OXFORD, Wisc. (WOOD) — This town of 607 people has two breakfast joints, a Dollar General, not a single traffic light and five bars. That’s one bar for every 121.4 people.
Oxford, Wisconsin, is also home to 58-year-old Stephen Robeson, confidential human source Steve, an FBI informant who became a central figure in the investigation into an alleged plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
“It’s just a little, small community,” said Dellana Warren, who doubles as co-owner and waitress at Damma’s Diner, one of the breakfast joints. “A very tight-knit community, yup. We support each other.”
Oxford is on the edge of Amish country and in the middle of Green Bay Packers nation, about an hour north of Madison, in a rural county that went heavily for President Donald Trump in 2020.
The town’s small lake is frozen thick enough for pickups and small campers.
Just a few of the residents who Target 8 talked to in town had heard rumblings that Robeson was somehow involved in the kidnapping case, but nobody seemed to know he worked as an informant, not the village president and clerk, not those at the two breakfast joints, not the men fishing on Neenah Lake, not the bartender at the Ox Bar.
“Never heard the story,” bartender Donnie Hess said. “All you hear up here in Wisconsin, it’s local news and whatever the hell the Packers are doing.”
As the trial for four of the six defendants is set to begin on March 8 in U.S. District Court in Grand Rapids, Robeson’s role could be even more pivotal.
The feds accuse Robeson of being a “double agent,” saying they dismissed him as an informant after learning he had worked for both the FBI and for those the FBI was after.
Prosecutors said they don’t plan to call him as a witness, but defense attorneys say they will, hoping he will help prove their clients’ innocence in what has been called one of the most important domestic terrorism cases in a generation.
They claim Robeson was an “architect” of the alleged plot and helped entrap them.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office says it has plenty of evidence against the men, including secret recordings and the cooperation of the two defendants who have pleaded guilty. They have agreed to testify that they were not entrapped.
At the same time, the feds are trying to keep Robeson out of the courtroom, arguing he will just invoke his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination.
“Absent extraordinary circumstances, trial courts should exercise their discretion to forbid parties from calling witnesses who, when called, will only invoke a privilege,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office wrote in a motion filed in February.
Defense attorneys asked the judge to give Robeson immunity if he testifies, but the feds have argued against that and the judge in January denied the request.
The feds say Robeson could still face federal charges, including being part of the conspiracy to kidnap the governor.
Robeson “has potentially committed offenses for which he has not yet been charged, including aiding and abetting the defendants, and conspiring with them to kidnap the Governor,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office recently wrote. “Whether he intended to help with the kidnapping, obstruct justice after the fact, or simply protect himself from retaliation is unclear at the moment. But his sworn testimony could provide the necessary proof of intent to pursue new charges against him here or in state court.”
If he’s given immunity, “he could falsely testify that he deliberately attempted to entrap them,” the government wrote. “If the defendants were acquitted based on such fabrication, the government would have no recourse but to try Steve for perjury, while the kidnappers walked away without being held accountable for their actions.”
‘THE FEDS ARE LYING ON HIM’
So, who is this man described by the feds as a “double agent”?
Target 8 dug through more than 1,000 pages of court documents and spent three days in Oxford, which Robeson has called home, to learn more about him.
Robeson lives on the outskirts of Oxford in a ranch-style home that caught fire back in November. The fire destroyed an addition on the back of the home and spread into the garage. The fire chief said it was caused by an overloaded extension cord.
A nephew woke family members, who managed to escape.
The damage hasn’t been fixed, part of the roof is still caved in and the yard is cluttered with fire debris and other junk.
Robeson lives there anyway, says his sister, Crystal Clary, who stays with him.
“He’s a great guy,” Clary said. “He’s a great father. He takes care of all his kids, every single day.”
He has eight children, she says.
Until recently, Robeson made his living top-coating parking lots in the summer and plowing them in the winter.
He’s a biker and a patriot, his sister says.
But he also has a history of violence and fraud in nine states, according to a federal judge, most notably in his home state of Wisconsin.
“You see a man that has felonies on his record,” his sister said. “You see a man who’s been in trouble in and out of his life, and he tried to do something good for a change” by working as an informant.
