Members of anti-government paramilitary groups implicated in an alleged plot to kidnap Michigan’s governor over measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus during a fraught election year also discussed abducting Virginia’s governor, an FBI agent testified Tuesday.
During a hearing in a Grand Rapids federal court to review the evidence against Adam Fox, Ty Garbin, Kaleb Franks, Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta, and to determine if they should remain jailed until trial, FBI agent Richard Trask revealed new details about investigators’ use of confidential informants, undercover agents and encrypted communication in the case.
The five Michigan men and Barry Croft, a Delaware man who was ordered Tuesday to be transferred to Michigan to face the charges, were arrested last week in the alleged plot aimed at Michigan's Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer.
The FBI discovered the June 6 meeting in Dublin, Ohio, during an investigation of various anti-government groups, leading to the months-long case in Michigan that relied on confidential sources, undercover agents and clandestine recordings to foil the alleged kidnapping conspiracy, according to the criminal complaint and Trask's testimony.
It was not immediately clear whether talk of targeting Virginia's Democratic governor, Ralph Northam, went beyond the June meeting, and nothing from the criminal complaint or Trask's testimony indicated that anyone had been charged with plotting against Northam. Trask said members of anti-government groups from “four or five” states attended that meeting, and the complaint noted that Croft and Fox were among the roughly 15 people who were there.
“They discussed possible targets, taking a sitting governor, specifically issues with the governor of Michigan and Virginia based on the lockdown orders,” Trask said. He said the people at the meeting were unhappy with the governors’ responses to the coronavirus pandemic.
During a news conference Tuesday, Northam said he wasn't going to discuss the alleged plot and stressed that he and his family feel safe with the security the state police provide.
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“I’m continuing my work for the commonwealth as I would any other day,” Northam said.
"I will not work under a cloud of intimidation; that's not who I am," he said.
Earlier Tuesday, Northam's spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky, issued a statement in which she said the FBI alerted key members of Northam's security team throughout the course of its investigation, but neither the governor nor members of his staff were informed, as per security protocols for highly classified information.
Yarmosky said the governor and his family were never believed to be in imminent danger, and that there have been enhanced security measures in place for them for quite a while.
“Here’s the reality: President Trump called upon his supporters to 'LIBERATE VIRGINIA' in April — just like Michigan. In fact, the President regularly encourages violence against those who disagree with him. The rhetoric coming out of this White House has serious and potentially deadly consequences. It must stop,” Yarmosky said.
President Donald 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.
Following the arrests last week, the White House said the president has condemned hate, and Trump tweeted: “I do not tolerate ANY extreme violence.”
"The threats are not coming from -- and this rhetoric is not coming from -- another country," Northam said. "It's coming from Washington. And that I regret. It needs to stop."
In the Michigan case, authorities said the men were trying to retaliate against Whitmer due to what they viewed as her “uncontrolled power” during the coronavirus pandemic.
Some defendants conducted coordinated surveillance of the Democratic governor’s vacation home in northern Michigan in August and September, according to a criminal complaint. Authorities said four of the men had planned to meet last week to pay for explosives and exchange tactical gear.
Defense attorneys for several of the men used their opportunity to question Trask about the investigation to suggest that their clients were “big talkers” who didn't intend to follow through with action.
During investigations of 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 that he shouldn't be detained before trial. He said Franks was a drug addict but had turned his life around and said there is “no evidence whatsoever” he would be a flight risk.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Nils Kessler countered that it was a “serious plot” and argued that Franks should not be released. “There’s a serious public safety risk,” he said, not disputing that Franks was more of a follower than the men who allegedly led the plot.
During a break, Gary Springstead, an attorney for Garvin, told reporters outside the courthouse that the allegations were “serious."
“Anyone who is facing a charge like this would be very concerned," Springstead said. "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 sharply criticized by Republican lawmakers and people in conservative areas of the state. The Capitol has been the site of many rallies, including ones with gun-toting protesters calling for her ouster.
Michigan, and particularly the Detroit area, were particularly hard hit by the virus early on during the pandemic, leading Whitmer to put major restrictions on personal movement and the economy, although many of those limits have been lifted since spring.
Fox, who was described as one of the leaders, was living in the basement of a vacuum shop in Grand Rapids. The owner said Fox was opposed to wearing a mask during the pandemic and kept firearms and ammunition at the store.
Trask, the FBI agent, also testified Tuesday that Fox said in a post-arrest interview that he considered taking Whitmer from her vacation home out onto Lake Michigan and stranding her there on a disabled boat.
Fox did not wear a face mask during Tuesday's hearing. The other four men did wear coverings; all five wore shackles on their hands and feet during the hearing.
The defendants face up to life in prison if convicted.
Seven others linked to a paramilitary group called the Wolverine Watchmen were charged in state court for 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. Associated Press writer John Flesher in Traverse City and Alan Suderman in Richmond, Virginia, also contributed to this report.
NBC Washington's Drew Wilder also contributed to this report.