Governor Gretchen Whitmer kidnapping case: Feds predict avalanche of secret tapes at trial
He told lawyers he intended to prevent the blockbuster trial from becoming a political circus, despite his ties to right-wing protest movements that have sprung up during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I don’t want the trial to become a referendum on whether the Ottawa truck convoy is right or wrong, or whether what happened on January 6 was an insurrection or real political talk,” Jonker said. who was appointed to the bench. by former Republican President George W. Bush.
“I want the focus to be on what happened in this case.”
Experts say the closely watched case will test the government’s ability to tackle growing domestic terrorism and local extremism. Due to the nature of the charges, Jonker said Friday he would protect the identities of the jurors from the public.
Three Michigan men – Adam Fox of Wyoming, Daniel Harris of Lake Orion and Brandon Caserta of Canton Township – along with Barry Croft of Delaware are charged with conspiring to ‘seize, confine, kidnap, abduct and carry away’ Whitmer, a first Democratic term, between June and October 2020.
They claim their innocence. The charges could jail them for life.
Federal authorities arrested the men in October 2020, ending what they described as an impending plot to kidnap the governor that included surveillance of her vacation home. The accused conspirators discussed plans including bringing Whitmer to justice for “treason” or abandoning him on a crippled boat in Lake Michigan, prosecutors say.
The charge was complicated by a series of missteps, including the arrest of FBI Agent Richard Trask of Kalamazoo, a lead investigator in the kidnapping plot who did not dispute the assault on his wife. last summer.
Trask has been fired and will not testify. Nor will two other FBI agents involved in the investigation that defense attorneys have accused of unethical or questionable behavior, says prosecutors have denied.
Lawyers for the accused men argue their clients were framed by the FBI, enticed into criminal behavior by confidential informants and undercover agents. The defendants were drawn to the Wolverine Watchmen and related militias out of frustration with government pandemic policies — perfectly legal frustration, they say.
“There was no conspiracy,” defense attorneys argued in December in an unsuccessful attempt to dismiss the case before trial.
“Key to the government’s plan was to turn widespread dissatisfaction with Governor Whitmer’s COVID-19 restrictions into a crime that could be prosecuted.”
Prosecutors backed their case by securing plea deals from two known plotters, who are expected to testify in the case.
In To plead guilty to a conspiracy kidnapping earlier this month, Waterford Township’s Kaleb Franks agreed that he “was not tricked or instigated to commit crimes” by any of the top confidential informants working with the FBI, who were only identified as “Dan” and “Steve”. ”
Prosecutors wrote in the plea agreement that Franks also ‘knows’ that none of the other defendants were entrapped and can testify that in their months together he never heard from any of them. “say they were doing anything” because informants had advocated it.
Ty Garbin, a Wixom man who reached a plea deal with federal prosecutors last year, is expected to be a “star witness” at trial, his attorney said last fall.
He was sentenced to six years in prison, a reduced sentence due to his cooperation, while Franks has not yet been sentenced.
In documents filed ahead of Friday’s conference, prosecutors outlined plans to introduce 412 exhibits for use at trial. The list of evidence includes 111 audio recordings, 58 online chat logs and 43 videos, including those that prosecutors say will show defendants improvised explosive devices and weapons training drills, among other things.
Jonker on Friday authorized prosecutors to bring 12 firearms into the courtroom, under FBI supervision, as evidence. Prosecutors also intend to present neckties, explosive materials, a stun gun, paramilitary equipment and night vision goggles as evidence.
“Much of the evidence in this case consists of undercover audio recordings of defendants discussing the conspiracy,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Nils Kessler wrote in a filing Thursday.
Other planned exhibits include a Confederate flag, a tricorn associated with the Three Percent Militia Movement and five Hawaiian shirts, the unofficial uniform of the Boogaloo movement, which followers generally say are preparing for a second American Civil War.
Prosecutors say they could also call up to 48 witnesses, including other FBI agents involved in the investigation, two undercover agents they believe infiltrated the militia that plotted the kidnapping, a or several confidential sources and about a dozen civilian witnesses with knowledge of the facts. parcel.
The kidnapping trial will be Michigan’s first major militia-related case since 2012, when a judge dismissed sedition charges against members of the Hutaree religious sect after prosecutors in power failed to prove that the defendants had gone beyond discussing their hatred of authority.
As part of their plea deals with federal authorities, both Garbin and Franks described Wyoming’s Fox as a ringleader in the kidnapping plot. Croft, the Delaware resident, allegedly designed explosive devices.
In a filing Thursday, Fox’s defense attorney described his client as a nonviolent activist who was drawn into the kidnapping plot by at least three government informants who were “the binding force and catalyst for every event, impassioned speech and almost every suggestion of criminality.”
In a June 2020 phone call with one such FBI informant, Fox raised the possibility of “legal prosecution or citizen’s arrest of the governor, for exceeding the lawful authority of his office.” , recognized his lawyer. But it was the informant who then steered the conversation to Whitmer’s vacation home, according to attorney Christopher Gibbons.
“Like music producers looking for talented young musicians who can be combined into a lucrative act, each of these defendants has been selected and groomed by government agents and informants for their role as (a) member of this “conspiracy,” Gibbon wrote.
Franks, in his recent guilty plea agreement, testified that Fox offered to “attack the Capitol” the first time they met. And he “overheard Fox and co-defendant Barry Croft enter into conversations about challenging governmental authority and kidnapping the governor without being prompted,” according to court documents.
Lake Orion’s Daniel Harris and Canton Township’s Brandon Caserta reportedly attended weapons training and planning meetings, but were left behind during a group watch mission at Whitmer’s vacation home because “they had been drinking” that night, according to the Franks’ plea agreement.
The FBI says Harris, a former Marine, used an encrypted conversation with other defendants to suggest killing Whitmer, offering one person to go to the governor, knock on the door “and when she answers, just to comb it”.
Per his plea deal, Franks first connected with members of the Wolverine Watchmen militia through a Facebook group in the spring of 2020. He then met Harris at a protest in Lake Orion, where Harris invited him to join the encrypted chat, pending verification.