The second of two ringleaders in the plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in 2020 was sentenced Wednesday in federal court to 19.6 years in prison and five years of supervised release, the longest sentence of anyone involved in the plot to date.
But the nearly 20-year sentence for Delaware truck driver Barry Croft, 47, on Wednesday and the 16-year prison sentence and five years of probation for codefendant Adam Fox, 39, on Tuesday surprised former Detroit U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider, who was involved in the initial investigation and charges. Schneider thought the time behind bars would be longer.
The kidnapping plot is the largest domestic terrorism case in a generation, and the sentences for Croft and Fox could set benchmarks for how federal political extremism cases are handled in the future. They were arrested in early October 2020 and accused of hatching the plot to kidnap Whitmer and foment a second Civil War due to distrust of the government and anger over COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.
U.S. District Judge Robert Jonker of Michigan’s Western District handed down the punishments this week after Croft and Fox were convicted four months ago of conspiracy to kidnap and conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction after their first trial ended in a hung jury and the acquittals of two other codefendants.
Croft also was convicted of possessing an unregistered destructive device.
Schneider, who was a deputy Michigan attorney general under Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette, said he and several other prosecutors and members of law enforcement were surprised Fox and Croft did not receive more time behind bars for their offenses. But it’s not unusual for judges to sentence people well below the federal guidelines, he said. Sentences are supposed to be a deterrent for others as well as a punishment, and “quite frankly, the fact that they were prosecuted and convicted itself is a deterrent,” Schneider said.
Federal prosecutors asked Jonker to sentence Croft to life in prison, which Jonker said was excessive. The judge did, however, add a terrorism enhancement to Croft’s sentence, which he declined to do for Fox. Jonker said Croft was more dangerous than Fox and the others and had held anti-governmental views for a longer time.
“I do think Mr. Croft is a more culpable and risky individual,” said Jonker, adding that Croft functioned as the ideas guy in the plot. “He gave Adam Fox something to grab on to. … I’m not persuaded what we’ve seen is meaningful change yet.”
In using the terrorism enhancement, Jonker determined that Croft had the intent to influence or intimidate governmental conduct with his actions. The enhancement increased Croft’s overall sentencing guidelines, which pushed him into the possibility of a life sentence.
Croft had no visible reaction to the sentence. Prior to Jonker taking the bench, he was mouthing what looked like “I love you” to his family in the gallery. He did not make any comment to Jonker, which he said was at the advice of his attorney.
But Croft’s attorney, Josh Blanchard, objected to the sentence after the judge gave it, saying it was procedurally unreasonable and too long.
Outside the courthouse after the sentencing, Blanchard said Croft’s sentence shows that the guidelines, which recommended life for Croft because of the terrorism enhancement, are ridiculous.
“19.5 years is the sentence? He’s not going to see his kids grow up,” Blanchard said. Croft has three daughters whom he loves, Blanchard wrote in a pre-sentencing memorandum, and he has worked hard to be involved with their lives.
Blanchard said he plans to file an appeal and expects Jonker will get notice of it Wednesday.
Other experts weigh in
Mark Chutkow, a partner at national law firm Dykema’s government investigations practice group and a former assistant U.S. attorney in Detroit, said Croft’s sentence was more along the lines of what he would have expected the ringleaders to receive, compared with Fox’s sentence.
Both Chutkow and Jon Lewis, a research fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., said they found it interesting that Jonker added the terrorism enhancement and determined Croft had the intent to intimidate the government, but that he had not done the same for Fox.
The added weapons of mass destruction charge may have had some impact on that decision, Lewis said. Croft also had prior brushes with extremism.
“It’s hard to make the argument that a plot to kidnap a sitting governor is not intended to intimidate,” Lewis said.
When federal prosecutors asked Jonker for a life sentence for Croft, they portrayed him as a “stoned crazy pirate,” a bombmaker and an extremist bent on inciting the second Civil War. Prosecutors said Croft was the plot’s bombmaker and national leader of the Three Percenters, a far-right, anti-government militia group. They said he wanted to do more than kidnap or kill Whitmer; he was excited for war to come to the country, Assistant U.S. Attorney Nils Kessler wrote in a pre-sentence memo.
“Croft was a leader or organizer of the criminal activity because he conceived the plan, recruited Fox, helped Fox recruit others,” Kessler wrote. “The eventual plan was comprised of elements Croft laid out, including targeting a state governor, and using improvised explosives to hinder law enforcement.
