Jury starts deliberations for Whitmer kidnapping trial
Prosecutors say men aimed to kidnap Whitmer via a scheme that ranged across three states but defense attorneys say it's all “stoned crazy talk.”
(The Center Square) -
Jurors must decide whether four men accused of plotting to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer were serious or if it was just “stoned crazy talk” from men angry over COVID-19 restrictions, and who were duped into an FBI plot.
Barry Croft, 46, Adam Fox, 38, Daniel Harris, 24, and Brandon Caserta, 33, face up to life in prison if convicted on kidnapping charges. Croft and Harris also face charges of conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction.
Prosecutors say Fox was the ringleader, but Fox's attorney argued that the FBI pushed him to act. As of Aug. 1, 2020, FBI informant Dan Chappel said the alleged plotters hadn’t picked a plan. Chappel suggested Fox surveil Whitmer’s cottage in Elk Rapids, which they acted upon on September 12, 2020. Prosecutors say Fox aimed to collect $4,000 to build a bomb to blow up a bridge near Whitmer’s vacation home to deter first responders.
Federal authorities captured most of the men in October 2020. But court records show complications, including a fired lead FBI agent and an informant turned “double agent” who the FBI knew was raising money under the pretext of combating child sex trafficking to fund weapons but didn’t charge him until a year later.
Prosecutors say the men aimed to kidnap Whitmer via a scheme that ranged across three states, encrypted chats, and a bomb, while defense attorneys say it's all “stoned crazy talk.”
An FBI agent directed Chappel to place Fox into a “leadership chat” so he could get “focused” on a plan. Chappel was paid more than $60,000 by the FBI for seven months of work, including a $3,300 laptop and a smartwatch.
“Fox wasn’t a leader,” defense attorney Christopher Gibbons told jurors, describing Fox as a heavy marijuana user incapable of advanced planning who lived in the basement of a vacuum shop. “He was a friend of Dan Chappel. Additionally, Fox was only a friend of Dan Chappel because the federal government paid Chappel to pretend like he was his friend.”
Chappel said he created group chats, including “FAFO,” an acronym for “[expletive] around and find out,” on the encrypted app Wire, and invited the others to join.
U.S. District Court Robert Jonker, an appointee of former President George W. Bush, said jurors must weigh whether there is "proof beyond a reasonable doubt" that the defendants conspired to kidnap the governor or use a weapon of mass destruction – not whether they were successful.
In an entrapment defense, Jonker told jurors to consider “whether the government persuaded a defendant who was not already willing to commit a crime to go ahead and commit it."
“Deciding what the facts are is your job, not mine,” Jonker told the jury.
The prosecution relied on over 1,000 hours of conversation recorded by agents and informants, some of which described acts of violence such as killing security guards and police.
“You’ve heard what was in their mind when they thought nobody was listening,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Nils Kessler said in his closing argument.
“You know what was in their hearts. They said they wanted to kidnap the governor. They trained to kidnap the governor. They cased her house in the middle of the night. They mapped it out. They planned it. They gathered weapons and bombs.”
Meanwhile, the defense argued that the FBI orchestrated and funded the plan.
“Dan Chappel makes everything happen,” attorney Christopher Gibbons said in closing remarks.