men who were stoned most of the time, and that they had no real plan or ever intended to kidnap Whitmer — that it was all tough talk by men blowing off steam.
The defense also argued that the FBI ran the whole show and masterminded the entire kidnap plot to advance their own careers.
The prosecution disagreed, arguing there was no evidence at trial that any informant or agent devised the kidnap plot or encouraged anyone to kidnap the governor.
The suspects did a lot more than talk, prosecutors said, arguing the defendants took numerous steps to make this happen, including: casing the governor’s vacation house twice, drawing a map of the area, buying $3,800 binoculars, building a model of her cottage to practice extracting a person, communicating on encrypted chats to conceal their activities and practicing using explosives to carry out their plan. According to multiple witnesses, the suspects practiced building and detonating explosive devices to help carry out their kidnap plan.
One defendant admitted to blowing up balloons filled with BB’s in a stove, though played it off as a benign experiment. The prosecution disagreed and said people could have died or been injured, including the suspect’s 12-year-old daughter, who was at that militia group training exercise that day.
The witness who helped crack the case was a former Wolverine Watchmen who told jurors he quit the group after hearing the men talking about killing police. The witness said he told his cop friend about it and then got a call from the FBI asking him if he would go undercover. He agreed, and became known to the group as Big Dan.
The defense argued that Big Dan was the backbone of the government’s case and the true leader of the kidnap plot, maintaining he incited the suspects, organized most of the meetings and trainings, and ran the whole show.
It was Big Dan, the defense noted, who drove the suspects to a warehouse in Ypsilanti, tricking them into thinking they were going for beers and wings but got them arrested instead.
Two of those men who were arrested in the sting were co-defendants Ty Garbin and Kaleb Franks. Both men cut deals in the case, pleaded guilty and testified against the others at trial, telling the jury they were willing participants in the kidnap plot, and so were their cohorts. No one entrapped them, they said, or their co-defendants.
Only one of the defendants took the stand in his own defense at trial: Daniel Harris, who got combative with the prosecutor. Harris denied being part of any plot to kidnap the governor, telling the jury that Big Dan was the real leader of the whole thing.
Two of the four defendants put on no defense at all but let the jury decide the case based on what the government presented.
Multiple undercover FBI agents and informants who had infiltrated the group also testified at trial and corroborated many of the recorded statements that were played for the jury.
The defendants are Adam Fox, 38, of Potterville; Daniel Harris, 24, of Lake Orion; Brandon Caserta, 33, of Canton and Barry Croft, 46, of Delaware. All are charged with kidnapping conspiracy, and three are charged with weapons of mass destruction.
Croft and Harris were also charged with possession of an unregistered destructive device, and Harris was charged with possession of an illegal short-barrel rifle.