GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Members of anti-government paramilitary groups implicated in an alleged plot to kidnap Michigan’s governor ahead of the November election because of her measures to slow the coronavirus also discussed abducting Virginia’s governor, an FBI agent testified Tuesday.
The disclosure came during a federal court hearing in Grand Rapids, where agent Richard Trask revealed new details about investigators’ use of confidential informants, undercover agents and encrypted communication to thwart the purported scheme to abduct Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
A judge ordered three of six men charged in the case held without bond until trial, delaying rulings on two defendants. Another was ordered returned to Michigan from Delaware.
“They discussed possible targets, taking a sitting governor, specifically issues with the governor of Michigan and Virginia based on the lockdown orders” they had issued to deal with the pandemic, Trask said, referring to a June 6 meeting in Dublin, Ohio, attended by roughly 15 members of anti-government groups from “four or five states.” A criminal complaint said at least two of the defendants were among them.
It wasn’t immediately clear if talk of targeting Virginia’s Democratic governor, Ralph Northam, continued beyond the meeting. Nothing from the complaint or Trask’s testimony indicated that anyone had been charged with plotting against Northam.
But the mention of another governor who, like Whitmer, has drawn attacks from President Donald Trump — and the alleged intent to carry out the kidnapping shortly before the bitterly divisive U.S. election — escalated political tension surrounding the case. Trump urged supporters to “LIBERATE” Michigan, Virginia and Minnesota in a series of tweets in April, encouraging protesters who turned up at state Capitols to oppose restrictions aimed at minimizing the spread of the virus.
Trump falsely claimed in a recent interview on Fox News that Northam, a supporter of abortion rights, had “executed a baby.”
The president “regularly encourages violence against those who disagree with him,” Northam’s spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky, said in a statement Tuesday. “The rhetoric coming out of this White House has serious and potentially deadly consequences. It must stop.”
Whitmer and others have similarly accused Trump of emboldening extremists.
Following the arrests last week, the White House said the president has condemned hate, and Trump tweeted: “I do not tolerate ANY extreme violence.”
Northam said during a news conference he and his family felt safe with security Virginia’s state police provide, and that he had been threatened before. His protection was tightened this year after he signed gun control legislation.
“I’m continuing my work for the commonwealth as I would any other day,” he said.
Yarmosky said the FBI had alerted key members of Northam’s security team during the investigation. But in keeping with security protocols for highly classified information, neither the governor nor members of his staff were informed.
During the hearing in Grand Rapids, Magistrate Judge Sally Berens ordered Kaleb Franks, Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta held without bond. She said she would rule later on Adam Fox and Ty Garbin. All five are from Michigan.
The sixth defendant, Delaware resident Barry Croft, was ordered transferred to Michigan during a separate proceeding.
Trask, the FBI agent, testified that authorities learned of the June meeting in Ohio while investigating various anti-government groups. Authorities have said the men wanted to retaliate against Whitmer because of what they considered her “uncontrolled power” during the coronavirus outbreak.
Trask said Fox, whom investigators describe as a ringleader and was the only defendant without a mask at the hearing, had said during a post-arrest interview he’d considered taking Whitmer from her vacation home out onto Lake Michigan and stranding her there on a disabled boat.
According to the complaint, Fox also spoke of taking her to “a secure location in Wisconsin for ‘trial.’”
Some defendants conducted surveillance of her northern Michigan house in August and September, according to the complaint. Authorities said four of the men had planned to meet last week to pay for explosives and exchange tactical gear.
Several defense attorneys suggested during cross-examination that their clients were “big talkers” who didn’t intend to follow through with action.
When investigating paramilitary-type groups, “you find a lot of people who talk about things, but they’re never a threat to do anything. It’s fairly common in these groups?” Scott Graham, attorney for Franks, asked Trask. “Big talk between crackpots — you’ve seen that, haven’t you? People who talk a lot, brashly, boldly, but are never going to do anything about that talk.”
Graham described Franks as a “follower, not a leader” and argued he shouldn’t be detained before trial. He said Franks was a drug addict but had turned his life around and posed no flight risk.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Nils Kessler countered that Franks should not be released. “There’s a serious public safety risk,” he said, although not disputing that Franks was more of a follower in the matter.
The judge also acknowledged some of the defendants did not have leadership roles, but said their participation in repeated discussions about kidnapping Whitmer and in surveillance of the governor’s home indicated they should remain locked up until trial.
“It is the plot along the way that is clearly very dangerous,” Berens said. “This is a very, very serious crime.”
The men could get up to life in prison if convicted.
“Anyone who is facing a charge like this would be very concerned,” Gary Springstead, an attorney for Garbin, told reporters outside the courthouse. “Literally your life and liberty are on the line.”
During the brief hearing in Wilmington, Delaware, Croft waived his right to a detention hearing there but reserved his right to one in Michigan.
Whitmer, who was considered as Joe Biden’s running mate and is nearly halfway through a four-year term, has been widely praised for her response to the virus outbreak but also criticized by Republican lawmakers and people in conservative areas of Michigan. The state Capitol has been the site of many rallies, some with gun-toting protesters demanding her ouster.
Michigan, and particularly the Detroit area, were hit hard early during the pandemic, leading Whitmer to tightly restrict personal movement and the economy. Many of the limits have been lifted since spring.
Seven other men linked to a paramilitary group called the Wolverine Watchmen were charged in state court with allegedly seeking to storm the Michigan Capitol and providing material support for terrorist acts by seeking a “civil war.”
The investigation is ongoing.
Foody reported from Chicago, and John Flesher reported from Traverse City. Associated Press writer Alan Suderman in Richmond, Virginia, also contributed to this report.