A jury in Grand Rapids has not convicted any of the four men charged with conspiring to kidnap the sitting governor of Michigan in hopes of setting off a new civil war.
The jury in the trial of defendants Adam Fox, 38, Barry Croft Jr., 46, Daniel Harris, 24, and Daniel Caserta, 33, deliberated for five days after a trial lasting more than two weeks. The jury deadlocked on charges for Fox and Croft, the alleged ringleaders of the plot, and found Caserta and Harris not guilty.
The alleged plot to kidnap Whitmer in the fall of 2020 is one of the most remarkable domestic terror cases in recent American history. It appeared to underscore that the danger right-wing extremism poses to the functioning of American democracy extends well beyond the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
But the failure to secure convictions from a jury points to the difficulty in prosecuting such conduct in a country rife with political divisions and anti-government sentiment. The outcome is a stinging defeat for the Justice Department that Whitmer’s office warns could “embolden” extremists.
At trial, the defendants’ lawyers claimed their clients never conspired in earnest to terrorize the governor. The attorneys painted them variously as LARPers and huge stoners whose violent and revolutionary bluster was not connected to a plausible plan of action. The defendants further claimed they were entrapped by law enforcement — accusing an FBI agent and an informant of illegally pushing them toward criminal action.
Speaking to reporters at the conclusion of the trial, one of the prosecutors said simply, “We’re disappointed.”
Allegedly furious over Covid-19 restrictions put in place by Governor Whitmer, whom Fox blasted a “tyrant bitch,” the defendants were accused of devising a plot to kidnap Whitmer from her lake cottage in northern Michigan.
What would have happened to Whitmer had the plot been successful? Harris allegedly discussed a scheme to “just cap her,” while Fox allegedly advocated taking her to “a secure location in Wisconsin for ‘trial.'”
The group allegedly began plotting in early 2020 and wanted to carry out their plot in late October of that year, prior to the presidential election, in the hopes their action would inspire others. As Fox allegedly remarked, “I can see several states takin’ their fuckin’ tyrants.”
According to federal prosecutors, Fox and Croft positioned themselves as part of the “Three Percenter” militia movement, which holds that a small number of armed revolutionaries can overthrow a tyrannical government, while Harris and Caserta were were members of the “Wolverine Watchmen,” an anti-government militia, with crossover with the Boogaloo Bois movement, which seeks to spark a second Civil War.
The indictment described the men’s behavior in stark terms, insisting the “defendants engaged in domestic terrorism” and “practiced combat tactics, including assaulting motor vehicles using semiautomatic assault rifles and live ammunition.”
The plot even allegedly progressed to spying on Whitmer’s lake house. Fox, according to the indictment, “conducted a daytime surveillance of the Governor’s vacation home,” and returned with others in the dark “using two-way radios and a night-vision scope.” In preparation for their exploit, the defendants allegedly “discussed tactics for fighting the Governor’s security detail with improvised explosive devices, a projectile launcher, and other weapons.”
In addition to the kidnapping charge, Fox, Croft, and Harris were charged with “conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction.” The indictment alleged the trio plotted to use an improvised explosive device packed with shrapnel with the aim of “harming and hindering the Governor’s security detail.” Prosecutors also alleged the men wanted to blow up a bridge near Whitmer’s residence to slow the response of law enforcement. Fox and Croft allegedly “stopped to inspect the underside of a highway bridge near the vacation home for a place to mount an explosive charge,” while Fox “ordered $4,000 worth of explosives from an undercover FBI agent posing as a co-conspirator.”
Harris was found not guilty of these weapons charges. No verdict was reached for Fox or Croft.
The alleged plot was disrupted thanks to the work of an undercover agent and a militia informant who posed as a conspirator. The pair made secret audio recordings of the group’s planning sessions, including in the basement of a vacuum store, accessed through a trap door hidden under a rug. The defendants were arrested in early October 2020.
The lack of convictions comes as a surprise given that a pair of militiamen, Ty Garbin and Kaleb Franks, previously pleaded guilty to federal charges in the kidnapping plot, with Franks stating explicitly that none of the members had been coerced.
At trial, Garbin testified against his former fellow travelers, describing how he’d built a crude mockup of Whitmer’s home on his property — a “shoothouse” — so that the militants could conduct a dry run of the kidnapping operation. Garbin, who has been sentenced to 6 years in prison, also testified that that the plot to kidnap Whitmer was intended to spark the “boogaloo,” or second civil war, that could prevent the election of Joe Biden. “We wanted to be the first to kick it off,” he said.
Speaking to jurors, assistant U.S. Attorney Nils Kessler insisted that the violent language of the conspirators wasn’t “just talk.” He recalled the tapes the jurors had listened to: “You heard them … talking about kidnapping her, murdering her, blowing up bridges and people and anybody who could get in their way.”
Whitmer, who is running for a second term this year, has recently been reticent to speak of the plot against her. But in October 2020 she laid the blame at Donald Trump’s feet for encouraging homegrown militant movements. Trump had, during a presidential debate, just called on groups like the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.”
“When our leaders speak, their words matter. They carry weight,” Whitmer said. “When our leaders meet with, encourage, or fraternize with domestic terrorists, they legitimize their actions and they are complicit.”
JoAnne Hulls, Whitmer’s chief of staff, issued a statement Friday thanking prosecutors and warning that the mistrial should not stand as the final result. “The plot to kidnap and kill a governor may seem like an anomaly,” Hulls said. “But we must be honest about what it really is: the result of violent, divisive rhetoric that is all too common across our country. There must be accountability and consequences for those who commit heinous crimes,” Hulls added. “Without accountability, extremists will be emboldened.”
This is a developing story and will be updated.