Whitmer kidnap case prosecutors cite drive-by shooting amid concerns about witness safety
An alleged bombmaker charged with plotting to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer should not get an early look at the government's witness list due to safety concerns raised by an apparent drive-by shooting earlier this year at one suspected witness' workplace, prosecutors said Thursday.
Prosecutors revealed the drive-by shooting while fighting attempts by defense lawyers to identify government witnesses in a case involving allegations of violent extremism, political violence and weapons of mass destruction.
Many details about the apparent drive-by shooting remained unclear Thursday, including the location and identities of those involved. But the April shooting followed sustained attempts by accused kidnap plotter Barry Croft to identify government witnesses and confidential informants within the ranks of self-styled militia groups, including the Wolverine Watchmen and Three Percenters, according to prosecutors.
On April 12, a co-worker of one of the suspected witnesses called police following an apparent drive-by shooting, prosecutors wrote. The co-worker bears a passing resemblance to the suspected witness, prosecutors wrote.
"The victim stated that he was outside their workplace at approximately 1:45 a.m., when a car with its headlights turned off slowed down near him and fired a total of four shots," Assistant U.S. Attorney Nils Kessler wrote in a court filing. "It remains unclear whether the shooting was directed at the victim, at the suspected witness identified by Croft, or was an unrelated incident."
Croft wants early access to lists of government witnesses who are expected to testify during an Oct. 12 trial in federal court in Grand Rapids. Croft, 45, of Bear, Delaware, and four others who prosecutors say were motivated by anger over state restrictions on travel and business during the COVID-19 pandemic face up to life in prison if convicted of kidnapping and weapons of mass destruction conspiracies.
The drive-by shooting allegation raises concerns about the security and safety of witnesses and at least 12 informants who helped the FBI infiltrate the alleged kidnapping plot. The informants are expected to play a significant role in the October trial of Croft and four others charged in the alleged conspiracies.
"What Croft is evidently after — identification of the informants among his associates — is likely to lead to witness tampering, intimidation, or retaliation," Kessler wrote.
Croft's lawyer, Josh Blanchard, last month raised questions about whether the FBI was trying to sabotage defense teams ahead of the landmark trial. He cited an audio recording of lead investigator FBI Special Agent Henrik Impola talking about creating "disarray and chaos" for defense lawyers, whom he labeled "paid liars."
"The FBI agent bragged about his ability to cloud the water for the defense," Blanchard wrote in a message Thursday to The Detroit News. "This baseless accusation is more of the same."
The government's filing came one day after a sixth man, Hartland Township resident Ty Garbin, was sentenced to six years in federal prison for his role in the alleged plot. Another eight people have been charged in state court with crimes related to the kidnapping plot and threats to overthrow the government.
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Defense lawyers in the federal case are challenging the conduct of undercover FBI agents — including an agent who was recently arrested and charged with assaulting his wife — and claim the defendants were entrapped by the government and that there was no plot to kidnap Whitmer.
Prosecutors have said Croft is the national leader of the Three Percenters. He is portrayed in government filings as one of the plot ringleaders and the group’s bombmaker.
"Since his arrest Croft has communicated with media outlets and third-party sympathizers, in a continuing effort to identify confidential informants and government witnesses," Kessler wrote.
In June 2020, Croft talked about the identities of suspected government witnesses during a recorded phone call with an associate from Wisconsin, prosecutors wrote. That unidentified associate posted a YouTube video on July 4 that named two suspected informants, according to the filing.
The same associate earlier posted a YouTube video that identified two suspected government witnesses.
In general, defendants charged in federal court are not entitled to a list of witness names and addresses. Judges, however, can order prosecutors to share the lists with defense lawyers.
Defense teams in the Whitmer kidnapping case have had almost a year to prepare for trial and can anticipate most of the government's witnesses, the prosecutor wrote.
"The earlier such witnesses are disclosed, the longer their safety will be at risk," Kessler wrote.