Whitmer kidnapping suspects will stand trial, federal judge says

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Adam Fox, arraigned in federal court in Kent County, Michigan, faces charges related to what the FBI says a plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. - Kent County Jail/Kent County Jail/TNS

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — A federal magistrate judge Friday ordered five men to stand trial on allegations they plotted to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

The move by U.S. Magistrate Judge Sally Berens followed two days of testimony about a broad plot by men accused of holding anti-government views to kidnap the governor as retribution for stay-at-home orders imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Berens said there was sufficient evidence to support the conspiracy charge, pointing to allegations the alleged co-conspirators conducted nighttime surveillance of Whitmer’s vacation home in northern Michigan.

The five members ordered to stand trial on a conspiracy to commit kidnapping charge that is punishable by up to life in federal prison are:

— Adam “Alpha F--- You” Fox, 37, of Potterville

— Ty Garbin, 25, of Hartland Township

— Kaleb Franks, 26, known as “Red Hot”

— Daniel Harris, 23, known as “Beaker”

— Brandon Caserta, 32, known as “Debased Tyrant”

They are being held without bond.

A sixth man, Barry Croft, 44, of Bear, Delaware, is being transferred to Michigan to face the conspiracy charge.

Berens concluded members of the alleged plot kept devising a plan to kidnap Whitmer at her vacation home even though some members expressed misgivings or did not participate in every aspect of the plot.

“The government isn’t required to show (the defendants) signed on a dotted line and had a multi-page five-step plan for exactly how it was going to go,” Berens said. “They are required to show a unity of purpose.”

The hearing gave defense lawyers a chance to argue there was no conspiracy and that the accused were merely exercising their First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly and that threats to kidnap and kill Whitmer was “loose talk.”

Prosecutors failed to establish a conspiracy, said Franks’ lawyer, Scott Graham.

“It’s loose talk,” he said.

The alleged plot “is so outlandish, it’s got to be made up of actual facts,” Graham added. “When you look at those facts, they don’t make sense.”

The accused plotters got caught because the plan was not good and they were amateurs, Assistant U.S. Attorney Nils Kessler said.

“It doesn’t have to be a good plan to be dangerous,” he said.

He called attempts to defend the allegations by citing the First Amendment “frankly absurd.”

Caserta was not involved in many of the actions cited by the FBI, said his lawyer Michael Darragh Hills.

“Was he a driver? A shooter? A grabber? A lookout?” Hills asked the judge. “You don’t know.”

Earlier Friday, an FBI agent testified that the plot predated President Trump tweeting “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” amid complaints about stay-at-home orders designed to stem the spread of COVID-19.

FBI Special Agent Richard Trask discussed the roots of the investigation and motivation of six men charged in federal court with conspiring to kidnap Whitmer. Those charged also discussed “taking out” Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam.

He was asked whether Trump’s tweets from April, and a similar “LIBERATE VIRGINIA” tweet, inspired the alleged plot to kidnap Whitmer and try her for treason before the November election.

“I can’t speculate on their thoughts about those comments,” Trask told Gary Springstead, the lawyer for Garbin, who sat nearby, scribbling on a yellow legal pad while wearing glasses that were missing a stem.

Trask testified as the federal magistrate judge considered whether there is probable cause for five of the men to stand trial after being accused of plotting to kidnap Whitmer.

Berens started listening at 10 a.m. to evidence gathered during an FBI investigation that revealed a broader plot to kidnap the governor and spark a civil war by overthrowing the government and killing police personnel. In all, 14 people have been charged with crimes in state and federal court, including members and associates of an obscure militia, the Wolverine Watchmen.

Defense lawyers for Garbin and accused ringleader Fox spent early Friday challenging the government’s case.

Garbin kept in touch with accused conspirators in order to stop the “crazy and stupid” plot to kidnap the governor, his lawyer said Friday.

“Do you have a recording of (Garbin) telling (the FBI informant) that he needed to stop Mr. Fox because this was crazy and stupid?” Garbin’s lawyer asked the FBI agent.

Trask said he was unaware of any such recording.

“What evidence do you have that Mr. Garbin actually intended to go through with this?” the lawyer asks.

Trask cited an affidavit he authored that detailed allegations against the accused plotters.

“You have no other evidence?” Springstead asked.

“I didn’t say that,” the FBI agent said.

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© 2020 The Detroit News

Mandi Wright/Detroit Free Press/TNS