A confidential informant at the center of the Michigan kidnapping case has been sentenced to time served for a gun possession charge, potentially clearing the way for him to testify as a witness for the defense.
The sentence, handed down Thursday by Judge William Conley in Wisconsin federal court, upholds a plea deal that Stephen Robeson struck with prosecutors last year. Because that agreement includes a waiver of appeal, the case is for practical purposes resolved, meaning that Robeson is unlikely to be able to invoke his Fifth Amendment right to avoid giving testimony if called next month at the trial for the five men accused of plotting to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in 2020.
The sentencing came just a day after the judge overseeing the Michigan case put severe restrictions on what evidence defense attorneys could present to the jury, barring them from discussing issues related to two FBI agents and from using what they say are potentially exculpatory statements by their clients unless they testify. Although that ruling said that some statements uttered by Robeson could be used, the news that the informant could simply be obligated to testify is a welcome development for the defense in the high-profile domestic terrorism case.
Robeson has been among the most controversial figures in the investigation: a long-running government operative with an extensive rap sheet who played a huge role in helping the FBI make the case, but who has proven to be a significant obstacle for the prosecution.
The kidnapping trial begins in Grand Rapids on March 8. Defense attorneys have made it clear they will argue that the accused were entrapped by overzealous and untrustworthy informants who operated with the full knowledge of their government handlers. To do so, the lawyers hope to call on Robeson, as well as several FBI agents whom the government has kept off its witness list. Last month, one defendant went so far as to ask the court to order the Justice Department to grant Robeson and others immunity from prosecution to Robeson, among others, so that they could testify freely. That motion was denied.
Prosecutors, meanwhile, have said they’ll rely heavily on the testimony of Ty Garbin, a defendant in the case who pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate early last year.
Evidence shared by prosecutors shows that Robeson first began working as an informant for the FBI in October 2019, and that he was paid almost $20,000 for his work. Robeson was terminated as a source a year later, several weeks after the government arrested the defendants in the Michigan case.
Court records and interviews show that Robeson played a key role in drawing potential targets into the investigation, including Barry Croft, whom he invited to a family vacation in South Carolina in early 2020 and who was later indicted. Robeson also organized some of the key events where prosecutors say the kidnapping plot was hatched, including meetings and training sessions in Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Delaware. In some cases, Robeson paid people’s travel expenses to get them to attend.
But even as he worked under the supervision of his handlers, FBI agents based in Wisconsin, Robeson was engaged in activities that went far beyond his remit as an informant. Because of multiple felony convictions dating back to the early 1980s, Robeson is prohibited from possessing firearms, yet he had numerous guns throughout 2020, interviews and records show.
Last March, prosecutors took the unusual step of charging their own informant with a crime, indicting him in Wisconsin federal court for acquiring a .50-caliber sniper rifle from someone he met at church. Robeson said the FBI had given him permission to have guns as part of his cover, but later pleaded guilty, taking a favorable plea deal that promised him no prison time and was far below the sentencing guidelines.
With the trial in the kidnapping case fast approaching and defense attorneys indicating they’d like to call Robeson as a witness, prosecutors have moved to further distance themselves from their informant. Last month, they called him a “double agent,” saying he attempted to hide or destroy evidence and, ignoring orders from the FBI, called Croft on the day of the arrests in October 2020, potentially warning him what was coming.
Defense attorneys, for their part, have repeatedly pointed to Robeson’s illicit activities and aggressive recruiting as proof that the men accused of hatching the kidnapping plot were induced to participate in a plot they would never have cooked up on their own. In response to the government’s disparagement of Robeson, they pointed to FBI memos showing the bureau was well aware of what Robeson was doing all along. Five months after the arrests in the case, for example, FBI agents wrote that Robeson “appeared to be fully cooperative with the FBI pertaining to militia matters and disrupting the plot to kidnap the Governor of Michigan.”
Further complicating an already tangled situation is the fact that Robeson and his wife were charged in December by the district attorney in Sauk County, Wisconsin, for allegedly defrauding a couple out of a sport utility vehicle. According to the charging papers, the Robesons convinced them to donate a used Chevy Tahoe to an anti–child trafficking charity that didn’t exist, and then simply kept the SUV for their own use.
Robeson is free on a $1,000 bond and is set for a preliminary hearing before a state judge on March 14, a week after the kidnapping case is set to begin in Grand Rapids federal court. It’s not clear whether Robeson could attempt to plead the Fifth because that case is still pending, although because it is a state, rather than a federal, case and apparently unrelated to the Michigan matter, such an attempt might fail.
The fact that Robeson’s federal plea deal was upheld by Conley came as something of a surprise given the judge’s previous statements.
At his plea hearing in September, the judge admonished him to stay in line, saying, “The likelihood of my accepting this plea agreement will depend substantially, if not entirely, upon your strict compliance with those terms and conditions of release.”
Yet in November a probation officer told the court that Robeson had violated terms of his bond by failing to inform authorities that he’d been contacted by investigators for the Sauk County Sheriff about the alleged fraud.
That violation was not mentioned during Thursday’s sentencing, which was conducted via Zoom due to COVID-19. Judge Conley took pains to remark on Robeson’s record, which he called “alarming.” He noted that Robeson had a criminal history in nine states stretching over decades, had been a member of criminal gangs, and also was affiliated with the armed extremist group Wisconsin Patriot Three Percenters.
But Conley also commended Robeson for his work on the Michigan kidnapping case, saying he had exposed “himself to serious risks” by attending meetings and participating in encrypted chats where the kidnapping plot, which Conley called “more serious” than the gun charge, was concocted. Although federal guidelines called for a 10- to 16-month prison term for Robeson, in the end Conley agreed to the much more lenient deal struck with prosecutors.
“This is by no means a ‘get out of jail free’ card,” Conley told Robeson. “I want to make it clear you will be held accountable.”