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Defense says Gov. Whitmer kidnap plot was just ‘big talk between crackpots’

Court sketch artist Jerry Lemenu shows what it looks like inside the Gerald R. Ford Federal Building and U.S. Court House in Grand Rapids Tuesday Oct. 13, 2020 where five defendants in the Governor Whitmer kidnapping case will find out if they will be released on bond or remain jailed pending the outcome of their cases. They are charged with conspiracy to commit kidnapping. If convicted, they could get life in prison. (Mandi Wright, Detroit Free Press/TNS)

There was no real plan to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, but only “military wannabes” who engaged in “big talk” and played with guns in the woods, defense lawyers argued in court Tuesday.

As one defense lawyer suggested, the case appears to be one of “big talk between crackpots,” or “people who talk a lot … but are never going to do anything.”

“Have you ever dealt with big talkers?” defense attorney Scott Graham asked an FBI agent on cross examination, adding: “There’s kind of a military-wanna-be theme that runs between the militias.”

Adam Fox by sketch artist Jerry Lemenu in the Gerald R. Ford Federal Building and U.S. Court House in Grand Rapids Tuesday Oct. 13, 2020 where five defendants in the Governor Whitmer kidnapping case will find out if they will be released on bond or remain jailed pending the outcome of their cases. They are charged with conspiracy to commit kidnapping. If convicted, they could get life in prison.
(Mandi Wright, Detroit Free Press/TNS)

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Graham was grilling FBI special agent Richard Trask about his testimony that at least 13 militia members plotted to kidnap Whitmer from her vacation home and do one of two things: either take her on a boat in the middle of Lake Michigan and leave her there, or, take her to Wisconsin and try her for treason.

Graham asked the FBI agent how the suspects planned to get Whitmer to Wisconsin.

The Gerald R. Ford Federal Building in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where the detention hearings for 5 of the 6 federally charged defendants accused in Gov. Whitmer kidnapping plot are taking place October 14, 2020.
(Mandi Wright, Detroit Free Press/TNS)

The agent had no specific answer, beyond saying there were audio recordings of the suspects discussing a plan to take Whitmer to another state, among them Wisconsin.

Graham then asked the agent what the suspects’ planned to do with Whitmer after they left her in the lake. The agent had no specific answer, beyond testifying that the accused ringleader, Adam Fox, wanted to “take her out on a boat and leave her in the middle of Lake Michigan.”

Graham is representing Kaleb Franks, 26, of Waterford, one of five defendants who appeared in U.S. District Court in Grand Rapids Tuesday for bond hearings, during which a judge will decide whether to release the accused men on bond or keep them jailed.

Security perimeter checks outside of Gerald R. Ford Federal Building U.S. Court House before detention hearings of 5 of 6 federally charged defendants in Gov. Whitmer kidnapping plot in Grand Rapids, Michigan, October 14, 2020.
(Mandi Wright, Detroit Free Press/TNS)

Gary Springstead — the Grand Rapids-based attorney representing Ty Garbin, 24, of Hartland Township — told reporters outside the courthouse he believes there is still more evidence to be presented.

“I haven’t had a full opportunity to review all of the evidence,” Springstead said “… I think my co-counsel made good points that (the evidence presented today) is a snapshot. A lot of quick points in a big time frame. You don’t know what else is happening outside of that time frame.

“So, I’m sure in our investigation (which) we’re going to conduct ourselves, and not rely solely on the federal government to tell us what happened, we’ll try to round out that information and figure out what happened in the times that weren’t captured on tape that weren’t captured in text to put it into fuller context so we can better assess where we stand in the case.”

A canine unit checks the perimeter outside of the Gerald R. Ford Federal Building and U.S. Court House in Grand Rapids on Oct. 13, 2020, where five defendants in the Governor Whitmer kidnapping case will find out if they will be released on bond or remain jailed pending the outcome of their cases. They are charged with conspiracy to commit kidnapping. If convicted, they could get life in prison.
(Mandi Wright, Detroit Free Press/TNS)

Springstead also said the use of an informant in the investigation to thwart the plot raises questions. Feds said an informant wore wires to meetings to record the men charged and collect information on the kidnapping plan.

“(I)t’s become an issue in certain cases where the informant pushes some of the information, and the court and the government and the defense attorneys have to be leery of that,” Springstead told reporters. “Because their job is not to assess what the government informant wants them to do, it’s to assess the accused’s intent and what they actually planned on doing.”

Defense lawyers contend that there was no probable cause to arrest and charge the suspect, arguing, among other things, that the suspects had no operational plan to do anything, were engaged in all legal activities — including talking in encrypted group chats and practicing military exercises with lawfully owned guns — and that it was the informants and undercover agents who “pushed” others to do illegal things.

A Homeland Security officer stands guard at the garage entrance of the Gerald R. Ford Federal Building and U.S. Court House in Grand Rapids on Oct. 13, 2020, where five defendants in the Governor Whitmer kidnapping case will find out if they will be released on bond or remain jailed pending the outcome of their cases. They are charged with conspiracy to commit kidnapping. If convicted, they could get life in prison.
(Mandi Wright, Detroit Free Press/TNS)

“One of the most active leaders was your informant,” Graham said.

The federal prosecutor  blasted those arguments, saying the accused took actual steps to carry out their plan: they conducted surveillances three times on Whitmer’s vacation home.

“Have you ever heard of someone casing someone’s house,” the prosecutor asked the FBI agent in an effort to point out the surveillance  was “a red flag.”

Moreover, the prosecutor argued during questioning, one militia member from Wisconsin who was supposed to be part of the vacation home surveillance went home that night, thinking: “If this is what the Michigan Militia people are about, I want nothing to do with it.”

outside of U.S. District Court in Grand Rapids on Oct. 13, 2020, where five defendants in the Governor Whitmer kidnap case will find out if they will be released on bond or remain jailed pending the outcome of their cases. They are charged with conspiracy to commit kidnapping. If convicted, they could get life in prison.
(Mandi Wright, Detroit Free Press/TNS)

The prosecutor also asked the FBI agent to clarify for the court who the leader of the kidnap plot was:

“Adam Fox,” replied the agent, referring to the 37-year-old Potterville man who lived in the basement of a Grand Rapids-area vacuum repair shop, where he also allegedly held meetings with his accomplices — including an informant who was wearing a wire.

In court Tuesday, a handcuffed and shackled Fox sat next to his lawyer. He was the only defendant in court without a mask.

Bond decisions are expected Tuesday for:

Kaleb Franks, 26, of Waterford Daniel Harris, 23, of Lake Orion Brandon Caserta, 32, of Canton Township

Detention hearings for Fox and Ty Garbin, 24, of Hartland Township, were moved to Friday at the suspects’ requests.

A sixth suspect, Barry Croft, 44, of Bear, Delaware, has a bond hearing scheduled in Delaware later Tuesday and is expected to be extradited to Michigan soon.

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© 2020 the Detroit Free Press