The first prison sentence in the alleged plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was handed down Wednesday afternoon when US District Court Judge Robert Jonker sentenced Ty Garbin to six years and three months for his role in one of the biggest domestic terrorism cases in a generation.
Garbin, a 25-year-old airplane mechanic, was arrested along with more than a dozen others early last October and charged with hatching a plan to kidnap Whitmer from her vacation home in upstate Michigan. Within two months, Garbin began cooperating with the prosecution, providing key information and testifying before the grand jury. He pleaded guilty to kidnapping conspiracy in January, making him the only defendant in the case to flip so far.
Speaking in Grand Rapids federal court, Assistant US Attorney Nils Kessler said it was “hard to overstate how significant” Garbin’s assistance had been, and asked for a sentence of nine years, well below the sentencing guidelines for the crime. Garbin helped fill in gaps with conversations that confidential informants or undercover agents were not able to record, he said. Garbin is expected to provide testimony during trial that will establish that the remaining defendants were not engaged in mere talk, but were serious about their plans.
“Having someone say ‘this wasn’t just big talk, we really intended to do it’ is a big thing,” Kessler said.
Many of the remaining defendants in the case have said they intend to raise an entrapment defense, claiming that there was no true conspiracy and that their activities were protected by the First Amendment. Garbin, whom both the prosecution and defense called a “star witness” in court today, is expected to help the Justice Department push back on those claims.
Garbin’s grand jury testimony had already helped prosecutors file additional charges, including conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction, against three of the alleged plotters in April.
Still, Kessler requested a sentence of nine years, in part, he emphasized, as a deterrent to others who may be tempted to engage in extremist violence. “There are going to be people on the bubble for whom this case may make a difference,” Kessler said.
Garbin’s defense attorneys, meanwhile, had asked for just six years, pointing to their cient's clean prior record and a childhood history of abuse that they said made him “psychologically disposed” to joining the Wolverine Watchmen, the armed extremist group at the heart of the criminal probe.
“He is truly, genuinely, and seriously sorry for what he did,” said Mark Satawa, one of two attorneys who spoke on Garbin’s behalf. Like the prosecution, he pointed to his client’s extensive cooperation, and the potential personal risk it entailed, as grounds for a shorter prison sentence. Under federal guidelines, Garbin could have faced nearly 18 years behind bars.
To date, none of the 13 remaining defendants — five in federal court and eight in Michigan state court — have taken plea agreements. Attorneys for those defendants have said they would be closely watching today's sentencing, but Kessler said today that he didn’t “think it's realistic that all of them are going to plead.”
A trial for the federal defendants, several of whom also face a charge of conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction as well as kidnapping conspiracy, is set for Oct. 12. No trial dates have been set in the two Michigan state cases, which are pending in Jackson and Antrim counties.
Jonker, in considering his decision, cited a victim impact statement filed to the court by Whitmer. Although she noted that “violence has no place in our politics,” she also indicated there was "room for grace and rehabilitation for those who recognize the anger that has gripped them."
In addition to the prison term, Jonker imposed three years of supervision following Garbin’s release, plus a fine of $2,500. The judge did not object to a request from Garbin’s attorneys that he be remanded to a prison near his family.
Given a chance to address the court, Garbin said he wanted to “apologize to Gretchen Whitmer and her family,” adding, “I can’t imagine the amount of stress and fear her family members felt as a result of my actions, and for that I’m truly sorry.”