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Dropping entrapment defense, man pleads guilty to conspiring to kidnap Whitmer

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

Sitting in a navy blue prison jumpsuit, brown hair combed to the right, Kaleb Franks remained silent for the better part of an hour while the judge carefully explained all the potential legal consequences of “what may be one of the most important decisions of your life.”

Franks, a 27-year-old from Waterford Township, was one of six men charged in federal court for conspiring to kidnap the governor of Michigan.

It’s been 16 months since the men were arrested in a sting operation, and one of the other alleged conspirators, Ty Garbin, has already pleaded guilty, and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.

On Wednesday morning, Franks became the second. Until this week, the remaining men charged, including Franks, have been arguing in a series of legal filings that the alleged kidnapping plot was no plot at all. It was cooked up, they argued, by FBI agents, and a pair of overzealous confidential informants.

“The key to the government’s plan was to turn general discontent with Governor Whitmer’s COVID-19 restrictions into a crime that could be prosecuted,” defense attorneys wrote in a bid to have the case thrown out in December.

Less than a month ago, Kaleb Franks’ own attorney continued to file new arguments, trying to get the court to consider evidence of the federal government’s “overreaching” in the case.

But this Monday, a new document showed up in the federal court’s filing system, signed by Franks. It was a 19-page plea agreement, in which Franks admitted being part of the conspiracy, and denying that the plot was driven by the FBI or its informants.

In a Grand Rapids courtroom Wednesday morning, Magistrate Judge Phillip Green flipped through the agreement.

“Did you agree to this freely and voluntarily?” Green asked.

“Yes sir, I did,” Franks said.

Green continued, telling Franks that the agreement would mean he was giving up his presumption of innocence, giving up his right to a trial, giving up many of his rights to appeal his case. And if the court accepted his decision to plead guilty, he’d be a convicted felon, with no right to vote or own a gun.

Franks said he understood.

By signing the plea agreement, Franks said he would cooperate with prosecutors, giving them a full account of what happened inside the alleged conspiracy, and agree to testify against the remaining four defendants in the case.

That cooperation could be a key element in convicting Adam Fox, Barry Croft, Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta. Attorneys for the four remaining defendants maintain the plot was a case of entrapment, and their trial is now scheduled to begin in less than a month.

The cooperation of both Garbin and Franks could prove crucial in the trial, as defense attorneys seek to attack the conduct of the FBI agents and their informants.

Already, federal prosecutors have said they don’t plan to call some of the main players in the investigation, dropping the FBI’s lead investigator, who was fired from the agency after assaulting his wife last year. They’ve also dropped a key informant, who they now accuse of “playing both sides.”

Without those law enforcement witnesses, prosecutors will instead rely on the accused.

In the courtroom Wednesday, Franks offered a preview of the kinds of details he’ll be able to offer when the trial begins.

Franks told Judge Green he participated in a nighttime surveillance mission outside Governor Whitmer’s vacation home up north, and joined encrypted messaging groups to evade detection by law enforcement because he knew what he was doing was criminal.

“What was the shoot house?” Judge Green asked. “It was a mock-up of the governor’s home,” Franks said.

The details are all included in Franks’ plea agreement.

“It makes reference to black bag politicians, what does that mean?” Green asked.

“Um, kidnapping,” Franks said.

The men also discussed training to enter the governor’s home and take her by force, Franks said.

“What was the shoot house?” Green asked.

“It was a mock-up of the governor’s home,” Franks said.

And the kidnapping plan was driven solely by the men charged in the conspiracy, and not by any law enforcement officer or informant? “Yes,” Franks said.

Shortly after 10 a.m., Green asked Franks to enter his plea.

“Guilty,” Franks said.

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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