GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A federal jury on Friday found two suspects not guilty in an alleged plot to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and on two others was not able to reach a verdict.
Brandon Caserta, 33, of Canton, and Daniel Harris, 34, of Lake Orion, were acquitted on all counts. The jury could not reach a unanimous decision in the cases of Barry Croft Jr., 46, of Bear, Delaware, and Adam Fox, 38, of metro Grand Rapids.
“Obviously, we’re disappointed at the outcome,” U.S. Attorney Andrew Birge said. “Thought we’d get the jury to convict beyond a reasonable doubt.”
A mistrial was declared for Croft and Fox. Birge said he will try them again.
“I appreciate the time the jury put into this. They listened to a lot of evidence, deliberated quite a bit,” Birge said. “We have two defendants awaiting trial. We will get back to work on that.”
There is no timeline yet on when that second trial could happen.
“I think that the trial here has demonstrated that there’s some serious shortcomings in the (government’s) case,” Fox’s attorney Christopher Gibbons told reporters outside the courthouse. “Obviously, with acquittals occurring with Mr. Caserta and Mr. Harris says a lot about what’s going on in the case, and the proofs.”
Caserta and Harris were free to go, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Jonker said. As they read the verdicts, the family of Caserta gasped and embraced. Shortly after, when Harris’ verdict was released, his family, including father and mother, gasped, some of them in tears.
Outside the courthouse Friday afternoon, Caserta’s attorney said his client was “out … gone.”
“He’s just enjoying a walk down a sidewalk right now,” Mike Hills said.
He added that it was Caserta’s birthday.
“Best birthday present imaginable,” Hills said.
“I’m just glad he’s home,” one of Caserta’s relatives said.
Fox’s attorney said Fox was “disappointed” that he would remain behind bars pending a second trial.
“We’ll eventually get what we want out of this, which is the truth and the justice I think Adam is entitled to,” Gibbons said.
The jury of six men and six women deliberated in a federal courthouse in downtown Grand Rapids for 37 hours over the course of a week. On Friday morning, after being told that the jury had reached some decisions and was locked on others, the judge asked it to keep deliberating. He provided members some thought exercises about how to reach some insight on the issues that divide them. He said they should not change their minds simply to reach a decision.
The jury remained in the same spot Friday afternoon. Jonker told jurors to go back, confirm where they stood and decide whether there was a path forward. If they remained in the same place and there was no path forward, he said, they should announce their unanimous verdicts and indicate on which counts they were deadlocked.
They came back with their verdicts in only a few minutes.
“Today, Michiganders and Americans—especially our children—are living through the normalization of political violence. The plot to kidnap and kill a governor may seem like an anomaly. But we must be honest about what it really is: the result of violent, divisive rhetoric that is all too common across our country. There must be accountability and consequences for those who commit heinous crimes. Without accountability, extremists will be emboldened.
“The governor remains focused on her work on behalf of Michigan and all Michiganders. That includes addressing violence and threats to our democracy. We appreciate the prosecutors and law enforcement officers for their work on this case.”JoAnne Huls, chief of staff for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer
It was a loss for the FBI, which had been accused by defense attorneys of working behind the scenes with undercover agents and paid informants to orchestrate the plot and entrap the men.
“The message (to the FBI) is, ‘Change your tactics.’ I think the jury, they didn’t get a full picture of it, but they got enough to know that what the FBI was doing was not right,” Caserta’s attorney Mike Hills said after the trial. “(The government) got zero convictions today.”
“Our governor was never in any danger,” Hills added.
He said in all the hundreds and thousands of hours of recordings he listened to, his never heard his client agreeing to kidnap the governor.
“My take is, they needed somebody to accompany Fox,” Hills said. “Because Fox is a joke by himself. So they need the Wolverine Watchmen to give him credibility.”
The jury’s decisions were announced followed a weekslong trial that included testimony from about three dozen witnesses, including a key informant known as Big Dan and two co-defendants. Those co-defendants, Ty Garbin and Kaleb Franks, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to kidnap and testified in exchange for leniency. They said they were not entrapped.
Harris, a former Marine, was the only defendant to take the stand, repeatedly denying any conspiracy and downplaying his suggestion that they just shoot the governor three times in the head.
