Accused Whitmer kidnap plotter slurs FBI informant in chilling testimony

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Closing arguments and jury deliberations are expected Friday following a 14-day trial of four men accused of plotting to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, one of the most closely watched cases of domestic terrorism in recent history.

Testimony ended in federal court in Grand Rapids Thursday with just one of the four defendants testifying. Lake Orion resident Daniel Harris, 24, a Marine, denied joining any conspiracy during and during a combative cross examination, called an FBI informant a "b----" and the government's star witnesses "liars." 

The four men standing trial in the Gov. Gretchen Whitmer kidnapping conspiracy case: (Clockwise from left): Adam Fox, Barry Croft, Brandon Caserta and Daniel Harris.

Harris is standing trial alongside Barry Croft, 46, of Delaware, Adam Fox, 38, of Potterville and Brandon Caserta, 33, of Canton Township. The group was arrested in early October 2020 and accused of hatching the plot due to distrust of the government and anger over restrictions imposed during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. They face up to life in prison if convicted of kidnapping conspiracy.

Defense lawyers say there was no plot — just tough talk — and that FBI agents and informants orchestrated the case. On Thursday, Harris characterized the group as a bunch of guys whose interests were to "drink beer, shoot guns and talk about girls" but under cross-examination, he labeled one of the most active FBI informants, Dan Chappel, "a b----" and casually admitted mulling ways to assassinate the governor.

“Did you conspire to kidnap the governor?” Harris’ lawyer Julia Kelly asked.

“Absolutely not,” Harris said.

In early testimony Thursday, Harris traced the roots of his involvement with some of the 14 people charged in state and federal court, a mix of antigovernment types, self-described patriots and members of the Wolverine Watchmen militia.

Under cross examination, he attacked the credibility of the government's star witnesses, Ty Garbin and Kaleb Franks, who pleaded guilty for their roles in the conspiracy and testified for the government.

"Liars," Harris called them.

Harris described himself as a talented infantryman experienced at handling grenades and firing rocket launchers, skills that added military might to a group with varying skills.

His first contact with the group came online in a web forum Motor City Boogaloo. The Boogaloo is a loosely organized movement that brings together people with different ideologies, everything from the Black Lives Matter movement to white supremacists and antigovernment extremists, said Jon Lewis, a research fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University.

Harris said he was approached online by Munith resident Joe Morrison, who is facing state charges in connection with the alleged kidnap plot. Later, on May 14, 2020, Harris met others during a protest outside the state Capitol.

Militia members protest at the state Capitol to oppose the executive orders Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Thursday, May 14, 2020.

During the protest, Harris met Chappel, who was working as an FBI informant.

"We just talked about military backgrounds," Harris said.

Harris testified Thursday that he would later consider Chappel the leader of the group.

Harris' lawyer moved chronologically through the next weeks, repeatedly asking him at several points whether he agreed to kidnap Whitmer. Harris repeatedly said no, including when asked if he agreed to conduct other attacks.

"Did you agree to storm the Capitol?" Kelly asked.

"No," Harris said.

“Did you agree to black-bag politicians?" the lawyer asked.

"No," Harris said.

He was questioned about attending a training exercise with other defendants in Cambria, Wisconsin, in July 2020, practicing raiding a makeshift "shoot house" and trying to build explosives with Croft.

“It failed,” Harris said.

In her opening statement, defense attorney Julia Kelly said her client, Daniel Harris of Lake Orion, was never part of the kidnapping plan.

“Did you agree to kidnap the governor in Cambria?” Kelly asked.

“Absolutely not,” Harris said.

“Did you agree to storm the Capitol of Michigan?” the lawyer asked.

“No,” he said.

“Did you believe the shoot house was a mock-up of the governor’s house?” Kelly asked.

“No,” Harris said.

“Did you believe it was a room in the Capitol?” the lawyer asked.

“No,” he said.

Harris also is charged with conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction, possessing an unregistered destructive device and an unregistered short-barreled rifle. He was asked about a meeting July 18, 2020, in Peebles, Ohio, that was attended by at least five FBI informants.

Kelly asked if Harris conspired to get weapons of mass destructing during the Peebles meeting.

“No,” Harris said.

The questions culminated in Harris' arrest in October 2020 when he and others traveled to a warehouse in Ypsilanti. Harris said he thought he was going to receive free gear and had heard talk about obtaining exploding targets.

"Blowing stuff up is fun," Harris said.

But federal prosecutors say the group was in Ypsilanti to make a down payment on explosives that were to be used to destroy a bridge near Whitmer's vacation home.

"You never agreed to kidnap the governor, did you?" Kelly asked.

"Not one time," Harris said.

Under cross-examination, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Roth questioned Harris about messages in which he talked about various ways to kill the governor.

“You suggested ways of killing her?” Roth asked.

“Yeah,” Harris said.

“You proposed doming her? Meaning, shooting her in the head?" the prosecutor asked.

“Correct,” Harris said.

“Taking a uniform, posing as a pizza buy and ringing her doorbell?” Roth asked.

“If she has a doorbell,” Harris said.

“… and firing three rounds from a pistol into her,” the prosecutor asked.

“Yup,” Harris said.

Twitter: @robertsnellnews