Accused Whitmer kidnap plotter pleads guilty, will 'fully cooperate'

Robert Snell and Kayla Ruble
The Detroit News

Grand Rapids — A Hartland Township man pleaded guilty Wednesday to plotting with several others to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, securing the first conviction in a high-profile case involving violent extremism in Michigan.

The conviction of Ty Garbin, 25, in federal court came as the Department of Homeland Security issued a national terrorism bulletin Wednesday warning of the potential for lingering violence from people motivated by anti-government sentiment. In Garbin's case, he was accused of being motivated by anger over state restrictions on travel and business during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The court hearing unfolded more than seven hours ahead of Whitmer’s annual State of the State address, and the plea deal provided new details about how prosecutors say conspirators practiced to abduct the governor and restrain her with a Taser and zip ties.

Garbin has agreed to “fully cooperate” with the FBI, U.S. Attorney’s Office, Michigan State Police and Attorney General’s Office in ongoing investigations and cases in federal and state court, according to the plea deal. He also has agreed to submit to polygraph tests and testify against the others charged in the kidnap plot.

“It might mean someday you are called to the courtroom and obligated to tell the truth … even if it ends up hurting people you know. Do you think you could do that?” U.S. District Judge Robert Jonker asked Garbin.

“I could, your honor,” said Garbin, wearing a forest green prison jumpsuit, black-framed glasses and shackles on his hands and legs as he sat with three defense lawyers.

The kidnapping conspiracy charge is punishable by up to life in federal prison, and Garbin will be sentenced on July 8.

Behind Garbin, the audience inside the courtroom was thin, with the benches dotted largely with federal agents, reporters and courthouse security. Amid heightened concerns about the pandemic, Garbin’s family was unable to attend in person and instead watched an online feed.

His plea deal comes after prosecutors revealed they were armed with hundreds of hours of undercover audio recordings, surveillance video, help from multiple informants — including fellow militia members — undercover FBI agents and more than 13,000 pages of encrypted text messages.

The evidence motivated Garbin to plead guilty, his lawyer, Mark Satawa, told reporters outside federal court.

“Our client is willingly ... pleading guilty here in a sense that he feels it's the right thing to do,” Satawa said. 

“This is about our client saying: 'Look, I need to own up to what I did. It was wrong. I'm accepting responsibility. I'm sorry for having done it.' And he is doing that with eyes wide open."

The development comes two weeks after Garbin was ordered to stand trial on March 23 alongside five others accused by the federal government in the kidnapping plot. Garbin was arrested three months ago, and the FBI said agents had thwarted the kidnapping plot.

After Garbin pleaded guilty Wednesday, lawyers for the remaining defendants asked for the trial to be delayed until September, citing the volume of evidence and list of cooperating witnesses that now includes Garbin.

Garbin's former co-defendants are charged with conspiracy to commit kidnapping, a felony punishable by up to life in prison. Eight others are facing terrorism-related charges in state court.

The potential for additional charges also influenced Garbin’s decision to plead guilty, Satawa said, including a possible weapons of mass destruction charge. Garbin would have faced significantly higher sentencing guidelines under a weapons of mass destruction charge than the kidnapping conspiracy charge, his lawyer said.

“Our client stepped to the podium first and said, this is wrong, and I'm willing to take punishment for it,” Satawa said. “It's hard to imagine anything else that could indicate true remorse than accepting that.”

The conspiracy described by FBI agents involved surveilling Whitmer's vacation home in northern Michigan and training with firearms and improvised explosive devices.

Co-conspirators are accused of discussing kidnapping Whitmer and leaving her in the middle of Lake Michigan. They also allegedly discussed "taking out" a second politician, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, and targeting other elected officials, including former President Donald Trump.

Defense lawyers have portrayed their clients as tough talkers who were exercising their First Amendment rights who never carried out any kidnapping plot.

Brandon Caserta fires a weapon while training with other accused members of a plot to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

The FBI portrayed Garbin in court filings as a willing participant in planning an attack on Whitmer at the vacation home in northern Michigan, hosting training sessions at his rural property in Luther and helping build an improvised explosive device comprised of black powder, balloons, a fuse and BBs for shrapnel.

He used emojis in one private chat while suggesting to blow up a bridge near the property to hinder law enforcement and joined a nighttime surveillance run at the governor’s vacation home, according to the FBI.

Prosecutors accused Garbin of training for an attack to overthrow the government, and suggested “shooting up the governor’s vacation home,” according to FBI Special Agent Richard Trask.

“He said he was ‘cool’ with going after the governor’s vacation home, however, even if it only resulted in destruction of property,” the agent wrote in an affidavit. “Garbin offered to paint his personal boat black to support the surveillance of the vacation home from the lake where the vacation home is situated.”

FBI agents raided this secluded camp on October 7, 2020 in Luther, MI used by militia members for planning, explosives detonation, and other weapons training in connection with a plot to kidnap Governor Whitmer.

As a convicted felon, Garbin won't be permitted to possess firearms.

“I understand firearms have been a focus of yours,” the judge told Garbin on Wednesday. “But they won’t be."

Garbin and three others accused in the plot — Lake Orion resident Daniel Harris, Waterford Township resident Kaleb Franks and Canton Township resident Brandon Caserta — were members of the Wolverine Watchmen, a self-styled militia group based in Michigan, according to the plea deal.

Garbin will admit he met another accused kidnap plotter, Adam Fox of Potterville, at a Second Amendment Rally outside the state Capitol in June, prosecutors said. Fox wanted to recruit 200 people to storm the Capitol, capture politicians, put them on trial for treason and hang them on live television, according to the government.

Garbin's plea deal also includes new details about the alleged plot. In an encrypted chat on Sept. 19, Fox told Garbin and others that he was preparing the basement of a vacuum cleaner supply shop near Grand Rapids so the group could train to kidnap Whitmer.

“That sounds pretty tight,” Caserta texted the group, according to the plea deal.

Fox said he had a Taser and zip ties, “which would be good for ‘neutralizing’ the governor,” according to the plea deal.

During the Wednesday hearing, Garbin's voice grew shakier as the judge started to explain some aspects of the conviction.

"I understand, your honor," said Garbin, his voice breaking.

Garbin later became louder and more assertive, at one point correcting an error in the plea deal involving items seized by investigators.

Another member of Garbin's legal team, attorney Gary Springstead, declined to detail specific leverage their client might have offered prosecutors, but he acknowledged having witnesses is always critical for the government in this type of case.

“In addition to having informants, you also want to have other people who can tell the story and kind of round out the picture that may not have been captured ... between an accused and an undercover agent,” Springstead said.

Twitter: @robertsnellnews

Associated Press contributed.