A federal jury on Tuesday convicted two men of plotting to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) in 2020, a case that raised alarms about the possibility of politically motivated violence in the era of Donald Trump and served as a precursor to the Jan. 6 insurrection that took place months later.
In one of the highest-profile domestic terrorism cases in recent memory, prosecutors cast Barry Croft Jr. and Adam Fox as violent anti-government extremists who planned to capture Whitmer at her vacation home in northern Michigan, detonate a bridge to disrupt responding police officers and, in the process, ignite a civil war ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
“They wanted to set off a second American civil war and a second American revolution, something they called the ‘boogaloo,’ ” Assistant U.S. Attorney Nils Kessler, one of the lead prosecutors, said during his closing argument.
The verdicts came against the politically charged backdrop of a deeply divided America where politicians, including Whitmer, say they continue to face threats from extremists.
The jury in Grand Rapids, Mich., deliberated for eight hours over two days before convicting Croft and Fox on two charges of conspiracy — one related to the kidnapping scheme and another to obtain and use a weapon of mass destruction. Croft was also convicted on another explosives charge. The men face up to life in prison.
The decision was a vindication for the Justice Department. A different jury in April couldn’t reach a unanimous decision on Croft and Fox but acquitted two other alleged co-conspirators — a result that led to the second trial this summer.
That outcome shocked observers — including Whitmer, who later called the acquittal and mistrial “awful” and told The Washington Post that the jury’s decision left her questioning her life’s “worth.” Whitmer said the way the case had been described as a kidnapping rather than an “assassination plot” had “muted the seriousness of it” because she believed the men were likely to have killed her if their plot had succeeded.
The Michigan governor, who is seeking a second term in November, has repeatedly blamed Trump for stoking mistrust and anger over coronavirus restrictions and refusing to condemn extremists like those implicated in the plot.
Though the men were initially arrested and charged while he was in office, Trump recently called the Michigan plot “a fake deal,” suggesting Whitmer was in no real danger.
In a statement Tuesday, Whitmer said the verdicts “prove that violence and threats have no place in our politics, and those who seek to divide us will be held accountable.”
“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.”
Federal and state officials originally charged multiple people in the plot against Whitmer, arresting the men in an October 2020 sting that involved the use of informants and undercover FBI agents. The officers embedded with the men, who were associates of a militia group known as the “Wolverine Watchmen.”
According to prosecutors, the defendants plotted from June to October 2020 to abduct Whitmer from her vacation home in Elk Rapids, Mich., because they were angered by what they saw as her overly restrictive policies during the pandemic.
Several of the men were believed to have been present as armed protesters stormed the Michigan Capitol building in May 2020 in response to a stay-at-home order that Whitmer approved to stem the spread of the coronavirus. The following month, prosecutors said the group began plotting to kidnap Whitmer.
Two of the men — Ty Garbin and Kaleb Franks — pleaded guilty in the federal case and testified in both trials. Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta were acquitted in the April trial at which the jury deadlocked over the roles of Fox and Croft, who prosecutors described as ringleaders of the plot.
Ten others accused in the plot were indicted on state charges and await a separate trial.
Jurors in the earlier federal trial seemed to agree, at least in part, with defense lawyers’ arguments that FBI agents entrapped the men in the violent plot, pointing to how one of the undercover federal operatives offered explosives to the men.
Attorneys for Croft and Fox renewed those arguments in the second trial, casting their clients as nothing more than big talkers who would not have done anything had they not been spurred on by undercover FBI agents.
The defense attorneys called attention to text messages from investigators that referred to the men as “morons” and claimed their clients said outrageous things because they regularly smoked pot. The attorneys said their clients would have been incapable of doing anything they were charged with had undercover federal agents not pushed them to do it.
“In America, the FBI is not supposed to create domestic terrorists so that the FBI can arrest them,” Christopher Gibbons, an attorney for Fox, told the jury during his closing argument. “The FBI isn’t supposed to create a conspiracy so the FBI can stand up and claim a disruption.”
According to prosecutors, the plot began when Fox, 39, from Wyoming, Mich., and Croft, 46, a truck driver from Delaware, began communicating on social media. They later met in-person in Ohio in June 2020 to talk about Croft’s plan of hanging a governor to spur a civil war. Prosecutors said the two shared their idea of kidnapping Whitmer with the other men and began training and plotting how they could do it.
Over a trial that lasted about two weeks, prosecutors presented the jury with testimony and evidence that painted a violent picture of what the men did to further their plot — including video of the men surveilling Whitmer’s vacation home and video and audio of the men discussing their plans to kidnap the governor, put her on trial and hang her for “treason.”
Prosecutors told jurors that Fox compiled a list of tools the group would need to carry out the kidnapping, including handcuffs and a hood to cover Whitmer’s head, and plotted where to place explosives to destroy the bridge near Whitmer’s home. Jurors saw video of Croft making explosives and heard testimony of how he believed God had given him permission to kill.
“These defendants believed their anti-government views justified violence,” Special Agent in Charge James A. Tarasca, who works at the FBI’s Detroit Field Office, said in a statement Tuesday. “Today’s verdict sends a clear message that they were wrong in their assessment. Violence is never the answer. The FBI will continue to investigate anyone who seeks to engage in violence in furtherance of any ideological cause and hold them accountable.”
A previous version of this article misstated the location of Whitmer's vacation home. It is in Elk Rapids, Mich., not Elk River. The article has been corrected.