The men accused of plotting to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer were engaged in domestic terrorism, federal prosecutors now claim, signaling a potential shift in how the Justice Department is handling one of its highest-profile cases involving anti-government activities.
Last October, the Justice Department made headlines around the world when officials announced they had foiled a plot to break into the governor’s vacation home, snatch her, and spirit her away — possibly by boat — then put her on trial for being “a tyrant.” Six men were indicted on federal kidnapping charges while eight more were charged in Michigan state court with providing support to the plot.
Now, in a new indictment, filed in the Western District of Michigan early on Wednesday, a grand jury has added three additional charges to the federal case: conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction, possession of an unregistered destructive device, and possession of an unregistered short-barreled rifle. Previously, the sole federal count had been kidnapping conspiracy.
According to prosecutors, the defendants’ elaborate plan to kidnap a sitting governor, which also included blowing up a bridge near her home, meets the definition of domestic terrorism. Its goal, the new indictment alleges, was “to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.”
Although there are no statutory penalties for domestic terrorism at the federal level, defining the case that way could significantly increase the penalties that defendants Adam Fox, Barry Croft, Daniel Harris, Kaleb Franks, and Brandon Caserta would face if convicted on the other counts.
That could mean long mandatory-minimum sentences that would not have been triggered without the enhancement, potentially ratcheting up pressure on the men to agree to plea deals rather than go to trial. One man originally charged in the federal case, Ty Garbin, already took a plea in January and is cooperating with the government.
An attorney for Croft, who is one of three defendants charged with making and detonating improvised explosive devices as part of the alleged scheme, declined to comment on the new indictment. Attorneys for the other five defendants in the case did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Choosing to define the conspiracy as domestic terrorism also brings the case, which was first charged during the Trump administration, into line with a larger trend in the way the Justice Department under President Biden is tackling cases involving organized extremist groups.
Federal statute provides generous opportunities to bring international terrorism charges, but prosecutors have in the past been reluctant to define actions taken by Americans on their own soil as terrorism. Since the Capitol was stormed on Jan. 6 — and in the face of increasing pressure from members of Congress and the public — that stance appears to have changed. Soon after taking office, President Biden said that domestic terror “is complex, it’s wide ranging, and it’s real.”
Prosecutors have subsequently alleged, for example, that Jessica Watkins, an Army veteran from Ohio, engaged in a “federal crime of terrorism” when she allegedly joined a group of fellow Oath Keepers who pushed their way into the Capitol building. Members of the Proud Boys who entered the Capitol have also been charged in a similar manner, while prosecutors say that a Dallas man, Luke Coffee, engaged in “an act of domestic terrorism” when he allegedly used a crutch to strike police officers amid the mob on Jan. 6.
The new indictment notes that two of the Michigan defendants, Croft and Fox, are affiliated with the Three Percenter movement, which prosecutors say “espouses anti-government views” but is “more indicative of a common set of beliefs and attitudes than of membership in an overarching organization.” They also point out that the remaining defendants were members of the Wolverine Watchmen, a “militia” group “with similar anti-government views.”
In a previously undisclosed detail in the case, prosecutors now allege that one defendant, Harris, who is a Marine Corps veteran, told other Wolverine Watchmen that he “can make things go boom if you give me what I need.”
Harris later joined Croft in an unsuccessful attempt to detonate a homemade explosive device made from a balloon and metal BBs while at a training exercise in Wisconsin last July. A second effort, in Michigan in September, proved successful, and Harris and Croft subsequently ordered $4,000 worth of explosives from a man who turned out to be an undercover FBI agent.
With the new indictment, Harris also now stands accused of possessing a semiautomatic assault rifle with a barrel under 16 inches without a federal permit, a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison. The kidnapping and weapons of mass destruction conspiracy charges, meanwhile, carry potential life sentences.
Zoe Tillman contributed reporting to this story.