GRAND RAPIDS, Michigan — If the government has a clear strategy in its prosecution of four men accused of plotting to kidnap Michigan’s governor, it might succinctly be described as shock and awe.
On just the fourth day of testimony in a trial expected to last as long as six weeks, federal prosecutors on Friday called one of their most critical witnesses, Dan Chappel — a confidential informant who infiltrated the militant groups that the defendants belonged to and spent months recording seemingly every meeting, phone call, training exercise, and road trip they took.
Chappel, a former Army sergeant who until now was known publicly only as “Dan” or “Big Dan,” testified for nearly four hours about what he saw and heard during a seven-month period in 2020. During this time, prosecutors say, Adam Fox, Barry Croft, Daniel Harris, and Brandon Caserta plotted to spirit Gov. Gretchen Whitmer away at gunpoint from her vacation home in northern Michigan. The men's goal, Chappel said, was “to get the governor” and kick off a civil war.
His testimony followed on the heels of that of an undercover FBI agent, Mark Schweers, who took the stand Thursday and said that he had been “tasked” with approaching Fox in June 2020 because of a concern he was planning to take “direct violent action in furtherance of his anti-government leanings.”
And although the broad outlines of the government’s case haven’t changed since it was unveiled 17 months ago, the testimony of the two FBI assets, and especially the evidence they helped prosecutors present, served to bring startling and often harrowing new details to the allegations and potentially leave an indelible impression on the jury.
Prosecutors showed some 80 exhibits on Friday alone — a methodical, at times overwhelming, fire hose of clandestine audio recordings, videos, photographs, and text messages that served to portray the accused as men highly motivated to commit violent acts against politicians.
Fox, for example, could be heard on tape fantasizing about “having the governor hog-tied on a table” just hours after conducting a daytime surveillance of her lakeside cottage with Chappel and one other person. And after dinner following a field training exercise in Wisconsin, Croft is heard expounding on the need for violence.
“I don’t like seeing anybody get killed either,” Croft says on a recording made by Chappel at a diner. “But you don’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.”
Harris, meanwhile, could be heard proposing knocking on the door of Whitmer’s house and, when she answered, putting a bullet in her “dome,” while Caserta, in a rant about COVID-19 that prosecutors successfully argued was relevant to their case, expressed the desire to shoot police officers, lawyers, and contact tracers.
In photos and videos projected in the courtroom, the defendants could be seen participating in armed training sessions and on surveillance runs near the governor’s lakeside cottage, which was visible in the images. One video shows Chappel and two FBI agents re-creating the path the defendants allegedly planned to use to “exfiltrate” Whitmer from her house to Lake Michigan, where, Chappel said, they planned to leave her floating on a disabled boat.
Throughout the presentation, the four defendants and some members of their families sitting in the gallery nearby silently watched on as the defense attorneys were able to do little to slow the onslaught or to attempt to mitigate the damage. Their turn will come starting Monday, when they have the opportunity to cross-examine Chappel and claim their clients are innocent.
That argument boils down to two principal claims: First, that while the defendants may have said terrible things, their words were allowable under principles of free speech and were never attached to anything close to a finalized plan.
Second, they contend that the defendants were entrapped by the FBI and, in particular, Chappel and a second informant named Stephen Robeson. They argue that the informants brought the defendants together, encouraged and amplified their anti-government feelings, and even suggested actions they could take, urging them to do things they otherwise would not have.
The defense’s opportunity to chip away at the version of events described by Chappel will be critical. In motions and pretrial hearings, defense attorneys have described him as the intellectual engine of the entire scheme, someone who used his status as a combat veteran to win the trust of the defendants and incite them to train, plot, and even discuss acquiring explosives.
Chappel has testified twice before in a parallel case in a Michigan state court, where eight other men are charged with providing material support to terrorism. In neither instance was his true identity revealed, but defense attorneys have pored over his testimony to look for inconsistencies that could be used to undermine his credibility. They’re also expected to bring attention to the fact that Chappel received roughly $54,000 from the FBI in payments and for expenses that included a new laptop, phone, and an Apple Watch.
While cross-examining Schweers, defense attorneys noted that he had changed his appearance, shaving a beard he’d worn while spending time with Fox and accompanying him and others on a September surveillance run to Whitmer’s house. That was a small — but important — point to make since one of the defendants, Croft, had also done away with his facial hair prior to trial, something prosecutors had taken pains to note to the jury earlier.
Schweers, a longtime undercover agent, also admitted, under questioning, that he relied on a “ruse” to get in touch with Fox: He adopted the fake name "Mark Woods" and relied on another FBI agent who posed as his girlfriend who reached out to Fox’s then-fiancé and asked her to make an introduction.
After jury selection and two days of testimony last week, the trial hit an unexpected speed bump when a critical participant in the trial tested positive for COVID-19 last weekend, forcing Judge Robert Jonker to halt proceedings for three days. In his order, he did not name the individual who had tested positive.
The delay could push the trial far into April. After testimony was finished on Friday, the lead prosecutor, Nils Kessler, said the government planned to bring a total of 40 witnesses.
Since Chappel was the government’s fourth witness, the jury will hear from three dozen more witnesses before the defense attorneys get a chance to make their own case. Among the most critical government witnesses will be Kaleb Franks and Ty Garbin, two former defendants who pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with the prosecution.
Their testimony could begin as soon as Tuesday.