Two Men Convicted in Plot to Kidnap Michigan’s Governor
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — A federal jury in Michigan found two men guilty on Tuesday of plotting to kidnap the state’s Democratic governor, ending one of the highest-profile domestic terrorism cases in recent history and providing a measure of vindication to prosecutors who brought the case to trial a second time after a previous jury declined to convict.
Prosecutors presented the men, Barry Croft and Adam Fox, who face up to life in prison, as threats to democracy who planned to capture Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at her vacation home in 2020, detonate explosives to disrupt the police response and perhaps touch off a civil war in the process.
“You can’t just strap on an AR-15 and body armor and snatch the governor,” Nils Kessler, a federal prosecutor, said during closing arguments.
Proving the case meant persuading jurors to trust a sprawling F.B.I. investigation that embedded several federal operatives around the group. Among them were an informant who became second-in-command of a militia and an undercover agent who offered to provide explosives. Earlier this year, another jury failed to reach verdicts for Mr. Croft and Mr. Fox, and acquitted two of their co-defendants.
“In America, the F.B.I. is not supposed to create domestic terrorists so that the F.B.I. can arrest them,” Christopher Gibbons, a lawyer for Mr. Fox, said during closing arguments.
Defense lawyers repeatedly criticized the investigation, arguing that their clients were big talkers whose worst instincts were preyed upon by undercover F.B.I. personnel who pretended to befriend them.
Joshua Blanchard, a lawyer for Mr. Croft, blamed the government for luring his client, a truck driver, from his home in Delaware to events in Michigan and other Midwestern states where a plan was discussed. Mr. Blanchard told jurors that “the F.B.I. has told us that the truth doesn’t matter to them” and that “this isn’t Russia.”
“They weren’t about to let the truth get in the way of the story they want to tell,” Mr. Blanchard said.
This trial played out amid a charged political environment, with Ms. Whitmer campaigning for re-election and F.B.I. agents searching former President Donald J. Trump’s Florida home during the week of opening arguments. Many conservatives denounced that search as a weaponization of the Justice Department and an example of F.B.I. overreach.
Mr. Trump, who was president when the F.B.I. arrested Mr. Croft and Mr. Fox, has personally cast doubt on the prosecution. In a recent speech at a conservative conference, he appeared to allude to the Michigan case, calling it “fake” and saying “Gretchen Whitmer was in less danger than the people in this room right now, it seems to me.”
In court, defense lawyers told jurors that they had an opportunity to send a message to the F.B.I. with their verdicts. Prosecutors defended the F.B.I.’s work and said federal officials acted appropriately to head off a serious threat. Both men were convicted of kidnapping conspiracy and conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction. Mr. Croft was also convicted of possessing an unregistered destructive device.
“The F.B.I. did stop this,” Mr. Kessler told jurors. He added: “Thank God they did it before anybody got hurt or killed.”
Neither man had a visible reaction when the guilty verdicts were read. One woman on the jury spoke in a strained voice when asked to confirm her verdict, and later wiped her eyes. As the defendants were led away in handcuffs and leg shackles, a woman in the courtroom gallery yelled out, “I love you, Adam.”
In a statement, Governor Whitmer said the verdicts on Tuesday showed “that violence and threats have no place in our politics and those who seek to divide us will be held accountable. They will not succeed.”
“But,” she added, “we must also take a hard look at the status of our politics. Plots against public officials and threats to the F.B.I. are a disturbing extension of radicalized domestic terrorism that festers in our nation, threatening the very foundation of our republic.”
Defense lawyers raised questions about the jury and suggested additional legal action was likely. They said that a ruling from the judge in the case, Robert J. Jonker, prevented them from discussing their jury concerns in detail.
Early in the trial, The Detroit News reported that a motion that Mr. Blanchard filed included claims that one juror told co-workers about wanting to be on the jury and of having already reached a conclusion about the case. The motion was sealed by court staff, and Judge Jonker rejected an attempt by Mr. Blanchard after the verdict to make that document public again.
“I believe that justice should happen in public,” Mr. Blanchard said outside court.
During the trial at the federal courthouse in downtown Grand Rapids, prosecutors told jurors that the men were upset about Covid-19 restrictions and that they plotted a kidnapping raid on the governor’s vacation home, which they scouted out on “reconnaissance missions.” But in a departure from their approach in the previous trial, they took pains to note social media posts that the men made calling for political violence long before F.B.I. informants entered the case, and they repeatedly defended the use of undercover agents.
The investigation of the plot was presented from the start as indicative of the rising threat of political violence and right-wing domestic terrorism. That threat became all the more clear on Jan. 6, 2021, after the arrests in Michigan, when pro-Trump rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol and tried to block the certification of the presidential election.
But even as two men, Ty Garbin and Kaleb Franks, pleaded guilty to kidnapping conspiracy in the Michigan case and agreed to testify, problems with the investigation were emerging. One F.B.I. agent was fired last year after being charged with domestic violence. Another agent, who supervised a key informant, tried to build a private security consulting firm based in part on some of his work for the F.B.I., according to a BuzzFeed News report. Jurors did not hear the details of those incidents.
Outside the courthouse, David Porter, an assistant special agent in charge for the F.B.I.’s Detroit office, said the verdicts showed that threatening or carrying out political violence remained unacceptable, and that the bureau “will continue to investigate anyone who seeks violence in furtherance of ideology.”