“Only a life sentence can adequately address Croft’s crimes and deter him and others from pursuing such apocalyptic visions for our country.”
Fox and Croft did reconnaissance of Whitmer’s northern Michigan cottage, drew maps and knew where Whitmer’s home was in relation to police stations, Kessler said, and they assembled and tried to detonate improvised explosive devices.
Testimony demonstrated the plan was to abduct Whitmer from her cottage and leave her in a boat on Lake Michigan. When they were arrested, Fox and Croft were heavily armed and equipped with body armor, a Taser and silencers.
But Blanchard wrote in a court filing there was no actual plan to kidnap Whitmer, and Croft did not attempt to blow up a bridge with explosives. He also did not supply money or training to the group or recruit members, nor was he involved in most of the field training, the defense attorney wrote.
“The jury got to hear a portion of the facts. Most of what Mr. Croft said was excluded because the government didn’t want the jury to hear it,” Blanchard said after Croft’s sentencing.
“So there’s a big piece of this that nobody has heard. If you take his ideas seriously, you should listen to the rest of the stuff where he talks about walking across the ceiling and multiplying the power of Zoltron by seven. I don’t know what that means, but I don’t think he’s an ideas guy (like the government suggested).”
Prosecutors: Croft was ‘spiritual leader’
Blanchard portrayed Croft in court Wednesday as an isolated man in need of an intervention who went too far down a conspiracy theory rabbit hole. He said Croft was not the leader that Fox was, and that Croft only attended a handful of events, was not in the chat groups and was not up to date on the plans like many other plot members were.
But Kessler said this was not true and that Croft had a more important kind of leadership than Fox. The prosecutor called Croft the “spiritual leader” of the group and compared him to foreign terrorists like Omar Abdel-Rahman, the “blind sheik” convicted of conspiracy in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
“He essentially was putting himself in the role of a prophet for these people,” Kessler said, noting that Croft used the same rhetoric the Islamic State and al-Qaida use to recruit people overseas. “What ISIS and al-Qaida call a mujahideen (militant groups who engage in a fight on behalf of God), he calls a patriot.
“Adam Fox may have been indispensable, but this was all Barry Croft’s idea.”
Blanchard wrote in the pre-sentencing memo that Croft has suffered from significant substance abuse issues, likely self-medication from an untreated mental health issue, and has engaged in poor decision-making. His parents both had mental health issues, Blanchard said. He described Croft’s father as an “odd duck” who put aluminum foil on the bedroom ceiling so aliens couldn’t access his brain waves and said his mother was prone to conspiracy theories.
Many of Croft’s statements were made under the influence of substances like marijuana, the defense lawyer said Wednesday in court.
“The Barry Croft I’ve come to know is more complex than the person in those recordings,” Blanchard said. “He said some awful, horrible things. A sober Mr. Croft has found those things difficult to listen to.”
Croft had a heroin addiction as a teenager, Blanchard wrote. He was convicted of several crimes through the mid-1990s, including possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, assault and burglary, and was pardoned by the Delaware governor in 2019.
Defense attorneys have criticized FBI agent misconduct and have claimed agents and informants orchestrated the conspiracy and entrapped Fox, Croft and others. Jonker said Tuesday and Wednesday that law enforcement did not do anything that qualified as entrapment.
Both Fox and Croft’s attorneys have requested a third trial, claiming the judge’s biases and improper courtroom behavior led to the convictions. Their first trial ended in a mistrial. Their attorneys claimed Jonker’s refusal to investigate a report of juror misconduct, biased statements in court and time limits on cross-examination of the prosecutor’s witnesses led to an unfair trial for Fox and Croft. Jonker ruled the claims had no merit.
Other cases still pending
So far, seven people have been convicted on state or federal charges related to the plot while an eighth individual, FBI informant Stephen Robeson, was convicted of a federal gun crime.
After taking plea deals, Kaleb Franks of Waterford Township got four years in prison, while Ty Garbin of Hartford Township got his initial sentence of 75 months behind bars slashed to 30 months after being a star witness during two federal trials. Canton Township resident Brandon Caserta and Daniel Harris of Lake Orion, were acquitted during the first federal trial.
Paul Bellar, Joseph Morrison and Pete Musico were sentenced in Jackson County earlier this month to a minimum of seven, 10 and 12 years in prison, respectively.
Five state cases remain open in Antrim County, as Michael Null, 38; William Null, 38; Eric Molitor, 36; Shawn Fix, 38; and Brian Higgins, 51, await trial for providing material support for terrorist acts.
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