Accused Whitmer kidnappers indicted ahead of court hearing detailing evidence
A grand jury indicted six men accused of plotting to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer as federal prosecutors provided a broader view Thursday of evidence collected during a sprawling FBI investigation.
FBI counterterrorism agents executed federal search warrants against men in multiple states, searched an isolated firing range in northern Michigan, raided homes in Metro Detroit and created 3D renderings of some of the sites to give prospective jurors an intimate view of what is described as violent extremism targeting the governor of Michigan, according to federal court filings.
Prosecutors revealed the trove of evidence as five of the six men pleaded not guilty during arraignments held via videoconference Thursday in front of U.S. Magistrate Judge Sally Berens. They are charged with kidnapping conspiracy and, if convicted, face up to life to federal prison, according to an indictment filed late Wednesday.
A trial has not been scheduled, but prosecutors said Thursday they anticipate a trial would last three weeks. It likely would be a multimedia event filled with secretly recorded audio and video captured by informants and undercover FBI agents who infiltrated the group and thwarted plans to obtain explosives for the kidnapping plot.
The arraignments lasted a few minutes but contained surreal moments. For each man, Berens asked if they understood that it was illegal to conspire to kidnap the governor of Michigan.
“Yes,” Canton Township resident Brandon Caserta, 32, said.
“Yes, your honor,” accused ringleader Adam Fox, 37, of Potterville, said.
The kidnapping conspiracy indictment provided few new details. But the six-page court filing alleges Caserta told his co-conspirators during an encrypted video chat "that if they encountered police during a reconnaissance, they should give the officers one opportunity to leave, and kill them if they did not comply."
Prosecutors have said the group was motivated by anger over state restrictions on travel and business during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In all, 14 people have been charged in the alleged kidnapping plot with state and federal crimes. Authorities say the plot involved training and planning by a militia group known as the Wolverine Watchmen to kidnap Whitmer and storm Michigan's Capitol in Lansing.
Others arraigned on the indictment Thursday included:
• Ty Garbin, 25, of Hartland Township.
• Kaleb Franks, 26, of Waterford Township.
• Daniel Harris, 23, of Lake Orion.
A sixth man, Barry Croft, 44, of Delaware is in custody in Philadelphia and in the process of being transferred to Michigan.
Defense lawyers have portrayed their clients as tough talkers who were exercising their First Amendment rights who never carried out any kidnapping plot.
Prosecutors listed some of the evidence collected since spring and revealed numerous search warrants were executed at the defendants' homes.
Investigators raided a training ground used by the men in Luther, in the northern Michigan woods, 30 miles southwest of Cadillac. After raiding the site in October, FBI agents created a 3D rendering of the property, according to an evidence list filed in federal court Thursday.
Almost all of the search warrants remain sealed in federal court. But evidence lists filed in court Thursday show FBI agents searched social media accounts belonging to the men — everything from Croft's Facebook account to a TikTok account belonging to Caserta, according to court filings.
Croft, meanwhile, also threatened to hang President Donald Trump and posted a hit list on Facebook targeting other elected leaders, including former President Barack Obama, according to an unsealed search warrant affidavit first obtained by The Detroit News.
The affidavit provides new details about how the FBI thwarted the alleged plot to kidnap Whitmer, a Democrat, and kill police officers by enlisting the help of confidential informants. One of the informants was a militia member who met a group of men accused in the kidnapping plot and became so concerned that the individual agreed to become an FBI confidential informant, according to the court filing.
Evidence collected by FBI agents portrays his Facebook account as a virtual bulletin board filled with violent imagery, including a noose and a list of grievances in which he mulled killing Democrats and Republicans including South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, Muslims and liberals.
The affidavit helps trace the roots of an investigation that emerged in early October when FBI agents said they thwarted a plot to violently overthrow the government as well as kidnap and harm Whitmer. The conspiracy included surveillance visits to the governor's home in northern Michigan and training with firearms and explosive devices.
The FBI started investigating in March after an unidentified police department learned about members of the militia group who were trying to obtain the home addresses of local police officers, according to court filings.