A federal grand jury has returned an indictment against six men accused of plotting to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, in part because they were allegedly furious at business closures ordered to protect against the spread of the coronavirus.
The indictment, handed down in the Western District of Michigan late Wednesday, had been expected since the case made national news after the men were arrested on Oct. 7 and a criminal complaint against them was unsealed the next day. It contains just one count, for kidnapping conspiracy, which could carry a life sentence upon conviction, but also provides new details about the alleged plotters, including that they allegedly exchanged a message about killing police on the day they were arrested.
In a press release, the US Attorney's office for the Western District of Michigan said the investigation, which was conducted with the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force and the Michigan State Police, "is ongoing."
Five of the defendants — Daniel Harris, Adam Fox, Brandon Caserta, Ty Garbin, and Kaleb Franks — entered not guilty pleas at an arraignment Thursday morning. A sixth defendant, Barry Croft, who is from Delaware and was arrested in New Jersey, has not yet made an appearance in Michigan in the case.
Parker Douglas, attorney for Harris, said "the government is extremely vague regarding the alleged conspiracy's nature, the alleged consipracy's object and any steps my client allegedly took to agree with the conspiracy. This is because there was no actual conspiracy to kidnap Governor Whitmer."
Attorneys for the other defendants did not respond to requests for comment.
The arrests, coming less than a month before the presidential election, spurred fears that a wave of violent acts against political figures could be in the offing due to the stark descriptions of the violence the men allegedly had planned and spoke about in wiretapped conversations. Just days later, the lead FBI agent in the case testified that some of the men had also discussed kidnapping the governor of Virginia, and search warrant affidavits later showed that one defendant had also allegedly discussed violent acts against the governors of North and South Carolina.
According to prosecutors, the men, led by Fox and Croft, met multiple times in at least three different states between June and October to train for violent acts against law enforcement and public officials, ultimately focusing their energies on Whitmer, a Democrat. In August and September, they twice surveilled the governor’s vacation home and concocted a plan to blow up a bridge near her house to “hinder a law enforcement response,” according to the indictment.
Unbeknownst to the men, FBI informants had infiltrated the group, collecting screenshots of their text messages and secretly making audio and video recordings of phone conversations and gatherings. Several of the men were arrested while attempting to purchase explosives from an undercover agent outside a warehouse in Ypsilanti.
In hearings and briefings filed since the arrests, prosecutors have said they have forwarded evidence collected in the case to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives for further review. That raises the possibility of additional charges for potentially violating federal firearms and explosives laws, which could come in subsequent indictments.
Eight other men were charged in October by the Michigan attorney general for providing material support to Fox and the other conspirators, although they did not engage in surveillance of Whitmer’s home and several seemed to express doubts about the plan. Those men are currently awaiting trial in state court and in recent weeks several have been permitted to post bail.
Meanwhile, the federal defendants remain in detention. Requests by several for bond have been denied by the court. The fact that all six men charged in October were indicted this week strongly suggests that none of them have agreed to flip and provide evidence in the case.
According to prosecutors, several of them were members of an organized extremist group called the Wolverine Watchmen that had been under FBI investigation since early March. In June, they were recruited by Fox while attending a rally in Lansing, and subsequently began holding training exercises throughout the state and also in Ohio and Wisconsin.
Although they had at one point contemplated raiding the state Capitol, barricading the doors, and executing every member of the state legislature on live television, they ultimately narrowed their plot to kidnapping Whitmer and either transporting her to Wisconsin to put her on trial or to simply shoot her in the head outside her home.
Though the broad outlines of the government’s allegations against the men have already been made public by the prosecution, the indictment contains a few new allegations.
Among them: that Croft used “human silhouette targets” to assess the effectiveness of homemade bombs he detonated in rural Michigan in mid-September, and that prior to their arrests on Oct. 7, Caserta sent an encrypted video message to the rest of the group saying that “if they encountered police during a reconnaissance, they should give the officers one opportunity to leave, and kill them if they did not comply.”
When FBI agents swooped in to arrest the men later that day, however, no shots were fired.