Defense: Whitmer 'kidnapping plot' disintegrating as FBI loses credibility
The crux of the case is whether the alleged extremists or the FBI itself fueled the plan.
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When law enforcement touted foiling a months-long kidnapping plot of Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in October 2020 that spanned several states and included encrypted chats and explosives, many believed it was an open-and-shut case.
But more than a year later, critics say the arrest and convictions of the lead FBI agent and an FBI confidential informant blurred the line between extremist and confidential informant. Moreover, three planned witnesses have been accused of crimes and won't be testifying in the March 8 trial in Grand Rapids as defense attorneys question the FBI's credibility.
The former lead FBI agent credited with foiling the plot, Richard Trask, was arrested on a domestic violence charge after allegedly smashing his wife's head into a desk after leaving a swinger sex party and was later fired.
A second FBI agent, Henrik Impola, also won't be testifying after he was accused of perjury in a separate case, Buzzfeed News reported.
Buzzfeed reported that Jayson Chambers, another agent, used the Whitmer plot to promote his side security consulting firm called Exeintel.
On Christmas Day, defense attorneys filed a motion to dismiss the conspiracy charge levied against five men accused of plotting to kidnap Whitmer. They requested 258 out-of-court statements be admitted into evidence, claiming the communication shows that "government agents and informants concocted, hatched, and pushed this 'kidnapping plan' from the beginning."
"Essentially, the evidence here demonstrates egregious overreaching by the government's agents, and by the informants those agents handled," the filing says. "The key to the government's plan was to turn general discontent with Governor Whitmer's COVID-19 restrictions into a crime that could be prosecuted."
At least 12 FBI informants infiltrated the alleged kidnapping plot that led to the arrest of six men. Five — Brandon Caserta, Barry Croft Jr., Adam Fox, Kaleb Franks and Daniel Harris — are scheduled to stand trial on March 8 in Grand Rapids. Ty Garbin, the sixth, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six years and three months in prison.
The crux of the case is whether the five alleged extremists or the FBI fueled the plan. Buzzfeed reported the FBI helped start the plot, recruit members, and pay travel costs, while other reporters found one informant even led military training as part of the plot.
Defense attorneys claim that there would be no plot without the FBI's money and support.
"The agents here drove the informants' communications with the defendants, and the agents shaped the informants' assertions, statements, and claims," another filing says.
In December 2021, FBI informant Stephen Robeson was charged with defrauding a couple, claiming to donate an SUV to an anti-child sex trafficking nonprofit that didn't exist, Buzzfeed reported.
Court records and interviews obtained by Buzzfeed say Robeson recruited members, organized and surreptitiously recorded meetings, and paid potential member travel expenses. But less than two weeks before law enforcement arrested the alleged kidnappers, prosecutors charged Robeson with illegally obtaining a .50 caliber rifle since federal law prohibits convicted felons from buying firearms. However, he's skipping the typical sentence for a recidivist convicted felon of 10 years in prison via a plea deal of time served plus probation.
In court documents, Robeson's lawyer claimed the FBI authorized Robeson on Dec. 26 "to otherwise engage in illegal conduct."
The Detroit News reported Robeson's criminal history includes convictions for having sex with a child age 16 or older, sexual assault, and bail jumping — all before he was recruited to be an FBI informant in the case.
Federal prosecutors say the men arrested fueled the kidnapping attempt.
"Months before any of them began suggesting it in pretrial motions, Garbin testified that [Barry] Croft and [Adam] Fox were the ringleaders of the plot, and that he and the other conspirators joined it willfully," Assistant U.S. Attorney Nils Kessler wrote earlier.
But defense attorneys say the 258 out-of-court statements show some of the men were wary of kidnapping and that the FBI directed the mission.
On Sept. 5, 2020 — one month and three days before the sting arrest — Chambers allegedly texted an informant: "Mission is to kill the governor specifically."
On Aug. 9, 2020, Garbin allegedly said: "Kidnapping is just as bad as going into the Capitol."
Defense lawyers wrote: "... informants, of course, not only contacted the defendants face to face but also coaxed, persuaded, cajoled, played on sympathies, cultivated friendships, took advantage of the defendants' financial conditions, and suggested that the offense they proposed 'would further a greater good,'" the lawyers wrote.