When federal officials announced, on Oct. 8, 2020, that they had foiled a plot by militant extremists to kidnap Michigan’s governor, it was quickly hailed as one of the most important domestic terrorism prosecutions in a generation. They didn't mention FBI agent Jayson Chambers by name, but those who had worked the case knew that his role helping to run a central informant had been crucial.
There was, however, something about Chambers that some colleagues might not have known: 18 months earlier, he’d incorporated a private security firm and had spent much of 2019 trying to drum up business — in part by touting his FBI casework. The bureau won’t say if Chambers had gotten permission to set up his new venture, as agents would be required to do, but just five days after BuzzFeed News revealed its existence this August, federal prosecutors announced that he would not be on the list of witnesses testifying in the upcoming trial.
A continuing BuzzFeed News investigation reveals new information about how Chambers' business, along with an array of issues involving other FBI agents and informants, has bedeviled the prosecution. Those issues may well affect the course of the trial. But beyond the integrity of the case, the problems are serious and widespread enough to call into question tactics the FBI has relied on for decades — and to test the public’s trust in the bureau overall.
That situation is complicated by the fact that the case has become a political lightning rod, with right-wing commentators calling it a prime example of government overreach. Some even baselessly assert that the Michigan investigation was a test run for what they claim was a false flag operation conducted on Jan. 6.
Meanwhile, the challenges facing the prosecution mount: A second FBI agent, who had served as the case’s public face, was charged with beating his wife when they returned home from a swingers party. He was fired soon thereafter. A third agent was accused of perjury. A state prosecutor in a related case was reassigned and then retired in the face of an audit into his prior use of informants.
And an informant whose work was crucial to the investigation was indicted on a gun charge and is now under investigation for fraud. Interviews, court records, and other documents reveal repeated instances of apparent lawbreaking by Stephen Robeson, who, while working with the government, identified and recruited potential targets in multiple states and who organized many of the events where prosecutors say the alleged kidnapping plan was hatched. Robeson’s apparent crimes took place under the nose of his FBI handlers.
The reporting also uncovers significant new details about how Jayson Chambers attempted to parlay his FBI work hunting for terrorists into a private moneymaking venture. The business, called Exeintel, sought contracts in some cases worth millions of dollars to help institutions identify violent threats. A Twitter account linked to Chambers’ business appeared on at least two occasions to be privy to the workings of Chambers’ ongoing FBI investigations before they were made public and to have tweeted about the Michigan case before arrests were made.
The Justice Department declined to comment for this article, citing the ongoing criminal case. The FBI also declined to comment. Chambers did not respond to a request for comment.
Defense attorneys, who have hired private investigators to look into the background and activities of the agents and informants in the case, will likely bring out all this and more to argue that the defendants were entrapped by an overzealous and compromised investigation.
The 14 men accused of involvement in the alleged plot to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer have been charged in three separate courts. Six people — Barry Croft, Ty Garbin, Daniel Harris, Adam Fox, Brandon Caserta, and Kaleb Franks — were indicted by a federal grand jury for kidnapping conspiracy, which carries a maximum penalty of life. Garbin eventually pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against the others. Eight more people were charged in Jackson and Antrim county courts with providing material support to terrorism, in cases being prosecuted by the Michigan attorney general. Many of the men were members of an armed extremist group called the Wolverine Watchmen, and on Monday a Michigan state judge will hold a hearing on a motion filed by three of them who claim they were the victims of entrapment.
The FBI has long relied on undercover agents and confidential informants — civilians, some of them paid for their service — to infiltrate closed groups, from the Black Panthers to the Weather Underground. Officially, these agents and informants are supposed to blend in and report back, not to directly steer the group’s actions — and certainly not to push them to commit crimes the groups would not otherwise have contemplated. But over the years, this approach has prompted many questions about the line between effective casework and entrapment. This was especially so during the years after 9/11, when numerous Muslim defendants, under scrutiny for links to terrorism, said that investigations had crossed a line. Defense attorneys and civil liberty champions raised concerns, but in general the public did not object.
Chambers worked on several such cases for the FBI involving young Muslim men who argued, without success, that they had been entrapped.
