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3 accused in conspiracy to kidnap Whitmer, take out Virginia gov denied bond

Robert Snell George Hunter
The Detroit News

Grand Rapids — Members of an alleged conspiracy to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer also talked about leaving her in the middle of Lake Michigan and "taking out" a second politician, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, an FBI agent testified Tuesday.

FBI Special Agent Richard Trask identified the Virginia governor, a Democrat, during a hearing in federal court in Grand Rapids that ended with a magistrate judge ordering Waterford resident Kaleb Franks, Lake Orion resident Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta of Canton Township jailed without bond while awaiting trial after determining they are dangers to the community.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam

“They discussed possible targets, taking out a sitting governor, specifically issues with the governors of Michigan and Virginia,” due to lockdown orders instituted during the COVID-19 pandemic, Trask testified.

The FBI alerted key members of Northam's security team during its investigation, but the Virginia governor and his staff members weren't told in accordance with security protocols, Northam press secretary Alena Yarmosky said Tuesday.

Members of an alleged conspiracy to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer also talked about leaving her in the middle of Lake Michigan and "taking out" a second politician, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, according to the FBI.

"At no time was the governor or his family in imminent danger," Yarmosky said. "Enhanced security measures have been in place for Gov. Northam and his family for quite some time, and they will remain."

 Northam said during a Tuesday press conference that he "will not work under a cloud of intimidation," adding he has been in harm's way before.

"As you know, I served in the United States Army for eight years. I was involved in a conflict against Iraq. We knew who the enemy was. We knew it was dangerous. We knew we were in harm's way, but I wasn't intimidated by that, and I was proud to fight for my country," he said.

What's different now that concerns him is the rhetoric being said about America's elected officials, specifically Whitmer.

"Not just me — it's not about me — the governor of Michigan," he said. "These threats are not coming, and this rhetoric is not coming, from another country. It's coming from Washington. And that I regret. And it needs to stop."

Tuesday's hearing provided a peek at the multimedia trove of evidence gathered during the investigation, including secret audio and video recordings and encrypted chatsand suggested the plot targeted additional politicians and sought to topple governments in as many as five states.

One of the videos shown in court showed men jumping out of cars and firing weapons.

The bond hearing provided new details about how investigators infiltrated the alleged conspiracy with informants and undercover agents. It also revealed that members discussed kidnapping Whitmer and using a boat to leave her alone in Lake Michigan.

And testimony portrayed members of the alleged conspiracy as security-conscious schemers who were caught despite using encrypted chat applications and foul-mouthed code names for each other.

Prosecutor Nils Kessler said the defendants used photos to speak in code with each other: a picture of scissors, a police car and a bridge were put together to mean "Can we cut police off at the bridge?"

The three defendants on Tuesday were:

  • Franks, 26, known as "Red Hot"
  • Harris, 23, known as "Beaker"
  • Caserta, 32, known as "Debased Tyrant"

Adam "Alpha F--- You" Fox, 37, of Potterville, and Ty "Gunney" Garbin, 24, of Hartland Township, had their hearings moved to Friday. A sixth man, Barry Croft, 44, of Bear, Delaware, is in custody in Delaware. He is being transferred to Michigan after a brief Tuesday hearing in federal court in Wilmington. He did not speak at the hearing but was present via video conference.

The detention hearings provided a view of the defense strategy. Lawyers on Tuesday portrayed their clients as men of inaction, tough talkers who were followers and less culpable than others charged in the conspiracy.

“What we have are statements and no follow-through,” Harris’ lawyer, Parker Douglas, told the magistrate judge.

Defense lawyer Michael Darragh Hills emphasized that Caserta was not present during a surveillance run at the governor’s vacation home in September.

“Mr. Caserta was not part of that, right?” Hills asked the FBI agent

“He did not go on that surveillance,” Trask said.

Kaleb Franks’ lawyer, Scott Graham, pushed the FBI agent to admit there was no evidence that Franks was involved in explosives that would be used to help kidnap the governor.

“You don’t have that information today, do you?” the lawyer asked.

The FBI agent said he needed to review his files.

Early questioning from Graham framed the alleged plot as tough talk between “crackpots” and that an FBI informant was trying to lead others to commit crimes.

“People who talk a lot, talk brashly, boldly, but who are never going to do anything to act on that. You’ve seen people like that?” the attorney asked.

“I have seen that,” the FBI agent said.

By comparison, Franks was a follower, his attorney said.

“When we listen, your informant was pushing people like Kaleb to do things that were criminal,” Graham said.

“I would not say that our informant was pushing people to do things criminal in nature but they were having discussions, yes," Trask said.

Earlier in the day, Caserta, wearing a face mask and a muscle shirt that revealed tattoos covering his arms, was led into the courtroom handcuffed, in leg irons and with chains across his stomach. He pulled down his mask and mouthed "I love you" to someone in the audience.

Later, as he was led out of court, he looked at a woman and a man, who Hills identified as Caserta's aunt and stepbrother. 

The woman said to him: "Love you. Stay safe." In response, Caserta shrugged.

The hearings came less than a week after the men were arrested along with seven members and associates of a Michigan militia known as the Wolverine Watchmen. State officials have accused them of wanting to overthrow Michigan's Capitol, target police and "instigate civil war." Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel charged the seven with the state’s anti-terrorism law, a 20-year felony.

►Read more: Alleged Whitmer plotters' training site had shotgun shells, human silhouettes

Though incomplete, available public records reveal nothing in the defendants' backgrounds comparable to a grand conspiracy to kill a prominent state leader and topple governments in several states.

Federal documents filed in court Thursday allege the conspirators twice conducted surveillance at Whitmer's personal vacation home in northern Michigan and discussed kidnapping her to a "secure location" in Wisconsin to stand "trial" for treason prior to the Nov. 3 election.

Earlier this year, Croft and Fox, who was also charged in the kidnapping plot, were identified by federal authorities as individuals who allegedly agreed to unite with others in their cause to take "violent action" against multiple state governments they believed are violating the U.S. Constitution.

Like Whitmer, Northam blamed President Donald Trump for inspiring the alleged conspirators.

"Here’s the reality: President Trump called upon his supporters to 'LIBERATE VIRGINIA' in April — just like Michigan," Yarmosky said. "In fact, the president regularly encourages violence against those who disagree with him. The rhetoric coming out of this White House has serious and potentially deadly consequences. It must stop."

Trump slammed Whitmer on social media late Thursday night, saying the Democratic governor had called him a white supremacist instead of thanking him for federal authorities who filed the kidnapping plot against her. 

"I do not tolerate any extreme violence," Trump tweeted. "Defending ALL Americans, even those who oppose and attack me, is what I will always do as your President!"

rsnell@detroitnews.com

ghunter@detroitnews.com

Staff Writers Melissa Nann Burke and Sarah Rahal contributed.