GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Attorneys for five men accused of plotting to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer intensified their arguments on Tuesday that they were entrapped by overzealous federal agents and informants.
They raised questions about the FBI agents involved in the case; one was recently convicted of domestic violence and posted anti-Trump rhetoric on Facebook; one started a security consulting business on the side; another has been accused of perjury in a separate case.
They argued over a “maverick” informant identified as Confidential Human Source “Steve,” who, during the investigation, told an alleged member of the plot to destroy evidence, not knowing that member was also an informant.
The attorneys argued that recorded conversations involving the suspects and government agents prove their claims of entrapment — that they weren’t predisposed to kidnap the governor and wouldn’t have done it without the feds pushing them.
Brandon Caserta, Barry Croft, Adam Fox, Kaleb Franks and Daniel Harris face kidnapping conspiracy charges allegedly driven by their anger over Whitmer’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. The trial is set to begin on March 8 in U.S. District Court in Grand Rapids.
In one of the secretly recorded conversations defense attorneys want to play, suspect Harris objects to snatching Whitmer.
“No snatch and grab,” he said.
That, his attorney argued, proves he had no intention to kidnap Whitmer.
Chief U.S. District Judge Robert J. Jonkers questioned whether that could have meant he preferred another way to kidnap the governor.
“I don’t see that as a statement of preference,” Harris’s attorney, Scott Graham, said. “I see that as a state of mind.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Nels Kessler argued the recorded conversations are “hearsay” and that jurors shouldn’t hear them. If defense attorneys want to use those statements at trial, he said, they should call the suspects to the witness stand.
“It completely does away with the ability to cross-examine somebody,” Kessler argued. “Any one of these defendants, if they can just smuggle in a statement, it doesn’t allow us to confront them with a jury watching their demeanor.”
They could have made those statements because they thought an undercover agent was there, or perhaps they changed their minds later, Kessler argued.
The judge questioned defense attorneys about using the secretly recorded conversations at trial.
“It seems to me we’re going to have trial by hearsay rather than sworn witnesses,” he said.
The defense attorneys also argued that the jury should be able to listen to recorded statements made by informants.
“They are the tools of the special agents,” said Christopher Gibbons, the attorney for alleged plot leader Adam Fox. “They do what they’re instructed to do.”
One of those informants, CHS “Steve,” played a big role in the case, they argued, including inviting the alleged kidnap plotters to militia gatherings and to training, and orchestrating a ride-along to the governor’s home.
“These people have signed agreements, they’ve received significant cash payments, they get progress payments apparently as they move along,” Gibbons said.
The feds removed CHS “Steve” as an informant after learning “he was playing both sides,” Kessler, the assistant U.S. Attorney, said.
That informant, Stephen Robeson, 58, of Wisconsin, a convicted felon, was indicted in September 2020 on a charge of illegally possessing a .50-caliber sniper rifle. He bought it from a man he met at church and later sold it to a person he met through Facebook. He pleaded guilty late last year.