“If he was such a double agent, why aren’t the feds charging him the same way they’re charging them?” she asked, referring to the men charged in the federal kidnapping plot. “He wanted nothing to do with no Michigan governor. Like, we’re in Wisconsin.
“The feds are lying on him. The newspapers are lying on him. He deserves to say his side of the story. You’re the first person that came here that wanted his side. Nobody cares about what he has to say; they only care about what the feds have to say.”
But her brother wasn’t home to give his side, she told a Target 8 reporter during a visit in February. She said she wasn’t sure when he’d be back.
GHOST RIDERS, MURDER PLOTS AND THE GOVERNOR
The true identity of confidential human source Steve has been public for months and has been released in federal court in Wisconsin. The story of his role in this case is told in a stack of court documents, more than 1,000 pages, filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and defense attorneys. Each side, of course, comes to a different conclusion.
Defense attorneys say Robeson was among up to 12 informants who worked on the case. They say he started working for the government in October 2019, eight months before the alleged kidnapping plot was hatched.
For a year’s work, the FBI paid him $19,328.79, court documents show.
But this wasn’t his first gig as an informant.
He was 22, already in trouble with the law back in 1985 in Wisconsin, when he testified that a leader of the Ghost Rider motorcycle gang had admitted to murder and arson when they shared a jail cell. He testified in exchange for leniency in his own minor criminal cases.
In 2005, reports show, he worked with police in Wisconsin in a murder-for-hire plot.
Attorneys for the men accused in the kidnapping plot have questioned the government’s use of informants. They argue it was Robeson and another key informant identified as “Big Dan” who worked with the FBI to entrap their clients into doing something they would never have done on their own.
‘I WANT THE GOVERNOR HOG-TIED’
But the feds argue that Adam Fox, one of the alleged leaders in the conspiracy, showed his intentions during his first meeting with Big Dan in June 2020, just days into the alleged conspiracy.
“I’m actually kind of serious about this,” the feds quote Fox as telling Big Dan. “But I want to have the governor hog-tied, laid out on a table while we all pose around like we just made the world’s biggest god-damn drug bust, bro.”
While it’s not clear how Robeson became an FBI informant, details have emerged in court about how Big Dan got his start. Big Dan was a 34-year-old father of a 3-year-old girl, working for the U.S. Postal Service, when he started his undercover work for the FBI in March 2020, he has testified. The former U.S. Army sergeant had served in combat duty in Iraq in 2007, where he suffered leg injuries, fractures of the lower part of his spine and traumatic brain injuries, he has said.
He testified in a hearing in March 2021 for three men facing related charges in Jackson County. He told the court that he came across the Wolverine Watchmen on Facebook, wanted to join for the military-style training, then quickly learned that members wanted to kill police officers.
“This was not training,” he testified. “This is wanting to do violence.”
He called a local police officer he knew, who set him up with the FBI.
Eventually, as an undercover operative, he became the Wolverine Watchmen’s executive officer and the FBI’s lead informant in the investigation into the alleged plot to kidnap the governor.
Big Dan got $54,000 for his help, documents show.
‘IT’S A DANGEROUS BUSINESS’
Former FBI agent Mike German says informants are critical to cases such as this, giving the FBI access it would not otherwise get. He says FBI agents are judged, in part, based on how well they develop informants.
German says a case like this would have been approved and supervised by FBI headquarters and the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C.
In this case, records show, the informants wore secret recording devices, including key fobs.
“Actually collecting real-time evidence of the crimes as they’re being planned and executed is critical to a successful prosecution,” German said.
But German, who wouldn’t talk about specifics of this case, says informants come with risks.
“Informants will make your career, but they will also break your career,” German said. “It’s a dangerous business. You’re dealing with people, most people who know something about the criminal element are from the criminal element.”
German once tracked homegrown terrorists for the FBI. He left the agency in 2004 after 16 years and became a whistleblower over what he called the agency’s mishandling of terrorism investigations.
He says the agency has come under fire over its use of informants.
The FBI pays its informants about $42 million a year, according to a 2019 audit by the Office of the Inspector General that found flaws in how the agency vetted confidential sources.
