Gov. Whitmer kidnapping planned before Trump's 'Liberate Michigan' tweet, FBI says

Tresa Baldas Paul Egan
Detroit Free Press
Gretchen Whitmer and Donald Trump.

GRAND RAPIDS — A defense lawyer grilled an FBI agent Friday about why he mentioned the upcoming presidential election in his affidavit supporting charges for six men accused of plotting to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

The lawyer, Gary Springstead of Fremont, asked FBI Special Agent Richard Trask how the suspects felt about President Donald Trump's 'Liberate Michigan' tweet in April of this year. It marked the first time the president's name has been mentioned in the case since charges were announced Oct. 8.

"Were they supportive of Trump's 'Liberate Michigan' comments?" Springstead, representing defendant Ty Garbin, asked Trask.

"I’m not aware," the agent answered.

"You never heard that President Trump tweeted 'Liberate Michigan, liberate Virginia,'' Springstead asked.

Mark Satawa, left, listens as his co-counsel Gary Springstead speaks to the media outside of the Gerald R. Ford Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse where they spent most of the day arguing for their client Ty Garbin in front of U.S. Magistrate Judge Sally Berens, in Grand Rapids on Friday, Oct. 16, 2020

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Trask said he believed the Whitmer plot was hatched before Trump posted those tweets. "Discussions of this happened prior," he testified.

"So why did you reference the election?" Springstead continued, noting that the accused ringleader in the plot was accused of saying he wanted to kidnap Whitmer before the Nov. 3 vote.

Trask said the suspects specifically talked about the election in audiotaped recordings, and, "it could have related to the president." He also noted that the suspects were upset about partial lockdown orders in Michigan and  Virginia.

 "Why would there be a need to kidnap Gov. Whitmer before the election? She's not even running," Springstead said.

The FBI agent responded: "I can't speculate."

Springstead also pressed the FBI agent to explain the timing of the arrests, specifically inquiring why the suspects were arrested Oct. 7.

So why Oct. 7?

Trask said there was a potential compromise involving one of the two confidential  informants assisting with the investigation.

Springstead asked if that meant the informant feared he was about to be outed.

Trask would only respond: "There was a potential compromise."

FBI Special Agent Richard Trask on the witness stand in front of U.S. Magistrate Judge Sally Berens during a hearing inside her courtroom at the Gerald R. Ford Federal Building and US Courthouse in Grand Rapids on Friday, Oct. 16, 2020.

Four of the six defendants were arrested near Ypsilanti after they were told they would meet with an explosives expert named "Red," who was actually an FBI undercover agent. According to earlier testimony, "Red" had estimated it would cost $4,000 to purchase explosives to blow up a bridge near Whitmer's cottage, as part of the kidnapping plot.

The defendants were also lured to the meeting when they were told "Red" might have some excess training equipment they could have for free, according to testimony.

Lawyers asked Trask how much money the defendants had on them when they were arrested. Trask said he did not have that information. But he said Adam Fox, the accused ringleader of the plot, had $275 on him.

One of the defendants, Brandon Caserta, was arrested at work. Another defendant, Barry Croft, was arrested out of state.

Trask returned to the stand Friday for continuation of a preliminary examination, which ended with  U.S. Magistrate Judge Sally Berens  determining there is sufficient evidence to bind five of the six defendants over for proceedings before a grand jury. A sixth man is also in custody, but awaits extradition from Delaware.

All six men are charged with plotting to kidnap Whitmer. Other allegations mentioned in an FBI affidavit accompanying the federal complaint include storming the state Capitol and blowing up police vehicles. Another eight men have been charged in the case in state court, where they are facing charges that include supporting terrorism, gang membership, and possession of a firearm in commission of a felony.

Bond hearings are scheduled Friday afternoon for the accused ringleader, Fox, and his co-defendant, Garbin. Bond was denied for three of their co-defendants on Tuesday. Croft awaits extradition from Delaware.

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