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Defense: FBI knew Whitmer kidnap suspects were ‘stoned’ crazy talkers – Detroit Free Press

Top, from left: Adam Fox and Barry Croft
Bottom, from left: Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta

The suspects charged with plotting to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer were stoners who got so high that they talked about attaching Whitmer to a kite and flying her over a lake, about barking in the woods to get her to come out of her house, or playing loud music at night to get her attention, a defense lawyer argued Wednesday.

“The FBI knew this was stoned crazy talk,” defense attorney Joshua Blanchard told the jury, arguing the FBI set up the suspects with an undercover informant who also got high with them.

The FBI had many opportunities to shut down this investigation, and should have done so, Blanchard told jurors. But the government was hell bent on building a case that it knew didn’t exist, he argued, alleging there were many pot-induced conversations that should have prompted the FBI to call off the investigation.

One such conversation, Blanchard said, occurred as the undercover informant taped the men talking about how they could get the governor to come out of her house.

“Maybe we should go hide in the woods and go bark and the governor — she’ll know the animals were against her,” Blanchard said, arguing such comments were absurd, and that the government knew it.

Blanchard is representing Barry Croft, a Delaware truck driver who the government says helped start the kidnapping plan in April 2020 in a conversation with Adam Fox – the accused Michigan ringleader.

“All it’s going to take is one state to burn out and hang its governor and then those dominos will start to fall,” Croft allegedly said.

Fox was in, Roth said.

“They began plotting to kidnap the governor of Michigan,” Roth said. “(Fox) said the whole point is ‘we’re sending a message to them that if we can get her, we can get you.’”

According to Blanchard, Croft initially came under investigation by the FBI in 2017, when the FBI noticed that Croft was criticizing the FBI on Facebook. Croft believed the FBI had one of his friends killed, his lawyer said, and was investigated as a result, but nothing came of it.

Then came the 2020 FBI investigation of the Wolverine Watchmen, the militia group at the center of this case. Prosecutors say Croft joined this group and planned to kidnap the governor, though his lawyer says there was no such plan.

This militia was a group of pot smokers who talked a big game, Blanchard said, and the government knew it, arguing the FBI is supposed to protect people, “not catch people who say stupid stuff when they are high.”

Blanchard alleges the government targeted his client specifically for criticizing Whitmer on Facebook.

“The FBI is supposed to protect us. They’re expected to have thick skin. They don’t punish people for saying things mean things about them,” Blanchard argued to the jury, repeatedly stressing: “There was no plan. There was no agreement. And there was no kidnapping.”

More: Feds: Whitmer kidnap suspects plotted to hog-tie governor, spark war

The defense argues this case is all about entrapment, and explained to the jury how it plans to prove that the FBI ran the whole show, used rogue undercover informants and agents to egg on the defendants and entice them to say and do things they wouldn’t have otherwise.

As one defense lawyer said: “The FBI directed it all.”

The government’s case has been fraught with allegations about misbehaving FBI agents and undercover informants, including two who got booted from the case over their alleged misdeeds.

Blanchard argued that one undercover informant in particular should have been kicked off the case early on for disobeying the FBI’s directives, for smoking pot with the group, for “selecting things that he thought sounded bad,” like the crazy pot talk. That informant was eventually removed from the case.

More: Bad acts of 3 FBI agents will not be mentioned in Whitmer kidnap trial

More: Wife beater, liar, schemer: 3 FBI agents crucial in Whitmer kidnap case, defense lawyers say

But the government rebuked the defense’s entrapment claims, arguing no one was trapped into doing or saying anything.

“They chose this plan. They chose this crime — because they wanted it,” countered Assistant Prosecutor Jonathan Roth, who argued several Wolverine Watchmen left the group because they were upset with the group.

In contesting the entrapment claims, Roth told jurors that giving someone a ride to an event is not entrapment, nor is it if a defendant is willing to commit the crime. He also noted that Croft has a tattoo that shows his commitment to a “second civil war,” and argued that no one forced him to do anything.

In this case, Roth said, defendants were “willing and eager — if not already preparing” to commit crimes.

Roth also urged the jury to listen closely to the words of two key witnesses: co-defendants Ty Garbin and Kaleb Franks, who took deals early on, admitted their guilt and plan to testify against the others.

They chose to join the plan, Roth said, and admitted no one forced them to do anything

According to the government, the Whitmer kidnap plot was conceived in April 2020, just as COVID-19 was taking over the country and world, and the militia members were stewing. The suspects plotted over the next six months in secret chat rooms, meetings and military training sessions, which included building a house that looked like Whitmer’s and practicing shooting human silhouettes around it, prosecutors said.

Roth said the suspects were followers of the so-called Boogaloo movement who wanted to target politicians because the felt the “country is broken” … and in their own words, create a war zone in Michigan.”

In pushing the Boogaloo narrative, prosecutors showed the jury a photo of Fox carrying a rifle on the lawn of the state Capitol in 2020 , wearing a floral Hawaiin shirt, which is common Boogaloo attire.

The photo drew a sharp rebuke from Fox’s lawyer. 

“This is all parlor tricks,” defense attorney Chris Gibbons said, arguing his client was never involved in any kidnap plot, but was a broke, “misfit” big talker who was upset about the pandemic, and easily influenced by the informants.

 “There was a lot of anti-government talk. Who wasn’t upset about COVID and COVID restrictions?” Gibbons said, stressing repeatedly: “There was no conspiracy.”

Gibbons said Fox was never the leader of any militia group, but rather was given that title by an FBI informant who gave him that designation.  And after the group formed, he said, only one person joined: an FBI informant.

The government painted a different picture of Fox, describing him as a violent and angry militia member who feared losing his gun rights, and hated the governor so much over the pandemic restrictions that he wanted to hurt her and kill anyone who got in his way.

In arguing these claims, the prosecution showed jurors a Facebook video in which Fox talks about the state taking away firearms, and asks, “who else is ready for the boogaloo?” which the FBI says meant second civil war. Fox talks about firing the first shot, says he’s “fed up”and that it’s the only way “we take back our country right here, by brute f—– force, physical violence.” He adds he’s prepared for it and it’s going to “pop off” in 2020.

The first witness to testify in the trial was an FBI agent who sought to clarify the rules for undercover agents and confidential informants, how they operate, and why the FBI became interested in investigating the defendants.

In this case, the agent said, the FBI needed sources to capture encrypted messages that could only be accessed by a person taking screen shots.

The agent told the jury that the FBI required a reason — evidence of force, violence, or ideology – to investigate the group, not just a feeling. Undercover sources must be truthful with the FBI, and can’t commit crimes while they are working, the agent said, noting that undercover informants are often paid for their work and might have a checkered past.

Testimony resumes Thursday morning. The trial is expected to last four-six weeks.

On trial are Adam Fox, 38, of Potterville, Daniel Harris, 24, of Lake Orion; Brandon Caserta, 33, of Canton Township, and Barry Croft, 46, of Delaware. All are charged with kidnapping conspiracy; three are charged with weapons of mass destruction.

If convicted, they each face up to life in prison.

Tresa Baldas: tbaldas@freepress.com

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