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Defense rests in trial of 4 men in Gov. Whitmer kidnap plot

Daniel Harris, Adam Fox, Barry Croft Jr., and Brandon Caserta are accused of plotting to kidnap Whitmer over disgust with the government and her tough Covid restrictions.
Image: Gretchen Whitmer
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at an event with President Joe Biden on the White House campus on March 9.Patrick Semansky / AP file
/ Source: Associated Press

Defense lawyers have rested their case in the trial of four men charged with conspiring to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in 2020.

Daniel Harris was the only defendant who testified in his own defense Thursday. He denied agreeing to any scheme to get Whitmer. But prosecutors also confronted him with his chat messages about possibly posing as a pizza delivery man and killing Whitmer.

Harris was also reminded that he worked with explosives while training with the group.

Harris, Adam Fox, Barry Croft Jr., and Brandon Caserta are accused of plotting to kidnap Whitmer from her vacation home in northern Michigan because of their disgust with the government and her tough Covid-19 restrictions.

Harris, a former Marine, said he wanted to maintain his infantry skills when he joined a militia, the Wolverine Watchmen, not take down a governor or blow up a bridge near her vacation home to foil police.

His testimony came on the 14th day of trial and a day after prosecutors finished presenting evidence including secret recordings, violent, profanity-filled posts from social media and vital testimony from two men who pleaded guilty.

Over roughly two hours, Harris, 24, rejected any claim that he was involved in a crime. He said “America was on fire” in 2020 over the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, protests over police treatment of Black people and a pandemic that shut down parts of the economy.

Harris suggested that Fox, an alleged leader of the scheme, was a buffoon. He said he didn’t have Fox’s phone number and didn’t visit the basement of a Grand Rapids-area vacuum shop where an informant covertly recorded conversations.

Defense attorney Julia Kelly took Harris through key events raised by prosecutors earlier in the trial and repeatedly asked: “Did you agree to kidnap the governor of Michigan?”

“Absolutely not,” Harris replied.

A key part of the government’s case is a firearms training weekend at Luther, Michigan, in September 2020 with a “shoot house” that was intended to replicate Whitmer’s second home. Harris admitted that he brought material but said he didn’t build it with her property in mind.

Harris did not join Fox and Croft on an evening ride to Elk Rapids, Michigan, to scout Whitmer’s second home and a nearby bridge that same weekend. Harris said he had purchased $200 of cheap beer and cigarettes so he could return to the camp and “get wasted” with others.

“I had assumed they went to a strip club or a bar,” Harris said of Fox and Croft.

Defense attorneys claim the men were engaged in a lot of crazy talk fueled by agents and informants but no conspiracy.

The first defense witness, Colleen Kuester of Baraboo, Wisconsin, said she was invited by an acquaintance to a “family fun day” in Cambria, Wisconsin, in July 2020. Cambria was a training site for the group and other self-styled militia members, according to evidence.

Kuester said she found nothing sinister — just swimming, target shooting and bratwursts.

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Roth played secretly recorded audio of men talking about making bombs.

“Did you hear that at Cambria?” he asked.

“Absolutely not,” Kuester replied.

At least five other defense witnesses bowed out Wednesday, saying they would assert their right to remain silent if called to testify. They included an informant, Steve Robeson of Oxford, Wisconsin, who switched sides during the investigation and tipped off Croft that the FBI wanted to arrest him, according to the government.

The others who invoked the Fifth Amendment had participated in training as well as discussions about the plot but have not been charged.

The men were arrested in October 2020 amid talk of obtaining an explosive that could blow up a bridge and hold back police from responding to a kidnapping at Whitmer’s second home, according to trial testimony.

Ty Garbin, who pleaded guilty and cooperated with investigators, said the group acted willingly and had hoped to strike before the election, cause national chaos and prevent Joe Biden from winning the presidency.

Whitmer, a Democrat, rarely talks publicly about the kidnapping 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. Whitmer has said Trump was complicit in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.