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Feds fear accused Whitmer kidnap plotters could target informants

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Federal prosecutors asked a judge Tuesday to prevent men accused of plotting to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer from leaking the identities of informants and undercover agents who infiltrated the alleged conspiracy.

Prosecutors fear the premature identification of informants and undercover agents could lead to witness tampering or worse. On Tuesday, they asked U.S. Magistrate Judge Sally Berens to issue a protective order shielding evidence from anyone outside of the defense team, court officials and potential witnesses.

"Such premature identification might reasonably be expected to lead to witness tampering, intimidation and/or retaliation," Assistant U.S. Attorney Nils Kessler wrote in a court filing. "If not by the defendants themselves, by individuals or groups sympathetic to their perceived aims. In addition, pretrial dissemination of unadmitted evidence could taint the jury pool and create challenges to the selection of an unbiased venire (jury pool)."

The request comes ahead of plans by federal prosecutors to share evidence with lawyers for six people accused in the kidnapping conspiracy. The evidence includes chat messages and recorded conversations among the defendants, FBI informants and undercover agents.

The recordings and messages include names, phone numbers, recognizable voices and other identifying details, the prosecutor said.

Lawyers for five of the defendants do not oppose the request, prosecutors said. A sixth man, Barry Croft of Bear, Delaware, is in the process of being transferred to Michigan.

The messages and audio recordings helped convince a federal magistrate judge to order five of the accused plotters to stand trial following an FBI investigation that revealed a broader plot to kidnap the governor and spark a civil war.

In all, 14 people have been charged with crimes in state and federal courts in connection with the alleged plot, including members and associates of an obscure militia, the Wolverine Watchmen.

Other evidence includes photos and videos showing defendants firing weapons, threatening to kill law enforcement officers and testing an 800,000-volt Taser that was supposed to be used to subdue Michigan's highest-ranking politician.

The state and federal cases filed have focused attention on anti-government extremism in Michigan amid fallout from spring lockdown orders aimed at stemming the spread of COVID-19.

Accused ringleader Adam Fox purchased an 800,000-volt Taser to use in kidnapping Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, according to the FBI.

FBI agents said Whitmer was among several governors singled out by the accused plotters. Others included South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, while one accused plotter threatened to hang President Donald Trump.

Defense lawyers have portrayed their clients as tough talkers who were exercising their First Amendment rights but never carried out any kidnapping plot. Specifically, the lawyers of Waterford Township resident Kaleb Franks have called the plot absurd and said there was no imminent threat to public officials.

rsnell@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @robertsnellnews