GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) — A jury on Tuesday convicted two men of conspiring to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in 2020, delivering swift verdicts in a plot that was broken up by the FBI and described as a rallying cry for a U.S. civil war by anti-government extremists.
The result was a big victory for the U.S. Justice Department. A different jury just four months ago couldn’t reach unanimous decisions on Adam Fox or Barry Croft Jr. but acquitted two other men, a stunning conclusion that led to a second trial.
Their arrests nearly two years ago came at an extremely tense time: the volatile homestretch of the election between Joe Biden and then-President Donald Trump playing out against a backdrop of armed protests over COVID-19 restrictions, especially in Michigan.
Jury selection in the retrial of Fox and Croft coincidentally occurred a day after FBI agents searched Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate for documents, putting the agency in headlines at the same time that the judge was trying to detect any biases about law enforcement in the jury pool.
Fox and Croft were convicted Tuesday of two counts of conspiracy related to the kidnapping scheme and attempts to use a weapon of mass destruction. Prosecutors said they wanted to blow up a bridge to disrupt police if the abduction could be pulled off at Whitmer’s vacation home.
Croft, 46, a trucker from Bear, Delaware, was also convicted of another explosives charge. The jury deliberated for roughly eight hours over two days.
“Today’s verdicts prove 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,” said Whitmer, a Democrat, who turned 51 years old on Tuesday.
“But we must also take a hard look at the status of our politics,” she added. “Plots against public officials and threats to the FBI are a disturbing extension of radicalized domestic terrorism that festers in our nation, threatening the very foundation of our republic.”
Law enforcement officials across the country have been warning about an increase in threats and the potential for violence against agents or buildings.
Fox and Croft, who face sentences of up to life in prison, just stared at the jury as the verdicts were read. Defense attorney Christopher Gibbons shook his head while another defense lawyer, Joshua Blanchard, removed his glasses.
Jurors declined to speak to reporters.
“It’s been a good fight. We were hoping for a different outcome,” Gibbons said.
During closing arguments Monday, a prosecutor had a blunt message: No one can strap on an AR-15 rifle and body armor and snatch a governor.
“But that wasn’t the defendants’ ultimate goal,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Nils Kessler said. “They wanted to set off a second American civil war, a second American Revolution, something that they call the boogaloo. And they wanted to do it for a long time before they settled on Gov. Whitmer.”
The investigation began when Army veteran Dan Chappel joined a Michigan paramilitary group and became alarmed when he heard talk about killing police. He agreed to become an FBI informant and spent the summer of 2020 getting close to Fox and others, secretly recording conversations and participating in drills at “shoot houses” in Wisconsin and Michigan.
The FBI turned it into a major domestic terrorism case with two more informants and two undercover agents embedded in the group. Evidence showed the group had many gripes, particularly over stay-at-home orders and other pandemic restrictions imposed by Whitmer.
Fox, Croft and others, accompanied by the government operatives, traveled to northern Michigan to see Whitmer’s vacation home at night and a bridge that could be destroyed. Ty Garbin and Kaleb Franks, too, were on that ride. They pleaded guilty and testified for the prosecution.
Whitmer was not physically harmed; six men were arrested hours away from her home in October 2020.
David Porter, who leads the FBI in western Michigan, hailed the verdicts.
“Here in America, if you disagree with your government you have options. … What you cannot do is plan or commit acts of violence,” he said outside the courthouse.
Defense attorneys tried to put the FBI on trial, repeatedly emphasizing through cross-examination of witnesses and during closing remarks that federal players were present at every crucial event and had entrapped the men.
Fox and Croft, they said, were “big talkers” who liked to smoke marijuana and were guilty of nothing but exercising their right to say vile things about Whitmer and government.
“This isn’t Russia. This isn’t how our country works,” Blanchard, Croft’s attorney, told jurors. “You don’t get to suspect that someone might commit a crime because you don’t like things that they say, that you don’t like their ideologies.”
Gibbons said the FBI isn’t supposed to create “domestic terrorists.” He described Fox, 39, as poor and living in the basement of a Grand Rapids-area vacuum shop, which was a site for meetings with Chappel and an agent.
Hours after the verdicts, U.S. District Judge Robert Jonker unsealed his Aug. 14 findings about a juror. Blanchard had disclosed early in the trial that his office took a call from someone who said the juror was eager to get picked and would vote to convict.
“The juror repeatedly and consistently denied making any such statements,” said Jonker, who, with staff, spoke to the person in private. “Based on the court’s observation of the juror’s demeanor and behavior, these responses were credible.”
In separate but related cases, eight other men linked to the kidnapping scheme are being prosecuted by the Michigan attorney general in state courts.
Whitmer in 2020 blamed Trump for stoking mistrust and fomenting anger over coronavirus restrictions and refusing to condemn hate groups and right-wing extremists like those charged in Michigan.
On Aug. 6, three days before jury selection, Trump told conservative activists that the kidnapping plan was a “fake deal.”
Find the AP’s full coverage of the kidnapping plot trial: https://apnews.com/hub/whitmer-kidnap-plot-trial
White reported from Detroit.
Follow Ed White at http://twitter.com/edwritez