Attorneys for members of the so-called Wolverine Watchmen militia group attempted to argue that there was no probable cause to charge their clients with conspiracy to commit kidnapping.
They said the men are guys who like to “play guns in the woods” and didn’t have a formal plot they intended to carry through.
The government successfully argued the fact that the men got into their cars and cased the governor’s home proves the plot was more than just a fantasy being discussed online.
A federal judge ordered that the case be allowed to move forward.
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Attorneys for three of more than a dozen men charged in connection with a months-long plot to kidnap the Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer tried to paint their clients as people with anti-government beliefs who liked to “play guns in the woods.”
While they used inflammatory language online, they had no formal plan to carry out an actual abduction, the defense said at a pretrial hearing Friday.
The government, though, successfully argued in front of the US Magistrate Judge Sally Berens that there was probable cause to charge defendants Adam Fox, Ty Garbin, and Brandon Caserta with conspiracy to commit the kidnapping.
It wasn’t just that they discussed their idea to kidnap the governor in several encrypted group chats, members of the so-called Wolverine Watchman group also met up to do weapons training and attempted to obtain explosives, Special Agent Richard J. Trask II testified Friday.
Fox and Garbin, along with some of the other defendants, participated in two surveillance visits to Whitmer’s home, one of them in the middle of the night, and attempted to buy explosives to blow up a bridge near her property.
There were also several attempts to hide evidence of their planning or avoid public exposure ahead of their mission, Trask said.
While on their own, the individual pieces of evidence, like owning and shooting a variety of guns, buying night vision goggles, or sharing anti-government ideas online — might not be illegal, collectively they make it clear that this plan wasn’t just a deranged fantasy, the US Attorney Prosecutor Nils Kessler argued.
“If you’re not on board with this plan, you don’t case the governor’s house at night,” Kessler argued. “There’s just no innocent explanation of this.”
Gov. Whitmer, a Democrat, has been criticized by conservative activists for the state’s COVID-19 lockdown.
In chats, the Wolverine Watchmen associates characterized Whitmer as a “tyrant b—-,” according to a federal affidavit.
Attorneys for the defendants argued on Friday there was a lot of talk in the chats about what to do with the governor after her home had been breached, but there was no unified agreement. It wasn’t clear whether the group wanted to put her on a boat in Lake Orion, take her across state lines, or do something else. Lawyers for the men pointed to this as proof that the plan was nothing more than discussions protected as free speech, not a plan to be put into action.
“It doesn’t have to be a good plan to be dangerous,” Kessler said. “These people got caught because they’re amateurs and they didn’t think it through. That doesn’t mean it isn’t dangerous.”
Berens agreed with prosecutors that they didn’t need to prove the defendants “signed on a dotted line” to participate in a conspiracy to kidnap and ruled that the case may move forward.
“The fact that it was likely to be unsuccessful or difficult to accomplish” isn’t relevant to whether there is probable cause, she said.
Barens ordered that Garbin be held without bail as the case moves forward. Fox waived his right to a bond hearing.
Caserta and two other men charged in the plot — Daniel Harris, Kaleb Franks — were ordered to remain in custody during the first part of the pretrial hearing on Tuesday.
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