In the Michigan kidnapping case, at least a dozen confidential informants, as well as two or more undercover FBI agents, helped gather evidence against the 14 men who were charged. This time around, the defendants are not part of a stigmatized minority; they are white, working-class men from rural America — part of a large and vocal constituency that has a powerful hold on the nation’s politics. And their anti-government, pro–Second Amendment stance is one that millions of Americans share. Law enforcement tactics that have long been tolerated, and even celebrated, when used against marginal groups are getting a very different reception this time around.
“The whole story was a farce — insulting, really,” Tucker Carlson told his millions of viewers on his show in June. “Nearly half the gang of kidnappers were working for the FBI.”
When the Michigan kidnapping trial begins on March 8, federal prosecutors will have a mountain of evidence to draw from: hundreds of hours of clandestine recordings, as well as thousands of text messages and encrypted chats from militaristic training exercises, bomb-making sessions, and graphic discussions of violence against police and politicians.
The defendants built and detonated bombs, twice surveilled Whitmer’s vacation home, talked about trying and executing her, and practiced forcibly entering structures they called “kill houses.”
At the center of much of that action was Stephen Robeson, an informant who had a long history of criminal behavior.
Robeson, a burly concrete and asphalt layer from Wisconsin, founded a branch of the anti-government group Three Percenters. But he also has a rap sheet stretching back to the early 1980s that includes fraud, assault, and sex with a minor — and a long and secret history of working as a confidential informant.
Robeson had first cooperated with local authorities on a motorcycle gang murder case in Wisconsin in the 1980s, and had done so on at least one other occasion in the 2000s.
Most recently, he was working for the FBI, identifying and recruiting potentially violent extremists on social media platforms. He urged people to attend gun rallies and other protest events, organized meetings in multiple states, and, some attendees say, used government funds to pay for their meals and hotel rooms. Prosecutors claim that one of those meetings, in Ohio in June 2020, was where the plot against Gov. Whitmer originated.
His involvement in the case now poses a challenge for prosecutors, both because of the lengths he went to shape the events in question and because of his own extensive and ongoing brushes with the law.
In one instance, he held court in a private room at a Delaware tavern said to have been a gathering place for the Founding Fathers, according to one attendee, who like many others interviewed for this article spoke on condition of anonymity out of concern that they could be charged with a crime, among other reasons. After dinner, Robeson ushered many of his guests to nearby hotel rooms, where he got them to vent their anger about governors who enacted COVID-19 restrictions, according to separate interviews with a half-dozen participants who attended.
He also urged people to plan violent actions against elected officials and to acquire weapons and bomb-making materials. Some of those contacts say he called them nearly every day.
But as busy as he was engaging with targets of the investigation, it turns out he was involved in a number of questionable activities on his own time.
In August 2020, as the FBI’s investigation in Michigan was heating up, Robeson allegedly convinced a Wisconsin couple to buy an SUV and donate it to a nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting human trafficking.
The problem was that the charity, “Race to Unite Races,” didn’t exist. Robeson, far from using the truck to save children, simply sold it and kept the cash, according to court records.
He also had a problem with guns. As a person convicted of multiple felonies, Robeson, 58, is not legally allowed to own a firearm, but on as many as five occasions, he allegedly bought, borrowed, handled, or fired guns ranging from pistols to AR-15 style rifles, according to court records and interviews with four people, including one person who observed him acquiring and handling two of the weapons.
In early March, federal prosecutors took the unusual step of securing an indictment against their own informant, accusing him of illegally buying a high-powered sniper rifle from a man he met at church and then reselling it for a profit. Robeson acquired the gun on Sept. 26, just 11 days before the FBI’s takedown in the kidnapping case.
Robeson testified that the FBI had given him some leeway to carry a gun if it helped him keep his cover, but he admitted he knew he wasn’t allowed to have the sniper rifle, and that he had “violated the rules and procedures” of his work with the FBI.
Federal prosecutors cut him a remarkable deal, given his prior record: no prison time, two years of probation, and a $100 fine. Judge William Conley warned him not to waste the opportunity. “Mr. Robeson, I’m not sure I’ve ever had anyone in front of me before who I need to emphasize this more than you: You’re under a set of terms of conditions for your supervised release,” he said. “If you’re ever in doubt, I would strongly advise you to contact your probation officer to make sure any conduct you’re engaged in is consistent with those requirements.”
Despite that advice, last month, his probation officer informed the court that Robeson had violated his probation. He had failed to mention that he had been questioned as part of a criminal investigation — which was recently referred to the district attorney’s office for fraud charges — into the SUV sale.