“They’re becoming friendly with an FBI agent for the purposes of betraying their friends, for whatever motivation, whether it’s money, whether it’s getting some benefit as far as their own misconduct is concerned,” German said.
‘CAN’T JUST GRAB BRICK AND MORTAR’
The government alleges the conspiracy to kidnap the governor started on June 6, 2020.
Defense attorneys say that’s the day Robeson organized and paid for a National Patriot Three Percenters militia meeting in Dublin, Ohio.
The Southern Poverty Law Center describes Three Percenterism as a movement, not a group, that claims to be ready to carry out armed resistance to perceived tyranny.
Among the Three Percenters at the Ohio meeting: Barry Croft Jr., of Delaware, who the feds say later became a leader in the Whitmer kidnapping plot.
The feds say they talked that day about murdering “tyrants” or “taking” a sitting governor, angry about the government’s response to COVID 19.
Defense attorneys say it was Robeson who suggested kidnapping at that first Three Percenters meeting, quoting him from a secretly recorded conversation as saying, “You can’t just grab brick and mortar. Without a (expletive) human to go with it, you’ve done nothing but grab brick and mortar.”
Adam Fox, who lived in the basement of a vacuum cleaner shop in Grand Rapids, attended that meeting in Ohio, the feds say. His attorney says he was invited.
The feds allege that Fox later became a leader of the kidnapping plot, recruiting members of Michigan’s Wolverine Watchmen militia group for his cause.
The next month, in July 2020, defense attorneys say, Robeson hosted field training in Cambria, Wisconsin, sending out invitations through Facebook, offering to pay for meals and provide weapons.
Defense attorneys say it was informant Big Dan who drove Fox and others to Cambria, more than a five-hour drive from Michigan. The feds say Croft, one of the alleged plot leaders, came all the way from Delaware to train with an assault rifle, a silencer and a projectile launcher.
Video from that training shows Croft racing through the yard, firing a weapon at targets as a photographer followed him.
According to court documents, they tried but failed to detonate IEDs fashioned with black powder, balloons, a fuse and BBs.
That day, the feds say, “Croft told an informant that they could use bombs to destroy police cars and take down communication towers, then use sniper rifles to kill Governor Whitmer’s protective detail and abduct her.”
Later in July 2020, defense attorneys say, Robeson hosted and paid for a “national” group gathering in the small town of Peebles, Ohio, an hour or so east of Cincinnati, providing “pizza, moonshine” and offering to pay for hotel rooms. That, the feds say, is where the suspects talked of attacking a Michigan State Police post and shooting up the governor’s vacation home.
But defense attorneys say it was Robeson who kept inciting trouble, quoting him from secretly recorded audio at that meeting:
“Everybody thinks we got time to do this and hang out and (expletive) sing kumbaya,” they say he said. “In two months your states are going to be locked back down again.”
Five days after that meeting in Peebles, Robeson was back in his home state of Wisconsin, marching against mask mandates.
“I think personal liberty violations are being forced upon us,” Robeson told a TV reporter.
Within two months, Robeson was in Luther, southwest of Cadillac, for more training with all six of the federal suspects, court records show.
The indictment says Croft and another suspect “detonated an improvised explosive device containing shrapnel near human silhouette targets hung by the conspirators to assess its effectiveness.”
That night, the Wisconsin informant was part of the surveillance of the governor’s cottage farther north in Elk Rapids. So was informant Big Dan, four of the six suspects, including Fox and Croft, and two undercover FBI agents, records show.
Among the FBI agents was a man known as “Red,” who said he could provide — at a cost of $4,000 — the material for a bomb to blow up a bridge to slow the police response.
Defense attorneys say it was Robeson and Big Dan who worked with FBI agents to plan the trip to case out the governor’s cottage. They say text messages suggest the FBI actually provided the address for the cottage and that agents had already set up low-light video cameras outside to record the visit.
“There’s been this tactic that the FBI has used where they embellish the case significantly, rather than focus on whatever criminal activity is occurring, try to make the case sexier by bringing in weapons that perhaps the defendants would not have been able to obtain absent the government’s intervention, often help in creating an elaborate plot that’s far beyond the scope of what this group could do,” German, the former FBI agent, said.
