GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) — After more than two days of testimony, jurors have unflattering snapshots of four men who are charged with planning to strike back against government by kidnapping Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer from her weekend home.
Prosecutors introduced videos, messages and secretly recorded conversations full of antigovernment screeds, mostly expressed by Barry Croft Jr. and Adam Fox, who are described as the leaders. Evidence presented early in what’s likely to be a weekslong trial has bounced from Michigan to gatherings in Ohio and Wisconsin and an arrest in New Jersey — and not always in order.
“The pattern doesn’t always become clear until the end. … Don’t feel pressure to try to pull it all together just yet,” U.S. District Judge Robert Jonker told jurors Thursday.
Croft, Fox, Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta are charged with conspiracy; three of them also face weapons-related charges. Lawyers have signaled an entrapment defense, claiming the men were cajoled by undercover FBI agents and zealous, greedy informants.
Trial was scheduled to resume Monday in federal court in Grand Rapids, but Jonker ordered Sunday that it would be delayed until at least Thursday because an essential participant tested positive for COVID-19.
Here is some of what the jury has heard so far:
The 46-year-old trucker from Bear, Delaware, is an adherent of the “boogaloo” movement, which believes the country is broken and that politicians “should be targeted and attacked,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Roth said.
Croft and Fox attended a meeting of allies in Dublin, Ohio, in July 2020. So did an informant who recorded Croft saying he was so devoted to an antigovernment cause, “I might murder a cop.”
Croft said he was even willing to slash his cheek in an effort to fool face-detection technology used by law enforcement.
“One criminal governor in our possession, we’ve captured the flag in that state. We can then start to issue terms,” Croft said in a video in May 2020.
Defense attorney Joshua Blanchard said Croft was targeted by thin-skinned FBI agents who simply didn’t like his disgust of government.
“There was no plan, there was no agreement and no kidnapping,” he said.
Fox, 38, of Wyoming, Michigan, was living in the basement of a vacuum shop and brushing his teeth next door at a restaurant. He was tapped by Croft to lead the plot, Roth said.
Prosecutors portrayed Fox as a man committed to violence. He said in a video that he was in favor of a “revolutionary war” to get rid of “corrupt, tyrannical government.”
Fox said he wanted to offer “constitutional comfort” to angry Michigan gym owners whose businesses were shut down for months to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Fitness centers, he said, were “essential for a lot of people’s mental health.”
In August 2020, according to the government, Fox scouted Whitmer’s cottage for the first time and said an attack would be a “nightmare” and a “shootout.” Prosecutors said he wanted to blow up a nearby bridge to stymie police during an abduction.
But defense attorney Christopher Gibbons said Fox was heavily influenced by an FBI informant known as “Big Dan,” who was a member of a militia known as the Wolverine Watchmen.
Dan “said things like, ‘You can train for everything but what’s your goal?’ The goal is what the government wants,” Gibbons told jurors, referring to entrapment.
HARRIS AND CASERTA
They didn’t come up as much as Croft and Fox in the first two days of trial. But Roth said they were considered soldiers in Fox’s “kill squad.”
Harris, a former Marine infantryman, suggested killing Whitmer would be better than kidnapping her, perhaps “posing as a pizza delivery person and shooting her at home,” the prosecutor said.
Caserta’s home in Canton Township, Michigan, was full of antigovernment items, and he talked about crushing the governor’s skull, Roth said.
“You will hear him say, ’Whatever we do in the future, this is my personal choice to be involved here,'” Roth said.
Defense lawyers pointed out that Harris, 24, and Caserta, 33, didn’t join the others on the road trip to northern Michigan to look at Whitmer’s home, a key part of the government’s case. But they participated in firearms training sessions, including a “shoot house,” a mock-up of Whitmer’s house.
Attorney Julia Kelly said Harris of Lake Orion, Michigan, “was not perfect in the summer of 2020” but didn’t agree to kidnap the governor. Lawyer Michael Hills said Caserta participated in training but didn’t organize the “fed-sponsored events.”
Harris’ parents were in court, taking notes and frequently leaning over to whisper to Kelly.
Croft, Fox, Harris and Caserta were arrested in October 2020 along with two others, Ty Garbin and Kaleb Franks, who pleaded guilty to the conspiracy and said no one was entrapped by agents or informants.
“They will tell you they made their own decisions,” Roth told the jury. “They will tell you the defendants did the same.”
Whitmer, who is seeking reelection this year, has blamed then-President Donald Trump for fomenting anger over coronavirus restrictions and refusing to condemn right-wing extremists like those charged in the plot. She said he was complicit in the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
White reported from Detroit and Burnett reported from Chicago.