Robeson, who is due to be sentenced in early February, could not be reached for comment and his attorney did not respond to multiple requests on his behalf.
Even before Robeson was indicted on the gun charge, prosecutors appear to have gone to some lengths to keep his involvement out of the kidnapping case’s public record. The original charging papers, for example, cite a different informant who attended a June gathering of militants in Dublin, Ohio, but make no reference to the fact that Robeson had helped organize the event or that he was in the meetings as well.
As part of their trial strategy, defense attorneys in the kidnapping case plan to call Robeson as a witness. They say he can shine a light on what the government did to drag targets into the alleged plot and on the FBI’s conduct overall.
If that happens, his testimony could put prosecutors in the unusual and awkward position of having to discredit their own confidential informant.
It wasn’t just the informant who could present challenges to the case. Members of law enforcement who worked on the investigation, and a team attorney involved in prosecuting it, brought their own considerable baggage.
In May, Gregory Townsend, one of two assistant attorneys general overseeing the Michigan state prosecution, was abruptly taken off the case. Officials had launched an investigation into the use of jailhouse informants in at least one murder case he’d previously prosecuted. In September, the state vacated the murder conviction at the center of that investigation, of a man who was charged with starting a fire that killed five children.
Then came the domestic violence charge for the FBI agent who had been the public face of the case.
On July 18, special agent Richard Trask and his wife came home after a night out at a swingers party. According to a statement she made to local police, they had an argument that culminated with him choking her and bashing her head against a nightstand. Later that night, he was found in his wife’s car in a grocery store parking lot, where he was arrested and later charged with felony assault.
A longtime agent specializing in counterterrorism, Trask had been assigned to track the alleged ringleader of the Whitmer kidnapping conspiracy, Adam Fox. In October and January, he took the stand in federal court to argue that the defendants in the case should remain behind bars pending trial.
Prosecutors later divulged that Trask had also posted an obscenity-laden tirade against former president Donald Trump on his Facebook page.
It emerged in September that Trask’s employment with the FBI had been terminated. He is expected to enter a plea on the assault charge in state court on Monday. He declined to comment for this story.
Another agent on the case, Henrik Impola, testified for two days in state court earlier this year, noting that he was one of two investigators who handled the other principal informant, an Iraq war vet known as Dan. Even as Impola took the stand, defense attorneys were learning that he had been accused, in an unrelated case, of perjury.
According to a defense attorney on that case, Impola had lied on the witness stand about the circumstances of an interview he conducted with a suspect, and the suspect’s lawyer filed a letter of complaint with the FBI and the Justice Department. “Why has such a blatant violation of the Federal perjury statute by an eight-plus-year veteran of the FBI not been referred for prosecution,” the lawyer asked the FBI’s Office of Professional Responsibility in February 2020.
Impola referred a request for comment to the FBI, which declined to answer questions.
To date, the government has not responded to the perjury allegations. Three legal experts contacted by BuzzFeed News said that Impola’s actions, which concern statements about a search warrant affidavit, were far from composing a clear-cut case of perjury. Nevertheless, defense attorneys in the kidnapping case raised the issue in court and could do so before a jury during a trial, complicating any plans to put Impola on the stand.
The perjury allegation against Impola — however thin — and the assault charges against Trask could give defense attorneys a chance to undermine the jury’s confidence in the conduct and credibility of the FBI agents.
And then there was special agent Jayson Chambers and his side hustle.
Chambers helped to oversee Dan, the Iraq War vet who was a confidential informant in the case. Dan infiltrated the Wolverine Watchmen, rose to become the group’s second-in-command, and, under the direction of his FBI handlers, repeatedly encouraged its members to attend trainings and activities where violent schemes were allegedly concocted.
When his connection to Exeintel was revealed, defense attorneys claimed that Chambers may have “used the investigation to promote his company and its services.”
BuzzFeed News has found no evidence that Chambers planned to use the Michigan case in that capacity, but a review of emails and other documents shows he has trumpeted past investigations as a selling point for his services.
In the résumé he shared with potential clients, Chambers identifies himself as a counterterrorism specialist who has used “online undercover techniques” to investigate al-Qaeda, ISIS, Hamas, and other groups. In marketing materials distributed by Chambers, Exeintel is described as “a unique cyber-intelligence team” that uses “undercover online personas” and other methods to identify threats, including terrorism, for clients.
