GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) — A jury on Tuesday convicted two men of conspiring to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer in 2020, returning quick verdicts in a plot that has been busted by the FBI and described as a rallying cry for an american civil war by anti-government extremists.
The result was a big win for the US Department of Justice. A different jury just four months ago could not reach unanimous decisions on Adam Fox or Barry Croft Jr. but acquitted two other men, an astonishing conclusion that led to a second trial.
Their arrests nearly two years ago came at an extremely tense moment: the volatile home stretch of the election between Joe Biden and then-President Donald Trump, taking place against the backdrop of armed demonstrations on COVID-19 restrictions, especially in Michigan.
Jury selection in Fox and Croft’s retrial coincidentally took place a day after FBI agents searched Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate for the documents, putting the agency in the headlines at the same time as the judge tried to detect any bias regarding law enforcement in the jury group.
Fox and Croft were found guilty on Tuesday of two counts of conspiracy related to the kidnapping plan and attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction. Prosecutors said they wanted to blow up a bridge to disrupt police if the kidnapping could be called off at Whitmer’s vacation home.
Croft, 46, a trucker from Bear, Delaware, was also convicted of another explosives charge. The jury deliberated for approximately 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 won’t succeed,” said Whitmer, a Democrat, who turned 51 on Tuesday.
“But we also need to look carefully at the status of our policy,” she added. “Plots against officials and threats against the FBI are a disturbing extension of the radicalized domestic terrorism simmering in our country, threatening the very foundation of our republic.”
Law enforcement officials across the country have warned of an increase in threats and the potential for violence against officers 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 as another defense attorney, Joshua Blanchard, took off his glasses.
Jurors declined to speak to reporters.
“It was a good fight. We were hoping for a different outcome,” Gibbons said.
During closing arguments on Monday, a prosecutor had a direct message: No one can strap on an AR-15 rifle and body armor and rip off a governor.
“But that was not the ultimate goal of the defendants,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Nils Kessler said. “They wanted to start a second American Civil War, a second American Revolution, something they call the boogaloo. And they wanted to do it for a long time before they settled on Governor Whitmer.
The investigation began when Army veteran Dan Chappel joined a Michigan paramilitary group and grew alarmed when he heard reports of police officers being killed. He agreed to become an FBI informant and spent the summer of 2020 bonding with Fox and others, secretly recording conversations, and participating in drills at “film houses” in Wisconsin and Michigan.
The FBI made it a major domestic terrorism case with two other informants and two undercover agents embedded in the group. Evidence showed the group had many gripes, particularly over the stay-at-home orders and other pandemic restrictions imposed by Whitmer.
Fox, Croft and others, accompanied by government agents, traveled to northern Michigan to see Whitmer’s vacation home at night and a bridge that could be destroyed. Ty Garbin and Kaleb Franks were also there. They pleaded guilty and testified for the prosecution.
Whitmer was not physically injured; six men were arrested within hours of her home in October 2020.
David Porter, who heads the FBI in western Michigan, welcomed the verdicts.
“Here in America, if you don’t agree with your government, you have options. … What you can’t do is plan or commit acts of violence,” he said. he declared in front of the courthouse.
Defense attorneys attempted to bring the FBI to trial, repeatedly pointing out, during cross-examination of witnesses and during closing remarks, that federal actors were present at every crucial event and framed the men.
Fox and Croft, they said, were “big talkers” who liked to smoke marijuana and were only guilty of exercising their right to say vile things about Whitmer and the government.
“It’s not Russia. That’s not how our country works,” Blanchard, Croft’s attorney, told jurors. “You can’t suspect that someone might commit a crime because you don’t like the things they say, you don’t like their ideologies.”
Gibbons said the FBI is not supposed to create “domestic terrorists”. He described Fox, 39, as poor and living in the basement of a Grand Rapids-area vacuum cleaner store, which was a hangout with Chappel and an agent.
Hours after the verdicts, U.S. District Judge Robert Jonker released his Aug. 14 findings regarding a juror. Blanchard had revealed early in the trial that his office received a call from someone who said the juror was eager to be chosen and would vote to convict him.
“The juror repeatedly and consistently denied making such statements,” said Jonker, who with staff spoke with the person privately. “Based on the court’s observation of the juror’s attitude and demeanor, these answers were credible.”
In separate but related cases, eight other men linked to the kidnapping plan are being sued by Michigan’s attorney general in state court.
Whitmer in 2020 blamed Trump for stirring up mistrust and fomenting anger on coronavirus restrictions and refusing to condemn hate groups and right-wing extremists like those charged in Michigan.
On August 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 conspiracy trial: https://apnews.com/hub/whitmer-kidnap-plot-trial
White reported from Detroit.
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