Prosecutors in Michigan kidnapping case drop evidence barrage

GRAND RAPIDS — If the government has a clear strategy in its pursuit of four men accused of plotting to kidnap Michigan’s governor, it could be succinctly described as shock and awe.

On just the fourth day of testimony in a trial expected to last up to six weeks, federal prosecutors on Friday called one of their most critical witnesses — a confidential informant named Dan Chappel who infiltrated the activist groups to which the defendants belonged. and spent months recording seemingly every meeting, phone call, training exercise and road trip they took.

Chappel, a former Army sergeant who until now was known publicly only as “Dan” or “Big Dan”, testified for nearly four hours about what he saw and heard at the during a seven-month period in 2020. During that time, prosecutors say, Adam Fox, Barry Croft, Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta conspired to remove Governor Gretchen Whitmer at gunpoint from her vacation home in northern Michigan. The men’s goal, Chappel said, was “to get the governor” and start a civil war.

His testimony followed that of an undercover FBI agent, Mark Schweers, who spoke on Thursday and said he was “directed” to approach Fox in June 2020 due to a concern he planned to take “direct violent action”. in pursuit of his anti-government leanings.

And while the outline of the government case hasn’t changed since it was uncovered 17 months ago, the testimony of the two FBI agents, and in particular the evidence that they helped prosecutors to present, served to bring surprising and often heartbreaking new details to the allegations. and potentially leave an indelible impression on the jury.

Prosecutors showed some 80 exhibits on Friday alone – a methodical, sometimes overwhelming firehose of audio recordings, videos, photographs and clandestine text messages that have served to paint the defendants as highly motivated men to commit acts of violence against politicians.

Fox, for example, could be heard on tape fantasizing about “having the Governor strapped to a table” just hours after performing a daytime watch of her lakeside cabin with Chappel and another person. And after dinner following a field training exercise in Wisconsin, Croft is heard expounding on the need for violence.

“I also don’t like seeing someone get killed,” Croft says on a recording Chappel made in a restaurant. “But you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.”

Meanwhile, Harris could be heard offering to knock on the door of Whitmer’s house and, when she answered, put a bullet in her “dome”, while Caserta, in a rant about COVID-19 that prosecutors successfully argued was relevant to their case, expressed a desire to shoot police, attorneys and contract tracers.

In photos and videos projected in the courtroom, the defendants could be seen participating in armed training sessions and lookout runs near the governor’s lakeside cottage, visible in the footage. Video shows Chappel and two FBI agents recreating the path the defendants allegedly planned to use to “exfiltrate” Whitmer from her Lake Michigan home, where, Chappel said, they planned to leave her floating on a broken down boat.

Throughout the presentation, the four defendants and some of their family members seated in the nearby gallery watched in silence, as their defense attorneys could do little to slow the onslaught or attempt to stop them. mitigate the damage. Their turn will come from Monday, when they will have the opportunity to cross-examine Chappel and claim that their clients are innocent.

This argument boils down to two main assertions: first, while the defendants may have said terrible things, their words were permitted under the principles of free speech and were never attached to anything near of a finalized plan.

Second, they argue that the defendants were framed by the FBI and, in particular, Chappel and a second informant named Stephen Robeson. They argue that informants brought the defendants together, encouraged and amplified their anti-government sentiments, and even suggested actions they might take, urging them to do things they otherwise would not have done.

The chance for the defense to shake up Chappel’s version of events will be crucial. In motions and preliminary hearings, defense attorneys described him as the intellectual driving force behind the whole scheme, someone who used his veteran status to gain the confidence of the defendants and induce them to train, plot and even discuss the acquisition of explosives.

Chappel has already testified twice in a parallel case in Michigan state court, where eight other men are charged with providing material support to terrorism. In neither case was his true identity revealed, but defense attorneys pored over his testimony to look for inconsistencies that could be used to undermine his credibility. They should also draw attention to the fact that Chappel received around $54,000 from the FBI in payments and for expenses that included a new laptop, phone and Apple Watch.

During cross-examination of Schweers, defense attorneys noted that he changed his appearance, shaving off the beard he wore while spending time with Fox and accompanying him and others on from a lookout in September to Whitmer’s house. It was a small – but important – point to make since one of the defendants, Croft, had also removed his facial hair before the trial, which prosecutors were careful to note to the jury earlier.

Schweers, a longtime undercover agent, also admitted in questioning that he relied on a “ruse” to get in touch with Fox: he adopted the false name of Mark Woods and relied on another FBI agent posing as his girlfriend who reached out to Fox’s then-fiancé and asked him to give a presentation.

After jury selection and two days of testimony last week, the trial suffered an unexpected slowdown when a critical trial participant tested positive for COVID-19 last weekend, forcing Judge Robert Jonker to halt the trial. procedure for three days. In his order, he did not name the individual who had tested positive.

The delay could push the trial far into April. After testimony ended on Friday, lead prosecutor Nils Kessler said the government planned to bring in a total of 40 witnesses.

Because Chappel was the government’s fourth witness, the jury will hear three dozen more witnesses before defense attorneys have a chance to present their own case. Among the most critical government witnesses will be Kaleb Franks and Ty Garbin, two former defendants who pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with the prosecution.

Their testimony could begin as early as Tuesday.

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