Whitmer kidnap trial will include explosives, virtual recreations of training camp
The prosecution next month of four men accused of plotting to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer will be a multimedia production with testimony from four dozen witnesses, a replica bomb built by the FBI, virtual recreations of key locations, including a secret training camp, and a discrete plan to compensate for scandals engulfing the case.
Federal prosecutors sketched a broad trial outline in a court filing Thursday that provided a detailed view of a closely watched case that has shed light on violent extremism in Michigan. The case has coincided with a rise in political violence that culminated in the Jan. 6, 2021 riot at the U.S. Capitol.
Prosecutors plan to call as many as 48 witnesses, including two undercover FBI special agents, at least one informant and convicted plotters Ty Garbin and Kaleb Franks. Another dozen civilians with knowledge of the kidnapping plot also will testify.
Four people are scheduled to stand trial March 8 in federal court in Grand Rapids and face up to life in prison if convicted of the kidnapping charge. They are accused ringleaders Adam Fox, 38, of Potterville and Delaware resident Barry Croft, 46; Lake Orion resident Daniel Harris, 24, and Brandon Caserta, 33, of Canton Township.
"Both Garbin and Franks will testify against the remaining defendants at trial," Assistant U.S. Attorney Nils Kessler wrote in a trial brief. "Among other things, they will testify that Fox and Croft initiated the kidnapping plot; that Harris and Caserta voluntarily joined it; and that none of the defendants were entrapped by law enforcement."
Along with the testimony, prosecutors plan to show jurors text messages, social media communications, including audio, video and texts, and videos of key events central to the alleged plot. Trial evidence will include undercover audio recordings of the defendants talking about kidnapping.
Fox, Croft and Harris are accused of conspiring to use explosives as part of a plot motivated by anger over COVID-19 restrictions imposed by the governor. Defense lawyers have argued there was no plot and that FBI agents and informants entrapped the men.
Jurors will be shown three-dimensional video recreations of Fox's workplace in the basement of a Grand Rapids vacuum shop, the group's training camp near Luther, and a highway bridge near Whitmer's vacation home under which Fox and Croft are accused of planning to place a bomb.
The three-dimensional videos consist of photographs of the various scenes. A similar reconstruction was used to reconstruct Bishop International Airport during the prosecution of Canadian Amor Ftouhi. He was convicted of a terrorism charge for stabbing a police officer during a terror attack in 2017 at the Flint airport.
Other trial recordings will include a video of an FBI explosives expert and forensic chemist detonating a replica bomb nearly identical to the one prosecutors say was detonated by Croft and Harris in September 2020.
The replica bomb built by FBI personnel used the same firework purchased by Croft.
“Although testimony at trial will establish Croft taped pennies to the original device as shrapnel, this element was omitted from the demonstration to avoid any risk of unfair prejudice,” the prosecutor wrote. “The agents will testify, however, that the addition of shrapnel indicates the device was intended as a weapon.”
Prosecutors also explained what won't be part of the government's case.
Informant Stephen Robeson, as expected, will not testify for the government. Prosecutors charged him with a gun crime after the Wisconsin felon helped build a case against the accused Whitmer kidnap plotters.
Prosecutors dropped him as an informant because Robeson was working as a double agent who offered to use a drone to commit domestic terrorism and use charity money to finance attacks, prosecutors alleged last month.
Though he won't testify, Robeson will be part of the government's case. Prosecutors plan to use secret recordings Robeson made during the investigation.
"For example, an agent will testify that he gave a recorder to “Steve,” later retrieved it from him, and listened to the resulting recordings of him speaking with Fox and/or Croft," the prosecutor wrote.
Prosecutors also have said they do not plan to call as a witness former FBI Special Agent Richard Trask. Trask served as the FBI's public face in the Whitmer case, testifying during earlier court hearings about the investigation until he was arrested last summer and accused of beating his wife after a swingers party.
Trask was fired and pleaded guilty to an aggravated assault charge.
Prosecutors want two FBI agents to be referred to by pseudonyms during the trial because they are actively involved in undercover counterterrorism investigations.
Agent “Mark” infiltrated the group by posing as a like-minded militia enthusiast from the Upper Peninsula, “Red,” meanwhile, was introduced to the group as an explosives expert to deter members of the alleged plot from recruiting independent bombmakers, according to the trial brief.