Jury finds 2 men not guilty in Whitmer kidnap case; unable to reach verdicts on 2 others
Grand Rapids — Jurors acquitted two men Friday accused of plotting to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and deadlocked on charges against the two alleged ringleaders, delivering a staggering blow to the government in one of the largest domestic terrorism cases in recent U.S. history.
Chief U.S. District Robert Jonker declared a mistrial on kidnapping conspiracy charges against accused ringleaders Adam Fox, 38, of Potterville, and Barry Croft, 46, of Delaware. Accused plotters Daniel Harris, 24, of Lake Orion, and Brandon Caserta, 34, of Canton Township, were being freed Friday afternoon after nearly two years behind bars.
"Best birthday gift ever," Caserta told supporters as relatives yelled "Happy Birthday" inside the federal courtroom in downtown Grand Rapids.
The trial lasted 20 days, including 13 days of testimony and approximately 38 hours of jury deliberations spanning five days. Jurors — six men, six women, all white — heard hours of closing arguments and instructions last week after testimony and a multimedia case from the government.
The mixed verdict provided a biting end to a case dogged by controversy, scandal and the intense focus of a nation grappling with the rise of violent extremism amid the 2020 presidential election and a global pandemic.
Defense lawyers spent months raising questions about FBI agent conduct and claiming that a team of investigators and informants orchestrated the conspiracy and entrapped the four men, a ragtag band of social outcasts who harbored antigovernment views and anger over restrictions imposed by Whitmer.
"I think the trial here has demonstrated that there’s some serious shortcomings in the case,” Fox's defense lawyer, Christopher Gibbons, told reporters. “Obviously with acquittals occurring with Mr. Caserta and Mr. Harris, that says a lot about what is going on in the case.”
Andrew Birge, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Michigan, vowed to retry the accused ringleaders, Fox and Croft.
“We thought the jury would convict beyond reasonable doubt based on the evidence we put forward,” he told reporters outside the courthouse. “We believe in the jury system. We have two defendants awaiting trial.”
The verdicts came almost exactly 10 years after the acquittals of five members of the Hutaree militia following a trial in Detroit.
Hutaree members were accused of talking about killing law enforcement officers and using weapons of mass destruction to attack the funeral procession. They were acquitted of seditious conspiracy following the 2012 trial, marking one of the landmark losses for federal prosecutors in Michigan in recent history.
Extremism experts said Friday it appeared that defense lawyers effectively sowed enough doubt among jurors after arguing throughout the trial that FBI agents and a key informant, Dan Chappel, manipulated and entrapped the four defendants and plied them with marijuana.
“The ultimate question will be did the jury come to the conclusion that the mess of informants and the amount of (stuff) the defense threw up was enough to muddy the waters,” said Jon Lewis, a research fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University.
The four men in the Whitmer kidnapping case faced kidnapping conspiracy charges, a felony punishable by up to life in prison. Three faced multiple charges, including conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction.
Whitmer's chief of staff, JoAnne Huls, on Friday responded to the verdicts, saying: “Today, Michiganders and Americans — especially our children — are living through the normalization of political violence. The plot to kidnap and kill a governor may seem like an anomaly. But we must be honest about what it really is: the result of violent, divisive rhetoric that is all too common across our country. There must be accountability and consequences for those who commit heinous crimes. Without accountability, extremists will be emboldened."
Earlier Friday, jurors indicated they had reached a verdict on some counts in the case but were locked on others. Jonker announced the development just before 11 a.m. and encouraged the jurors to keep deliberating in hopes of reaching a unanimous verdict.
"It is not unusual to come back somewhere along the line of deliberations and say 'we tried, but couldn’t get there,'" the judge said. "At least not on everything."
Around 2 p.m., the jury reemerged before Jonker to indicate they remained at an impasse. Jonker instructed them to return to the jury room to confirm the impasse and fill out forms to indicate what charges they were in agreement on if so. They returned minutes later to reveal their verdicts.
On Friday, Jonker likened the situation to the game show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire,” and the famous catchphrase “Is that your final answer?”
“Before that’s the final answer, I would like you to go back and make another effort to see if you can come to an agreement on issues you are stuck on as a group,” the judge told jurors.
The trial coincided with jurors in federal court in Washington, D.C., hearing the first cases involving people charged in the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. Together, the trials provide the first tests of federal laws being used to punish extremist behavior that erupted nationally in 2020 and 2021 around the presidential election and pandemic.
When jurors entered the courtroom before 11 a.m. Friday, they did so without looking at the four defendants across from them. Some jurors sighed after hearing they would be sent back for more deliberations.
One young male juror leaned his head back, rotated his chair from side to side while looking up at the ceiling. Other jurors craned their necks or cleaned their glasses as the judge spoke.
Facing the jury, the four defendants were dressed in fresh suits and button-up shirts.
Harris had a book he's had for three days, "Make Your Bed" by William McRaven. The blue softcover book is a summary of a commencement speech made by Admiral McRaven for the graduating class of the University of Texas in Austin, sharing 10 lessons he learned from Navy SEAL training. In a synopsis, the book covers how to deal with overcoming the trials of SEAL training and, in general, the challenges of life.
The defendants were 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.
Two others, Ty Garbin and Kaleb Franks, earlier pleaded guilty and testified during the trial, telling jurors the plot originated with the group and that they were not entrapped by FBI agents and informants. Eight others are awaiting trial in state courts on domestic terrorism charges.
During the trial, jurors saw secret recordings of the bombs being built in Wisconsin, defendants firing weapons in rural Michigan, going on a night surveillance run past the governor's cottage and griping about tyrannical government officials during a hotel meeting in Ohio.
Jurors also listened to recordings and read texts that suggested ways to assassinate Whitmer — everything from posing as a pizza-delivering assassin to hog-tying the governor and leaving her on a boat in the middle of Lake Michigan.
The acquittals and mistrial came one year after the first sign of trouble in the case. In March 2021, federal prosecutors dumped one of their lead informants, Wisconsin felon Stephen Robeson, and indicted him on a federal gun crime.
Prosecutors accused him of working as a double agent, offering to finance attacks and use a drone to commit domestic terrorism.
The Robeson scandal would be followed by more warning signs. FBI Agent Richard Trask served as the FBI's public face in the Whitmer case, testifying in federal court about the investigation, until he was arrested in July, accused of beating his wife after a swingers party, fired and convicted of assault.
Defense lawyers raised more questions about two other FBI case agents — including one accused of trying to profit off the case by creating a cybersecurity firm — while insisting government informants, especially Chappel, invented the conspiracy and entrapped the defendants.
“To me, this was a signal. A rogue FBI agent trying to line his own pockets with his own cybersecurity company and then pushing the conspiracy that just never was,” Caserta lawyer Michael Hills told reporters. “Never was, never was going to be. Our governor was never in any danger.
“I think the jury, even though they didn’t get all of it,” Hills added, “they smelled enough of it.”