The former FBI agent says claims of entrapment aren’t unusual in cases involving informants and undercover agents.
“When there is some kind of undercover operation, in the culture called a sting operation, entrapment is the most common defense, because it’s pretty much the only defense left,” German said.
But entrapment, he says, is difficult to prove.
“It is not improper for the government to induce somebody to commit a crime so long as that person is predisposed to have committed that crime,” he said.
FEDS: ROBESON A ‘DOUBLE AGENT’
The feds wrapped up the investigation with arrests in October 2020, saying they ended it early because of a potential compromise to an informant.
In January 2022, the U.S. Attorney’s Office revealed that the FBI had dismissed Robeson as an informant, calling him a “double agent” working against the government. The feds say Robeson failed to tell his FBI handlers that he and others had recorded themselves conducting nighttime surveillance of the governor’s cottage on a dashcam. The government says he tried to obstruct the arrests, warning at least one defendant that he had been stopped by the feds.
Thirty minutes after the feds arrested Fox and the others on Oct. 7, Robeson called Croft to warn him that he was wanted, court records show.
Records show he then called another informant, not knowing she was working with the FBI, and told her to “encrypt the group’s training rosters, and said he would still help with the kidnapping.”
He then called “Big Dan,” also unaware he was an informant, and asked him to get rid of the USB drive with the surveillance footage, and told “Big Dan” to throw Barry Croft’s rifle into a lake and to get rid of the vehicle used during the night-time surveillance, the feds allege.
They accuse him of using money from a charity to buy “weapons of attack” and offering the use of a drone for acts of domestic terrorism.
The former FBI agent says that’s one of the dangers of working with informants.
“They’re risky to work with,” German said. “They’re only friendly to you because they’re betraying their friends, so you have to be careful not to become their friend because they’ll turn around and betray you just as easily.”
The feds later charged Robeson with being a felon in possession of a weapon for illegally buying and selling a sniper rifle in Wisconsin in September 2020 while he was working as an informant. It led to a guilty plea and probation, despite his long criminal history.
At his guilty plea, Robeson admitted violating his informant agreement with the FBI, but also suggested that the sniper rifle was part of his cover.
“I was tasked by the government to keep a persona to where I sometimes could have a firearm, sometimes I couldn’t,” he told the judge. “And I did not disclose to the agent like I should have, I was supposed to, that I did that at the time. I did in fact do what they said I did and I didn’t report it through the agent. And by doing so, I violated the rules and procedures that we had set in forth when I was tasked to do what I did.”
He told the judge he initially didn’t plan to sell the rifle.
“I did this trying to keep my undercover position where I was at and kind of make me look a little more aggressive in the organization,” he told the judge.
He sold it, for a profit, he said, because “it served no more purpose after that…everything was in motion for the government.”
Now, he and his wife are charged with conning a woman in Wisconsin to donate a $3,500 SUV to their nonprofit called “Race to Unite Races” in August 2020, also while he was working as an informant, records show.
“It is our goal to bridge the racial divide, leading to positive social change in order to bring unity to all people,” the nonprofit’s Facebook page says.
But police say the nonprofit never existed. Instead, police say, he and his wife sold the SUV for cash to buy themselves a car.
That case is pending.
TOWNSFOLK IN THE DARK
This is all news to the people of Oxford, Wisc.
Regulars at Franny May’s restaurant say Robeson at one time was also a regular there.
“He would come in here and sit and have coffee, then he’d tell us about going down to Madison to protest what the governor down there, what they were doing,” said Franny May’s regular Jeff Schacher.
Schacher lives next door to Robeson.
“One day last summer, the FBI were over there and they had about a dozen black SUVs, had everybody (from the house) standing in the road,” Schacher said. “They were tearing that house apart looking for something.”
But, he says, he had no idea about his neighbor’s work as an informant.
“Yeah, you learn something new every day,” he said.
Target 8 tried repeatedly over three days in February to catch Robeson at his fire-damaged home.
“He is still in Madison,” his sister said. “When I talked to him yesterday, he told me to tell you no comment right now because it’s still an ongoing case.”