FBI Agent: Plot Suspects Talked of ‘Taking Out’ Virginia’s Governor, Leaving Whitmer on Lake

October 14, 2020by Robert Snell and George Hunter, The Detroit News (TNS)
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) speaks during a news conference on June 4, 2020 in Richmond, Virginia. (Zach Gibson/Getty Images/TNS)

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Members of an alleged conspiracy to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer also talked about leaving her in the middle of Lake Michigan and “taking out” a second politician, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, an FBI agent testified Tuesday.

FBI Special Agent Richard Trask identified the Virginia governor, also a Democrat, during a hearing in federal court in Grand Rapids that ended with a magistrate judge ordering Waterford resident Kaleb Franks jailed without bond, calling him a danger to the community. Bond decisions are expected for two other members later Tuesday.

“They discussed possible targets, taking out a sitting governor, specifically issues with the governors of Michigan and Virginia,” due to lockdown orders instituted during the COVID-19 pandemic, Trask testified.

The FBI alerted key members of Northam’s security team during its investigation, but the Virginia governor and his staff members weren’t told in accordance with security protocols, Northam press secretary Alena Yarmosky said Tuesday.

“At no time was the governor or his family in imminent danger,” Yarmosky said. “Enhanced security measures have been in place for Gov. Northam and his family for quite some time, and they will remain.”

Tuesday’s hearing provided a peek at the multimedia trove of evidence gathered during the investigation, including secret audio and video recordings and encrypted chats, and suggested the plot targeted additional politicians and sought to topple governments in as many as five states.

The bond hearing provided new details about how investigators infiltrated the alleged conspiracy with informants and undercover agents. It also revealed that members discussed kidnapping Whitmer and using a boat to leave her alone in Lake Michigan.

And testimony portrayed members of the alleged conspiracy as security-conscious schemers who were caught despite using encrypted chat applications and foul-mouthed code names for each other.

The three defendants are:

—Franks, 26, of Waterford, known as “Red Hot”

—Daniel Harris, 23, of Lake Orion, known as “Beaker”

—Brandon Caserta, 32, of Canton Township, known as “Debased Tyrant”

Adam “Alpha F— You” Fox, 37, of Potterville, and Ty “Gunney” Garbin, 24, of Hartland Township, had their hearings moved to Friday. A sixth man, Barry Croft, 44, of Bear, Delaware, is in custody in Delaware and will face a hearing there later Tuesday. He could be transferred to Michigan soon.

Early questioning from Franks’ lawyer, Scott Graham, framed the alleged plot as tough talk between “crackpots” and that an FBI informant was trying to lead others to commit crimes.

“People who talk a lot, talk brashly, boldly, but who are never going to do anything to act on that. You’ve seen people like that?” the attorney asked.

“I have seen that,” the FBI agent said.

By comparison, Franks was a follower, his attorney said.

“When we listen, your informant was pushing people like Kaleb to do things that were criminal,” Graham said.

“I would not say that our informant was pushing people to do things criminal in nature but they were having discussions, yes,” Trask said.

As Caserta was led into the courtroom, handcuffed with chains across his stomach, he pulled down his mask and mouthed “I love you” to someone in the audience.

The hearings come less than a week after the men were arrested along with seven members and associates of a Michigan militia known as the Wolverine Watchmen. State officials have accused them of wanting to overthrow Michigan’s Capitol, target police and “instigate civil war.” Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel charged the seven with the state’s anti-terrorism law, a 20-year felony.

Defense lawyer Michael Darragh Hills emphasized that Caserta was not present at Capitol rallies protesting COVID-19 lockdown orders or during a surveillance run at the governor’s vacation home in Elk Rapids in mid-September.

“Mr. Caserta was not part of that, right?” Hills asked the FBI agent

“He did not go on that surveillance,” the agent said.

And the agent agreed Caserta did not provide technical advice on building a bomb to blow up a bridge near the governor’s cottage.

The FBI investigation quotes an encrypted group chat among Caserta and others talking about plans.

“The fear will be manifested through bullets,” wrote Caserta, according to an FBI affidavit filed in federal court.

“Again, no operational details and no planning regarding this alleged conspiracy to kidnap the governor,” the lawyer said.

Legal experts do not expect the five men appearing in front of U.S. Magistrate Judge Sally Berens will be granted bond.

The hearings are expected to shed light on the criminal past of several accused members of the kidnapping plot. Though incomplete, available public records reveal nothing in the defendants’ backgrounds comparable to a grand conspiracy to kill a prominent state leader and topple governments in several states.

The hearings give prosecutors a chance to argue the defendants are dangerous and flight risks because the conspiracy to commit kidnapping charge is a felony punishable by up to life in prison. The magistrate will consider other factors, too, including the defendants’ ties to Michigan.

Federal documents filed in court Thursday allege the conspirators twice conducted surveillance at Whitmer’s personal vacation home in northern Michigan and discussed kidnapping her to a “secure location” in Wisconsin to stand “trial” for treason prior to the Nov. 3 election.

Earlier this year, Croft and Fox, who was also charged in the kidnapping plot, were identified by federal authorities as individuals who allegedly agreed to unite with others in their cause to take “violent action” against multiple state governments they believed are violating the U.S. Constitution.

Like Whitmer, Northam blamed President Donald Trump for inspiring the alleged conspirators.

“Here’s the reality: President Trump called upon his supporters to ‘LIBERATE VIRGINIA’ in April — just like Michigan,” Yarmosky said. “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.”

Trump slammed Whitmer on social media late Thursday night, saying the Democratic governor had called him a white supremacist instead of thanking him for federal authorities who filed the kidnapping plot against her.

“I do not tolerate any extreme violence,” Trump tweeted. “Defending ALL Americans, even those who oppose and attack me, is what I will always do as your President!”

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Detroit News staff writer Melissa Nann Burke contributed to this report.

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©2020 The Detroit News

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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