Two ringleaders convicted on Whitmer kidnapping conspiracy charges
Grand Rapids — A federal jury Tuesday convicted two men accused of orchestrating a plan to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer as prosecutors salvaged the largest domestic terrorism case in a generation that has shed light on political extremism in Michigan.
The convictions came on Whitmer's birthday, four months after jurors deadlocked on charges against Potterville resident Adam Fox and Delaware truck driver Barry Croft and acquitted two others who were accused of being part of a broader group of people angered by pandemic restrictions and hoping to spark a second Civil War. Fox and Croft face up to life in federal prison.
The verdicts give the U.S. Justice Department a landmark victory prosecuting extremism and domestic terrorism amid an increase in threats nationwide.
“Getting these convictions and, most important for the FBI, disrupting the plot has to go down as a win,” said Jon Lewis, a research fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University.
Croft had a look of resignation as the guilty verdicts were read, while Fox didn’t have a reaction.
Two others, Ty Garbin and Kaleb Franks, pleaded guilty to federal kidnapping conspiracy charges and testified as the government's star witnesses.
“The verdict confirms that the plot was very serious, very dangerous,” and posed a threat to the governor, Grand Rapids Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Birg told reporters afterward.
James Tarasca, special agent in charge of the FBI's Detroit office, said the results showed that anti-government views don't justify violence.
"Today’s verdict sends a clear message that they were wrong in their assessment" Tarasca said in a press release. "Violence is never the answer. The FBI will continue to investigate anyone who seeks to engage in violence in furtherance of any ideological cause and hold them accountable.”
Jurors spent about eight hours deliberating during two days following a case clouded by controversy, including defense concerns about FBI agent misconduct and whether government agents entrapped the accused plotters. It also drew the attention of a nation facing the rise of violent extremism surrounding the 2020 presidential election and COVID-19 pandemic. Former President Donald Trump recently called the alleged plot "a fake deal."
“The noise aside, the arguments about entrapment, there was still sufficient evidence that these individuals were willingly, openly and, to various degrees, happily going along with a plan to kidnap a sitting governor,” Lewis said.
Whitmer was disappointed with the results of the first trial but welcomed Tuesday's convictions.
“I want to thank the prosecutors and law enforcement officers for their hard work and my family, friends, and staff for their support," the Democratic governor said in a Tuesday statement. "Today’s verdicts prove that violence and threats have no place in our politics and those who seek to divide us will be held accountable. They will not succeed.
“But we must also take a hard look at the status of our politics. Plots against public officials and threats to the FBI are a disturbing extension of radicalized domestic terrorism that festers in our nation, threatening the very foundation of our republic."
The result followed months of criticism from defense lawyers about FBI agent misconduct and claims that a team of investigators and informants orchestrated the conspiracy and entrapped Fox, Croft and others who were portrayed as a ragtag band of social outcasts who harbored antigovernment views and anger over COVID-19 restrictions imposed by Whitmer.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Birge told reporters he was thankful for the verdicts.
“The verdict confirms that the plot was very serious, very dangerous,” Birge said. “No public official or anyone should have to deal with this. ... Everyone deserves to live safely and without fear.”
Prosecutors rested their case Thursday after seven days of testimony. An undercover FBI agent told jurors about a stop at a bridge near Whitmer's northern Michigan cottage during a night ride by anti-government extremists to continue planning a kidnapping.
Fox and Croft were portrayed by prosecutors as ringleaders of the plot.
They were convicted of kidnapping conspiracy and conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction. Croft also was convicted of possessing an unregistered destructive device, a 10-year felony.
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.
Their arrests were part of a broader plot that involved more than a dozen men. Ten people are facing charges in state court.
During the trial, jurors saw secret recordings made by FBI informants of bombs being built during training exercises, defendants firing weapons, and going on a surveillance run of the governor's cottage in northern Michigan.
Defense lawyers said FBI agents and informants controlled the entire series of events and faulted prosecutors for manipulating evidence during the trial, including cherrypicking out-of-context snippets of surveillance audio and video.
The jury decision came almost two years after FBI agents said they thwarted the Whitmer plot and as law enforcement arrested more than a dozen men in multiple states who were accused of conspiring to kidnap the governor of Michigan.