2 Acquitted, Jury Hung on 2 More in Whitmer Kidnap Plot

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) — A jury on Friday acquitted two men of all charges in a plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer but couldn’t reach verdicts against the two alleged leaders, a stunning defeat for the government after a weekslong trial that centered on a remarkable FBI sting operation just before the 2020 election.

The results were announced a few hours after the jury said it was struggling to find unanimity on all 10 charges. The judge on the fifth day of deliberations told the panel to keep working, but jurors emerged again after lunch to say they still were deadlocked on some counts.

Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta were found not guilty of conspiracy. In addition, Harris was acquitted of charges related to explosives and a gun.

The jury could not reach verdicts for Adam Fox and Barry Croft Jr., which means the government can put them on trial again.

“Obviously we’re disappointed with the outcome. We have two defendants that are awaiting trial and we’ll get back to work on that,” U.S. Attorney Andrew Birge said, declining further comment.

Harris and Caserta embraced their lawyers when U.S. District Judge Robert Jonker said they were free after 18 months in jail awaiting trial. Family members moments earlier gasped and cried with joy when the verdicts were read.

Over 13 days of testimony, prosecutors offered evidence from undercover agents, a crucial informant and two men who pleaded guilty to the plot. Jurors also read and heard secretly recorded conversations, violent social media posts and chat messages.

Ty Garbin, who pleaded guilty and is serving a six-year prison sentence, said the plan was to get Whitmer and cause enough chaos to trigger a civil war before the 2020 election , keeping Joe Biden from winning the presidency.

The six including Garbin and Kaleb Franks, who also pleaded guilty and testified for the government, were arrested in October 2020 amid talk of raising $4,000 for an explosive to blow up a bridge and stymie any police response to a kidnapping, according to trial testimony.

Prosecutors said the group was steeped in anti-government extremism and angry over Whitmer’s COVID-19 restrictions. There was evidence of a “shoot house” erected in Luther, Michigan, to practice going in and out of tight spaces at her vacation home.

But defense lawyers portrayed the men as credulous weekend warriors prone to big, wild talk and often stoned on marijuana. They said agents and informants tricked and cajoled the men into targeting the governor.

Harris was the only defendant to testify in his own defense, repeatedly telling jurors “absolutely not” when asked if he had targeted the governor.

“I think what the FBI did is unconscionable,” Caserta’s attorney, Michael Hills, said outside court. “And I think the jury just sent them a message loud and clear that these tactics — we’re not going to condone what they’ve done here.”

Fox’s attorney, Christopher Gibbons, said the acquittals of Harris and Caserta demonstrated some serious shortcomings in the government’s case.

“We’ll be ready for another trial. … We’ll eventually get what we wanted out of this, which is the truth and the justice I think Adam is entitled to,” Gibbons said.

Deliberations resumed earlier Friday with a court employee handing over a large plastic bag containing pennies, known as exhibit 291. The pennies were requested before jurors went home Thursday.

Pennies taped to a commercial-grade firework were intended to act like shrapnel, investigators said.

According to evidence, a homemade explosive was detonated during training in September 2020, about a month before the men were arrested.

In his closing argument on April 1, Assistant U.S. Attorney Nils Kessler said Croft wanted to test the explosive as a possible weapon to use against Whitmer’s security team. He quoted him as saying the pennies would be so hot they could go “right through your skin.”

The trial covered 20 days since March 8, including jury selection, evidence, final arguments and jury deliberations.

Croft is from Bear, Delaware, while the others are from Michigan.

Whitmer, a Democrat, rarely talks publicly about the plot, though she referred to “surprises” during her term that seemed like “something out of fiction” when she filed for reelection on March 17.

She has blamed former President Donald Trump for fomenting anger over coronavirus restrictions and refusing to condemn right-wing extremists like those charged in the case.

A jury of six women and six men heard the case, as well as four alternates. Little is known about them. Jonker ordered out of privacy concerns that they be only identified by numbers. Two jurors were dismissed during the trial because of illness.

Separately, seven other men linked to a paramilitary group called the Wolverine Watchmen were charged in state court at the same time as the federal arrests. Those men are accused of planning to storm the Michigan Capitol and create a “civil war.”

JoAnne Huls, Chief of Staff to Governor Gretchen Whitmer, issued the following statement in response to Friday’s outcome:

“Today, Michiganders and Americans—especially our children—are living through the normalization of political violence. The plot to kidnap and kill a governor may seem like an anomaly. But we must be honest about what it really is: the result of violent, divisive rhetoric that is all too common across our country. There must be accountability and consequences for those who commit heinous crimes. Without accountability, extremists will be emboldened.

“The governor remains focused on her work on behalf of Michigan and all Michiganders. That includes addressing violence and threats to our democracy. We appreciate the prosecutors and law enforcement officers for their work on this case.”

Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist II also issued a statement in response to Friday’s outcome:

“Governor Gretchen Whitmer is a fierce leader and a dear friend. I have seen who she is: a mother who loves her family and her friends. It has been the honor of my life to serve alongside her as Lieutenant Governor. Since day one, when she asked me to run, I have seen her dedication and commitment to the people of Michigan. I have seen her devotion to the kind of public service that works around the clock to make Michiganders’ lives better and delivers real change for every community. I have seen her step up to the plate to make tough decisions.

“Today’s outcome is disappointing. But it cannot and will not prevent us from standing tall for Michigan. When we took our oaths of office, we committed to serving Michiganders, and while violent extremists try to scare us and prevent us from doing our jobs, we will keep that commitment. We will keep working hard and living up to the oath we took.

“Our differences must be settled at the ballot box, not through violence. We need to be honest and clear about what causes violence by extremists and do all we can to address the root cause of it. Elected officials, parents, teachers, faith leaders, all of us have a duty to stand up to these hateful actions and teach our kids that there is a better way.

“I know that Governor Whitmer will continue leading with grit to do what is right. She loves this amazing state and she will keep putting Michiganders first—no matter what.”