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Defense rests in Whitmer kidnapping case, closing arguments set for Friday

Illustration by Paulette Parker

Jurors have now heard all the evidence in the federal trial of four men accused of plotting to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Defense attorneys for Adam Fox, Barry Croft, Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta each rested their case on Thursday, after just one day of presenting testimony.

Prosecutors have spent the past three weeks laying out evidence from dozens of witnesses to convince jurors of the four charges against the men. But before defendants rested their case, one of the men decided to take the stand to defend himself in his own words.

And Daniel Harris, the 24-year-old Marine veteran, had some choice ones. Harris told jurors his former friends who already pleaded guilty in the case were liars. And the man who acted as an FBI informant was a “b****.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Roth pointed out that Harris was exposed to words and images showing extreme violence in group chats with other members of the Wolverine Watchmen militia.

The content was so disturbing, one of their members, Dan Chappel, went to the FBI and became an informant.

“Well, he’s a b****, so yes,” Harris said of Chappel’s reaction to the group chats.

“I’m sorry, what was that?” Roth responded.

“He’s a b****,” Harris repeated.

“Tell me about that sir.”

“Next question.”

“Nope,” Roth shot back.

“Tell me about it. Why is Dan Chappel a b****?”

Harris explained the conversations on the group texts were mostly memes. Dan Chappel had held himself out as a combat veteran, who had seen action in Iraq.

“But words hurt you, words scare you?” Harris said. “You’re a b****.”

During the first part of Harris’ testimony, while answering questions from his own attorney, Julia Kelly, Harris insisted he never agreed to take part in a kidnapping, and never agreed to help buy a bomb to blow up a bridge in an effort to slow the police response. Kelly listed off a number of meetings and trainings that Harris attended during the spring and summer of 2020, when the men allegedly hatched their plot. She asked if Harris had agreed, at any of the meetings, to kidnap the governor.

“Absolutely not.”

“Not one time.”

“No agreement,” Harris repeated.

Prosecutors alleged Harris was an “operator” in the alleged scheme, one of the men who’d agreed to go into Whitmer’s vacation home at night, where she’d eventually be put on a boat and sent adrift in the middle of Lake Michigan, according to testimony from other witnesses in the case.

Harris said he mostly wasn’t aware of those alleged plans.

When Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Roth had his chance to cross-examine Harris, he questioned why Harris was around for so many apparent discussions about violence, and didn’t think anything of it.

“I was paying more attention to my dog,” Harris said, of one conversation where the men discussed purchasing explosives. Roth pointed out other conversations, where Harris would have heard people talking about murder. It wasn’t unusual for a Marine to hear, Harris said.

“We make those kinds of jokes all the time,” he said. Though he was not considered a leader in the group, Harris is facing the most charges in the federal case. Federal prosecutors are pursuing four charges in the case, and Harris is the only defendant charged with all four. Those charges include:

  • Conspiracy to Kidnap
  • Conspiracy to Use a Weapon of Mass Destruction
  • Possession of an Unregistered Destructive Device
  • Possession of an Unregistered Short-Barreled Rifle

Harris was the only one of the four defendants who chose to testify in the case. After he left the stand, the remaining defense attorneys rested their case. Judge Robert Jonker told jurors to expect closing arguments from attorneys starting Friday morning, and then the case would be up to them.
“Sometime tomorrow, it will be in your hands,” Jonker told the jurors.

Meanwhile, the woman who was the subject of the alleged kidnapping plot said she’s not been paying much attention to the trial.

But Governor Gretchen Whitmer acknowledged she hasn’t been able to completely ignore it.

“I see the headlines,” Whitmer told reporters Thursday. “Some of the depraved things that were talked about, and it’s jarring.”

Whitmer said she’s still the subject of hateful rhetoric. She’s expecting to see more of it with former President Donald Trump holding a rally this weekend in Macomb County.

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.
Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Public since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting.
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