The jury did not hear from key informant, Stephen Robeson, of Oxford, Wisconsin, who was accused by the feds of working both sides. Defense attorneys wanted him to take the stand, hoping it would bolster their entrapment defense, but Robeson invoked his Fifth Amendment rights and did not testify. He was among more than half a dozen defense witnesses who pleaded the Fifth.
The trial also included more than 400 pieces of evidence from federal prosecutors, everything from secret audio and video recordings to social media screenshots to assault weapons and night vision goggles.
The feds said the men started the conspiracy in June 2020 at a meeting of militia members in Ohio. Their plan, the feds said, eventually evolved to kidnapping the governor from her cottage in Elk Rapids, blowing up a bridge or two to slow down police, then taking her in a boat, either to strand her in Lake Michigan or to Wisconsin to face trial and execution.
They were angry, the feds said, over Whitmer’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and hoped to ignite a second Civil War.
Two of the men, Caserta and Harris, were members of the Wolverine Watchmen militia group, based in Michigan. The feds said that Fox and Croft, described as leaders of the group, belonged to the Patriot 3-Percenters militia group. Federal prosecutors have said that all four were also part of the Boogaloo movement, which was pushing for a second Civil War.
Dan Chappel, or Big Dan, a military veteran, testified that he had joined the Wolverine Watchmen in the spring of 2020 for weapons training, but grew concerned after talk turned toward killing cops. He went to police and then became an FBI informant, launching the federal terrorism investigation. He stayed with the militia group and became a leader while wearing a wire. The talk, he said, later turned toward kidnapping the governor.
The FBI paid Chappel $54,000 for his work, including expenses.
Defense attorneys argued that their clients were nothing more than big talkers who got ensnared by the feds. They said the FBI, working through Big Dan and other informants, orchestrated the plot — setting up meetings, trainings and recon missions at the governor’s cottage in Elk Rapids. They argued that FBI informants created and led some of the state Patriot 3-Percenters chapters.
Under cross-examination, Big Dan Chappel acknowledged he helped plan an attack, “to a degree.” He suggested the kinds of helicopters they could use if they kidnapped Whitmer from the governor’s residence on Mackinac Island.
Chappel also testified that he worked to keep Fox connected to those in the Wolverine Watchmen and that he pushed him to conduct reconnaissance on the governor’s cottage in Elk Rapids, picking the date of the first mission.
It also was Chappel who “suggested to Adam Fox and others they could ambush the governor on her way to her place in Traverse City, catching her in transit,” Fox’s attorney said.
Big Dan agreed that he also suggested to “blow her door down.”
After an FBI later complimented Chappel’s work in a text, Chappel texted back: “Awesome. Building my resume.”
“Dan Chappel makes everything happen,” Fox’s attorney Gibbons told the jury in his closing argument.
The two FBI agents who worked most on this case were not called by federal prosecutors: agent Jayson Chambers, after reports he had formed a security company on the side that could benefit from his work on the kidnapping plot case; and Henrik Impola, after what the feds say were unsubstantiated allegations that he committed perjury in an unrelated case.
Chambers and Impola were assigned to handle informant Big Dan.
Chambers, who was called to testify by the defense, told the jury that he pushed the FBI to approve the terrorism investigation into the Wolverine Watchmen in 2020.
“I have pledged to beat them over the head with it until they comply,” Chambers wrote in a text in April 2020. “I’m going to be working this as a TEI (Terrorism Enterprise Investigation) whether you get me the paperwork or not.”
He testified that at the time, the FBI had five separate investigations into individual suspects, “and these five people are all part of that group.”
Chambers said the FBI later approved the investigation.
Federal prosecutors also didn’t call a third agent, Robert J. Trask, who testified in an earlier hearing in the case. The FBI fired Trask last year after he was convicted of assaulting his wife. He also had made anti-Trump social media posts.
“I think what the FBI did was unconscionable, is what I think,” Hills said Friday. “And I think the jury just sent them a message loud and clear that these tactics are not going to be, we’re not going to condone what they’ve done here.”
In his closing argument on Friday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Nils Kessler told the jury the four were predisposed to commit the kidnapping. He reminded jurors of the steps the men took to commit the crime, including the training, and the recon missions to check out the governor’s cottage in Elk Rapids with night vision goggles, then checking out the nearby boat launch “to launch their waterborne assault.”