GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The trial begins March 8 in U.S. District Court in Grand Rapids for four of the six men charged federally with plotting to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in 2020.
Two of the men have already pleaded guilty.
Here are key issues raised ahead of the trial, which is expected to last at least four weeks:
The four remaining federal defendants — Adam Fox, Barry Croft Jr., Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta — claim the FBI and its informants entrapped them into committing a crime they wouldn’t have otherwise committed.
Defense attorneys say informants planned and ran militia meetings and training exercises and led the trip to conduct surveillance on the governor’s cottage near Elk Rapids. They say their clients were nothing but big talkers and that some even spoke against kidnapping.
“No snatch and grab. I swear to (expletive) God,” suspect Daniel Harris was recorded saying at one point.
But the feds dispute that, pointing to recordings like this, of alleged conspiracy co-leader Adam Fox: “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.”
In January, U.S. District Judge Robert J. Jonker denied a defense request to dismiss the case based on entrapment. The judge wrote that the key question to answer is whether law enforcement planted a criminal design in the mind of an otherwise law-abiding citizen or whether the government merely provided an opportunity to commit a crime to one who was already predisposed to do so.
“Having reviewed the record in this case so far, the court finds that it is neither ‘undisputed’ nor ‘patently clear’ that defendants were not predisposed to commit the crimes charged,” the judge ruled. “At this pretrial stage, the court concludes that the defense has not demonstrated as a matter of law that defendants’ wills were overcome by the actions of the government.”
He ruled the jury should decide.
QUESTIONS RAISED ABOUT LEAD FBI AGENTS
The U.S. Attorney’s Office says it won’t call as witnesses the three FBI special agents who have been publicly identified in the case:
- Robert J. Trask, who was fired by the FBI last year after he was convicted of assaulting his wife. He also made anti-Trump social media posts;
- 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.
Both Chambers and Impola worked closely with informants in the case, records show.
The feds plan to call two other FBI agents, identified only as “Red” and “Mark,” but have asked the judge to allow them to testify using fake names. Both worked undercover. “Red” was introduced to the group as an explosives expert to divert the suspects “from their efforts to recruit independent bombmakers,” while “Mark” joined the group “posing as a like-minded militia enthusiast from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan,” the feds say in court documents.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office wrote that both agents are “currently involved in undercover anti-terrorism investigations unrelated to this case.” They asked that they testify under assumed names to protect those investigations and for their own safety.
If not, the feds say, “it is reasonable to assume that associates of (suspect Barry) Croft will attend the trial, and will take down and disseminate the true identities of the UCE (undercover) witnesses.”
The feds claim that associates of Croft have “offered a cash bounty for the identity of informants and have publicly called for violent retaliation against the FBI.”
Defense attorneys argue that allowing them to testify using pseudonyms would suggest to jurors that the defendants are so dangerous that even FBI agents are afraid of them.
USE OF INFORMANTS
Defense attorneys say that two informants — “Big Dan” and Steve — were the true leaders of the conspiracy. The FBI paid “Big Dan” $54,000 and paid Steve, later identified as Stephen Robeson, more than $19,000.
They were among a dozen informants who worked the case, defense attorneys say.
“Big Dan” is expected to be a key government witness.
Defense attorneys plan to call Robeson as a defense witness. They had asked the judge to give him immunity. The feds say Robeson could still face criminal charges after the FBI said he became a “double agent” and tried to help the suspects. The judge denied the immunity request.