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Federal judge pushes back Whitmer kidnapping plot case once again

A training exercise involving the men accused of plotting to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer
Courtesy U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Michigan
A training exercise involving the men accused of plotting to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer

A thousand hours of audio. 150,000 pages of documents. And one massive federal case involving five defendants who allegedly plotted to kidnap a sitting governor and blow up a bridge as part of a terrorist plot.

That’s what defense attorneys told federal judge Robert Jonker they’re contending with as they prepared to go to trial in October. There’s just not enough time, they argued.

“I don’t feel like I can be ready October 12th,” said Michael Hills, the attorney for Brandon Caserta, during a hearing at the federal court in Grand Rapids on Friday.

Caserta is one of the five remaining defendants in the federal case over the alleged kidnapping plot. A total of 14 men face prosecution. Six of them faced federal charges. One of them – Ty Garbin – already pleaded guilty and was sentenced last month.

“There’s never really an end, because we’re continuing to investigate the case."
Nils Kessler, assistant U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Michigan.

The trial for the remaining five had already been pushed back once, but defense attorneys told Judge Jonker they still haven’t had time to review much of the evidence in the case. Prosecutors started turning over massive volumes of evidence late this summer, and the evidence continues to pour in.

“There’s never really an end, because we’re continuing to investigate the case,” said assistant U.S. Attorney Nils Kessler.

Defense attorneys say they want to review every scrap of evidence, because they claim the five men were never serious about the kidnapping plot. Instead, they argue, paid FBI informants and undercover agents pushed the plot forward, entrapping the defendants along the way.

“The defense intends to focus a lot of its energy on the conduct of the undercover agents,” said Christopher Gibbons, an attorney representing Adam Fox, another defendant.

Jonker initially seemed hesitant to delay the trial any further. The five men – Adam Fox, Brandon Caserta, Daniel Harris, Caleb Franks and Barry Croft – were arrested nearly a year ago. Jonker said it’s often the case that defendants want more time to prepare for trial.

“There’s never enough time,” Jonker said. “We always want more.”

Another concern, he said, is weather. The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan covers most of the land area of Michigan, including the entire Upper Peninsula. Jurors are sometimes drawn from far flung corners of the state, and Jonker said winter weather often creates problems for trials in his district.

But Jonker said the defense attorneys all had a lot of experience with trials in the district.

“And they’re telling me to a person that they’re not ready,” Jonker said. “And that carries a lot of weight.”

Prosecutors didn’t object to the delay.

Jonker asked each of the defense attorneys to ask their clients in court if they understood that a delay meant they would continue to be locked up at the Newaygo County jail while they awaited trial, and if they were okay with it.

“It’s coming out of their hide,” Jonker said.

In orange jumpsuits, with hands shackled in front of them, the men said one by one that they understood and they still wanted the trial to be delayed.

Jonker said he’d check the court’s calendar and set a new trial date, no sooner than mid-February.

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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