“At this meeting, they discussed possible targets, taking a sitting governor, specifically issues with the governors of Michigan and Virginia, based upon the lockdown orders,” Trask told the court, referring to state-mandated restrictions implemented to combat the spread of the coronavirus.
No one has been charged with plotting to kidnap Northam, but, like Whitmer, Virginia’s governor was the target of intense criticism from some conservatives over the summer. President Trump has sharply criticized both governors, tweeting all-caps demands in the spring that their states be “liberated.”
Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said that the FBI “alerted key members of the Governor’s security team throughout the course of their investigation,” but that to keep tight control of information about such a sensitive matter, neither the governor nor other members of his staff were told.
“At no time was the Governor or his family in imminent danger,” Yarmosky said, adding that extra security measures “have been in place for Governor Northam and his family for quite some time, and they will remain.”
She also faulted Trump for fueling anger.
“Here’s the reality: President Trump called upon his supporters to ‘LIBERATE VIRGINIA’ in April — just like Michigan. In fact, the President regularly encourages violence against those who disagree with him. The rhetoric coming out of this White House has serious and potentially deadly consequences. It must stop,” Yarmosky said.
Tuesday’s hearing was in part to determine whether some of those charged in the alleged Whitmer plot can be released on bond. Separately, state authorities in Michigan charged seven others with providing support to terrorist acts.
Trask, the FBI agent, described in great detail how federal agents became concerned about the accused, particularly after a June meeting in Dublin, where more than a dozen self-styled militia members from four or five states gathered to discuss possible plans.
It was at that meeting, Trask said, that the notion of grabbing governors was raised, specifically mentioning the governors of Michigan and Virginia. One of the suspects, Adam Fox, then returned to Michigan and began recruiting possible accomplices for such a kidnapping, Trask said.
Fox and others conducted surveillance on Whitmer’s lakeside vacation home, Trask said, and at one point Fox told the others that he wanted to abduct the governor, take her away from the home by boat, and then “leave her out in the boat” so others would have to come rescue her, according to testimony at the hearing. Another option discussed was to take Whitmer to a secret location where they would put her “on trial,” Trask said, possibly in Wisconsin.
The hearing began with five of the defendants being led into the courtroom in handcuffs, all but Fox wearing masks because of the coronavirus.
Defense lawyers for some of the suspects suggested their clients may be prone to “big talk” but were not leaders of the plot, and may not have known about key elements of any kidnapping plan.
Gary Springstead, a lawyer representing 24-year-old Ty Garbin, called it “a serious case,” but added “there’s been lots of cases where serious allegations don’t bear out in the proofs in court,” citing in particular a 2010 case against a self-declared militia group in which a judge later tossed charges of sedition filed by the Justice Department.
“I think it’s important to everybody, including the public, to let this play out in court and trust the system,” said Springstead.
Trask spent hours on the witness stand describing conversations and group text messages among the suspects, who he said repeatedly discussed plans to attack law enforcement officials. At one point, a member of the group mentioned the possibility of attacking Michigan State Police buildings, he said.
At another point in the investigation, one of the defendants, Brandon Caserta, became irate because he had been pulled over and ticketed for driving without insurance.
“An injustice just happened to me,” he messaged the other suspects, according to evidence introduced at the hearing, and he wrote that he could find out where the two police officers lived and “tap them,” which Trask said is slang for killing them.
Even as the FBI closed in on the group, the defendants became increasingly concerned that they might be under investigation by federal agents. Trask said that the accused collaborators once scanned one another’s bodies for radio signals, to see if anyone was wearing a recording device, the FBI agent said. Although the scans turned up nothing, the group’s alleged plot was infiltrated by two informants and two undercover agents, Trask said, and the FBI secretly monitored more than 100 hours of the suspects’ conversations.
Defense lawyers tried to suggest that the informants or undercover agents encouraged the suspects to commit crimes, but Trask denied that, saying their role was to get those under investigation to talk about their intentions.
Laura Vozzella and Gregory S. Schneider in Richmond contributed to this report.