A second defendant accused of plotting to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has agreed to plead guilty and to cooperate with the government.
The deal, struck just a month before the case is set to go to trial, is a blow to the defendants, who have been planning to argue they were entrapped by confidential informants working for the FBI. That legal strategy always faces long odds, because it requires defendants to prove that they had no predisposition to the crime in question. Now Kaleb Franks, 27, has agreed to testify that he “was not entrapped or induced to commit any crimes,” nor were the remaining defendants in the case, Adam Fox, Barry Croft, Daniel Harris, and Brandon Caserta, according to a copy of his plea agreement filed in federal court Monday morning.
A sixth defendant in the case, Ty Garbin, pleaded guilty early last year and was sentenced in August to 75 months in prison; prosecutors have said he would be a “star witness” at the trial, slated to begin March 8 in Grand Rapids.
According to Franks’ agreement, which was signed Sunday, he will plead guilty to the single charge for which he was indicted, kidnapping conspiracy, which carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. Although prosecutors agreed to seek sentence reductions in exchange for his cooperation and potential testimony, they did not offer a specified prison term, which will be determined by a judge.
Three of the other defendants also face charges of conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction, and one of them, Harris, also faces a gun charge. Although no other defendants have indicated a willingness to cooperate, with the trial fast approaching and such serious penalties dangling on the wrong side of conviction, more deals may emerge before a jury is seated.
An additional eight men face related charges, including providing material support to terrorism, in Michigan state court. Three of those individuals have also claimed they were entrapped.
The plea is the latest in a series of setbacks for the defense, which argued that to the extent there was a kidnapping conspiracy, it was entirely contrived by the FBI and put into place by government informants. The defendants question the government’s methods and motives and claim that much of the alleged evidence of intent collected during the probe is in fact harmless — if crude and unpleasant — speech uttered by malcontents that is protected by the First Amendment.
But a bid to get the entire case thrown out due to “egregious overreaching” was dismissed by Judge Robert Jonker late last month. And last week Jonker put severe limitations on the evidence that defense attorneys could bring before the jury, barring them from using any recorded statements by their own clients and most statements by informants, while giving the government carte blanche to bring in evidence of past criminal offenses — some dating to the early 1990s — as evidence of predisposition.
Perhaps most damaging was the court’s decision to prohibit defendants from mentioning a perjury accusation raised against one of the case’s lead FBI agents, as well as a security business owned by the case’s other lead agent.
The agent, Jayson Chambers, registered the company in 2019, and documents show he touted his counterterrorism work for the FBI while attempting to win private multimillion-dollar contracts. Defense attorneys have questioned whether that financial incentive might have motivated Chambers’ work in the Michigan kidnapping case. Prosecutors have said that they will not call either agent, or a third who was fired after being charged with domestic violence, to testify.
In addition to Franks and Garbin, the government is expected to call a confidential informant known only as “Dan.” An Iraq war veteran, Dan previously testified to having joined the armed extremist group the Wolverine Watchmen and subsequently agreeing to wear a wire for the FBI as he participated in the group’s activities.
Evidence shows that he rose to become the group’s second-in-command, while also forging close ties to defendants Fox and Croft, neither of whom were members of the Watchmen. Dan also reached out to potential targets in other states, urging them to consider political violence as far away as Virginia, but those individuals have not been charged.
Defense attorneys, for their part, are expected to call a second informant, Stephen Robeson, to testify. Robeson played a critical role in the investigation, recruiting targets and organizing meetings, but has also been accused of committing two crimes while working for the FBI. In September, he pleaded guilty to a federal gun possession charge and last Thursday was sentenced to time served and two years probation.
In December, Robeson and his wife were charged in Wisconsin state court for allegedly defrauding a couple out of an SUV by convincing them to donate it to a nonexistent charity. That case is still pending, but defense attorneys said they are confident that it will not prevent him from testifying about the kidnapping investigation.
Prosecutors, for their part, have worked hard to distance themselves from Robeson, who was paid nearly $20,000 by the FBI for his efforts. Early last month, they called him a “double agent” who secretly attempted to undermine the case. And a few weeks later, they appeared to threaten Robeson with prosecution if he testified that the defendants were entrapped. “If the defendants were acquitted based on such fabrication,” prosecutors wrote, “the government would have no recourse but to try Steve for perjury.”
In Franks, prosecutors have now secured a second member of the alleged conspiracy who can testify to the group’s predisposition and point to discussions about violent acts that took place without the prompting of government informants.
“During all their months of training together, the defendant never heard Fox, Croft, Harris, or Caserta say they were doing anything because [Dan], [Robeson], or any other informant had advocated it,” the plea agreement states.
Franks’ attorney, Scott Graham, declined to comment on the news. Attorneys for the other defendants declined or did not immediately respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for the US attorney’s office declined to comment.
Franks, like half the other defendants in the case, was a member of the Wolverine Watchmen, which he said he joined in spring 2020 because of an interest in firearms and training. He recently filed a motion seeking a psychological evaluation prior to trial because of what he termed an “extraordinary susceptibility to influence and suggestion” who “tries hard to please people” and is “quite vulnerable to the influence of others.”
In his plea deal, Franks describes participating in a number of training events and gatherings, including a meeting in Peebles, Ohio, where he said Fox discussed storming the Michigan capitol or “kidnapping the Governor of Michigan” as “an alternative.” That meeting was organized by Robeson, the FBI informant.
The events mentioned by Franks echo those laid out by prosecutors in their charging papers, showing a progression from grumbling about strict COVID-19 restrictions to military-style training exercises, experiments with explosives, and use of encrypted messaging platforms to keep operations a secret, culminating in a late-night surveillance of Whitmer’s vacation home in northern Michigan in September 2020.
But Franks’ description of that evening also underscores the apparent haplessness of the defendants, who appeared ill prepared to carry out anything as complicated as the kidnapping of a sitting governor. Although the defendants reached the lake beside which Whitmer’s home sits, they failed to find the actual residence because “Fox had reversed digits in the street address.”