• Wed. Sep 28th, 2022

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Talking Chaos, or Plotting a Conspiracy? The Debate in the Whitmer Kidnapping Trial.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Few people took the Covid-19 lockdown restrictions that swept the world in the spring of 2020 harder than the far-right extremist Adam Fox.

The burden of being unable to work out at shuttered gyms offended Mr. Fox to his core, so he took to recording Facebook videos to rant about what he viewed as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s tyrannical regime. Ms. Whitmer of Michigan, a Democrat, had mandated masks, canceled school and closed most commerce, and for militia movement members like Mr. Fox, she personified everything going so wrong in America.

He suggested a citizen’s arrest.

“We want her flex-cuffed on a table,” Mr. Fox, 38, said in a recording played in court.

Mr. Fox and three fellow militia members are now on trial at the U.S. District Court in the Western District of Michigan in connection with what prosecutors say was a conspiracy to kidnap Ms. Whitmer and blow up a bridge a few miles from her lakeside vacation cottage to delay the police response. The trial, which opened with jury selection on Tuesday and is expected to take up to six weeks, is an important and unusual domestic terrorism prosecution that will test the government’s ability to root out violent right-wing extremism on American soil, particularly in the wake of the attack on the U.S. Capitol last year.

As the Covid-19 pandemic and the 2020 elections helped fuel a rise of extremism, the case offers a rare inside look at the secretive world of militia groups that use social media, encrypted apps, field training exercises and secret meetings to discuss violent uprisings.

The suspects — some survivalists, others who hoped to foment a new civil war — have framed the case as a critical examination of something entirely different: the country’s commitment to free speech. To them, the legal proceedings underway at the federal courthouse in Grand Rapids, Mich., before Chief Judge Robert J. Jonker put a spotlight on an overreaching government willing to manufacture plots to criminalize free speech and crack down on the government’s perceived enemies. Although Judge Jonker had initially ruled that he would limit the use of an entrapment defense, he changed course after opening statements.

But even as defense lawyers argue that the alleged conspiracy amounted to nothing more than trash talk from drug users, prosecutors contend that hundreds of hours of the defendants’ own words, surreptitiously recorded by informants and presented as evidence in support of the charges of kidnapping, conspiracy and conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction, are the very thing that will do them in. If found guilty, they potentially face life sentences.

“I’m going to do some of the most nasty, disgusting things that you have ever read about in the history of your life,” one of the defendants, Barry G. Croft Jr., 46, of Delaware, said as he was secretly recorded chronicling his plans to sow mayhem. He went on to explain how packing pennies in explosives could cause even more injuries and how he had thought about killing police officers and federal agents.

“They’re looking forward to the civil war,” Jonathan Roth, an assistant U.S. attorney, said. “They’re getting ready for it, and they’re looking for ways to start it.”

The case began in the spring of 2020, when a wounded Iraq War veteran, by then a postal worker, joined a Facebook group that offered him a chance to practice his waning military skills. But the violent rhetoric he read in the online discussions so alarmed him that he went to the authorities. Soon he was the informant known as Big Dan, carrying recording devices in key fobs and documenting hours upon hours of discussions with members of a group called the Wolverine Watchmen.

In the months that followed, the F.B.I. gave him more than $50,000 for his trouble, and he was supplied with a laptop, a smart watch and even a warranty plan for his new computer, which defense lawyers pointed out in court in an effort to damage his credibility with jurors.

Dan was one of several informants and undercover F.B.I. agents who had infiltrated the group. The informants, using gas money and other resources provided by the F.B.I., drove the men to training exercises and meetings and twice participated in reconnaissance missions at the governor’s vacation home in Elk Rapids, two hours north of Grand Rapids, agents testified.

“The evidence will show it was all parlor tricks,” said Christopher Gibbons, who represents Mr. Fox. “Adam Fox talks big. He draws attention to himself. He’s trying to be cool.”

Underemployed and living in a basement under a trap door at a friend’s vacuum cleaner shop near Grand Rapids, Mr. Fox had to go to the Mexican restaurant next door to brush his teeth, Mr. Gibbons said. He described his own client as a “misfit,” a broke loser incapable of masterminding such a devious plot. The true architects were Dan’s F.B.I. handlers, who kept the investigation going for three months even when there was no evidence of a crime, Mr. Gibbons said.

Joshua Blanchard, who represents Mr. Croft, said some of his client’s recordings were so preposterous that federal agents should have recognized his rhetoric as drug-fueled nonsense. Mr. Croft talked about everything from redirecting river flows to celestial chariots to cutting down trees in order to create a miles-long barrier along the state border, Mr. Blanchard said.

But according to a recording aired in court, Mr. Croft, a leader of the so-called boogaloo movement, also said: “You’ve labeled me a terrorist. I’m going to be what I am.”

Prosecutors played recordings of Mr. Croft’s schooling of other militia members on how to make explosives. The men were finally arrested in the fall of 2020 because “there was a real concern they might obtain real live explosives,” Todd Reineck, a special agent with the F.B.I., testified.

Lawyers for two other defendants, Brandon Caserta and Daniel Harris, both of Michigan, argued that their clients had not been present for some of the more damning recordings. Two other defendants pleaded guilty and agreed to testify in exchange for reduced sentences.

Experts say that the defense will have an uphill battle in proving entrapment, because the legal bar for such a defense is high. Prosecutors must prove that the defendants were predisposed to commit such crimes, and so last week prosecutors played recording after recording in which the defendants vow to murder police officers, kidnap the governor and cause other devastation.

“These were not people who are all talk,” Mr. Roth said. “These were people who wanted to make sure that all of them were about action. These are people who wanted to separate themselves from the people that were all talk.”

Jon Lewis, a research fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, said prosecutors appeared to have a strong case.

“It wasn’t just speech; this case is not a speech issue,” Mr. Lewis said. “It’s a case where, as the government has alleged, there were individuals who were — on their own volition — taking actions in order to do what has been correctly labeled an act of domestic terrorism, had they been successful.”

Brian Hughes, a co-founder of an extremism research center at American University, said the trial was important because the allegations represented a growing trend of militarized political violence that targets public officials at all levels of government. He cited two examples: Last year, neo-Nazis were convicted of planning an attack on a legislator at a Virginia gun rights rally, which they hoped would incite chaos, and in 2020, a shooting erupted during a clash with a militia group at a demonstration in New Mexico calling for the removal of a conquistador statue.

The emergence of such groups is creating fear among candidates for even the most local of political races, he said.

“Cases like Michigan have a chilling effect down to the most local level,” Mr. Hughes said. “The school board or the dogcatcher elections feel the chilling effect of this kind of violence. People understand that the stakes have been raised by extreme right-wing political violence.”