In a business proposal from November 2019, Chambers pitched security services with prices ranging as high as $6 million.
The FBI has declined to comment on Chambers or his company, Exeintel. But bureau policy generally prohibits agents from owning or operating businesses that may present a conflict of interest.
Beyond the potential conflict, Exeintel raises questions about Chambers’ operational security as an FBI agent — which is crucial to protecting the integrity of ongoing investigations.
The Twitter account @ravagiing, which identified itself as belonging to the CEO of Exeintel and linked to the company’s website, appears to have had advanced knowledge of — and tweeted about — sensitive information about two separate cases Chambers worked on.
In January 2019, three months before Chambers incorporated Exeintel LLC in New Mexico, that account crowed about a terrorism investigation involving a trio of Somali American men who were accused of providing material support to ISIS.
In the tweet, which was posted two days after the men were arrested, @ravagiing wrote that Exeintel “had been tracking this group since last year,” adding that the “agents handling this case are INCREDIBLE!”
The tweet included screenshots of what appear to be encrypted messages sent the prior October — when the case was still secret — in which two parties discuss two of the men who were later charged.
“Is this the other tango,” reads one message, using military slang for “target” and including a screenshot of one suspect’s Facebook page. Another message said yes and named one of the suspects while linking to the Facebook page for the man’s cousin.
The name of one of the participants in the chat was blurred by whoever posted the screenshot, but the other was listed as “Skai,” which is the screen name for the @ravagiing handle on Twitter.
Then the account began tweeting about Michigan.
On Sept. 24, 2020, just two weeks before the takedown, @ravagiing tweeted, “Soon….MICHIGAN Soon.” Then just hours before the Oct. 7 takedown, it tweeted again: “Don’t worry Michigan I told ya A LOT more coming soon.”
In response to a motion from the Whitmer kidnapping defendants that mentioned the tweets, Assistant US Attorney Nils Kessler wrote on Aug. 31 that “neither the FBI nor SA Chambers ever controlled the account” that posted them.
In response to questions directed to the @ravagiing account, someone who asked not to be named out of concern for his family’s privacy said in a statement that Chambers did not control the Twitter account and had no relationship to the company at the time that the Michigan case was unfolding. The statement also said that BuzzFeed News took @ravagiing’s Oct. 7 tweet about the Michigan case “out of context.”
Chambers started work at the FBI in 2010. In an email sent to a business associate in April 2019 and obtained by BuzzFeed News, he indicated that he planned to leave the bureau if his new business took off.
Over the following months, Chambers was in contact with potential clients for Exeintel, setting up meetings with executives for several different companies, emails, marketing materials, and business proposals reviewed by BuzzFeed News show.
The statement from Exeintel said that the company never got any business. Chambers stayed with the FBI, and in March 2020, he began work on what would become the Michigan kidnapping investigation.
That case carried over many of the tactics that were successfully used against young, disaffected Muslims in cases that Chambers had helped bring, at times over the strenuous objections of defense lawyers.
In one instance, a 21-year-old man in Detroit was approached online by two undercover operatives pretending to be Muslim women looking for love, one of whom repeatedly attempted to convince him to consider martyring himself in an act of terrorism.
In a second investigation, three young Somali American men were contacted on Facebook and other platforms by a series of people posing as ISIS recruiters, converts to Islam, individuals in Somalia, and flirtatious women, among other personas. After nearly two years, one of the men agreed to travel to Somalia using money provided by an undercover agent and was arrested at the airport.
All the men eventually pleaded guilty and received lengthy prison sentences.
Whether the government will be successful in the Whitmer case will depend not only on the strength of the evidence and how it plays before a heartland jury, but also whether the prosecution can withstand the questions raised by the conduct of so many people involved in making the case — and whether there could be more to come.
Amanda Keller, whose former fiancé, Adam Fox, is accused of leading the kidnapping plot, said she alluded to that possibility in an interview with an FBI agent this fall.
Keller, who attended some of the events organized by Robeson but has not been charged with any crimes, has been interviewed by the FBI numerous times since late last year. She said she mostly spoke to Impola and Trask, and once met with Chambers.
But when the FBI called her in again more recently, none of those agents were there.
After all the damaging material that had emerged about them, she said she asked the new agent sitting across the table — only half-kidding — “So what are we going to find out about you?” ●