Michigan governor kidnap plotters wanted to disrupt a Biden presidency, one member testifies
By Lauren del Valle, CNN
(CNN) -- The alleged plotters who wanted to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in 2020 also had a goal to disrupt a possible Joe Biden presidency, one of the men told a federal court this week.
"We wanted to cause as much of a disruption as possible to prevent Joe Biden from getting into office," Ty Garbin said in court Wednesday. Garbin is one of two people originally charged in a federal indictment in connection to the kidnapping plot who testified against the remaining co-defendants.
Adam Fox, Barry Croft, Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta face federal charges of conspiring to kidnap the Democratic governor. Fox, Croft and Harris face additional charges of conspiring to use weapons of mass destruction including explosive devices, according to court documents. Croft and Harris are also charged with possessing destructive devices, counts added in a second indictment last April. All have pleaded not guilty.
The case underscores the political tensions in Michigan that reached new heights as Whitmer faced backlash for restrictions she imposed in 2020 in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Garbin said the group's goal was to kidnap Whitmer before the presidential election in November 2020. The men were concerned they might lose their opportunity to kidnap her if they waited until after the election because they thought she might be named to Biden's Cabinet, he testified.
The men were eventually arrested in October before they could allegedly act.
Kaleb Franks, who also pleaded guilty to kidnapping conspiracy, testified Thursday that he joined the group's plot because of his suicidal ideations. "I was hoping that I would be killed in the process," Franks said. "Because I no longer wanted to live. A large portion of my family had died, I was struggling financially and just wasn't happy."
In early summer 2020, the men and their alleged co-conspirators ran in circles with like-minded individuals who were disenchanted with the political situation in the US, gathering several times in multiple states to discuss what they could do about it, including violent measures.
The defendants also gathered with others on multiple occasions for militia-style training events to practice their tactical skills.
The alleged conspiracy against Whitmer gained traction in September as the men actively discussed the plot in encrypted chat threads, made moves to obtain explosives and trained specifically for the kidnapping.
At a training event Garbin hosted on his property in Luther, Michigan, he set up a "shoot house" made of tarps and wooden posts meant to simulate going through Whitmer's home during an "extraction."
"This one was to be as close to a actual home residence as we could get without having the blueprints," Garbin said in court.
Prosecutor Nils Kessler asked if Garbin thought his alleged co-conspirators knew the training exercise was specifically meant to prepare for the plot to kidnap Whitmer.
"No question," Garbin said.
At night, Garbin, Franks, Fox, Croft and others went on a reconnaissance mission to surveil the area where Whitmer has a family vacation home in Elk Rapids, Michigan, according to Garbin and Franks.
Law enforcement eventually obtained dashcam footage the group recorded that night to use as a reference for future planning.
Fox, the alleged plot leader, gave orders that night to review the area surrounding Whitmer's home in three cars, Garbin said.
"The plan was for one vehicle to go down the street to get actual eyes on the house itself. Another vehicle was going to be (the) security car to patrol. And then the third vehicle we had was going to go take a look at the bridge and the marina," Garbin said.
Defendants Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta didn't make it on the surveillance trip because they were drunk at the training site, Garbin and Franks both said, but the men later asked for a summary of the mission.
"Was (Fox) the leader of this conspiracy in your opinion?" Adam Fox's lawyer asked Garbin during cross-examination.
"Yes," Garbin said.
In an encrypted messaging chat, Fox invited the other defendants to another training at his workplace to "work on acquiring an asset and detaining through extraction."
The group planned to extract Whitmer from the vacation home and bring her to a nearby boat launch where the men would take her by boat out of the area via Lake Michigan, according to Garbin. They also planned to bomb a nearby bridge to slow down responding law enforcement, he testified.
Croft specifically discussed using his grenade launcher and a mounted machine gun to thwart law enforcement response to the scene, Franks echoed during his testimony Thursday.
Croft and Harris, a former Marine, also practiced detonating an explosive filled with shrapnel that weekend using human silhouettes made of paper, Franks said.
A man who knew Adam Fox from another Michigan militia group, Matthew Keepers, testified Wednesday morning that Fox reached out to him earlier that summer for help with explosives. Fox sent Keepers messages on Facebook asking him to procure him explosives, help him build explosives or at least teach him how to do it himself.
Role of 'Dan'
Prosecuting and defense attorneys all placed a paid confidential informant "Dan" at the crux of this case. The military veteran who initially joined the militia-style group Wolverine Watchmen looking to practice weapons handling with a militia, quickly blew the whistle on the group, alarmed by their violent discussions, prosecutors said.
The four defense attorneys have argued their clients were entrapped by Dan and other paid confidential informants and undercover FBI agents who lured them to events and meetings where they secretly recorded conversations.
Franks testified Thursday that that he personally spoke to each defendant about their plans to kidnap Whitmer, contrary to defense attempts throughout the trial to pin the scheme on confidential informants.
Garbin, 26, was sentenced to more than six years in prison last year and could receive a further sentence reduction for his continued cooperation.
Garbin testified for a grand jury in this case and began cooperating with the government early on, prosecutors have said.
Franks, 27, is scheduled to be sentenced in June. He's hoping for a reduced sentence in exchange for his testimony.
Kaleb Franks is expected to continue testifying Friday morning, answering questions from defense attorneys.
Defense attorneys said in court Thursday afternoon that they want to attack Franks' credibility, questioning him about prior convictions and an incident during his most recent incarceration connected to this case.
Franks admitted to using a controlled substance while detained, prosecutors said, acknowledging an investigation is underway.
Prosecutors said they intend to rest their case by the end of next week.
Defense attorneys have classified potential witnesses as training event attendees, law enforcement agents not called during the government's case and character witnesses.
An attorney for Adam Fox said he may call a controversial paid informant during his defense case, despite the informant expressing his intention to invoke his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself.
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