Federal prosecutors in the case against four men accused of conspiring to kidnap Michigan's governor began presenting testimony Wednesday from an insider who took a plea deal.
Ty Garbin, a 26-year-old former airline mechanic from Livingston County, is the Grand Rapids trial's first witness who's not an FBI agent or informant. He brings a participant's first-hand details of the alleged plot.
Garbin told jurors he joined the Wolverine Watchmen in March 2020 to unite with people who also believe in limited government and gun rights. Last year chose to testify against fellow militiamen rather than face possible life imprisonment if convicted at trial. He was sentenced in August to six years in prison, which could be reduced after the trial.
"A handcuffed Garbin took the stand in an orange baggy jail suit," Detroit Free Press coverage says Wednesday afternoon.
U.S. Justice Department attorneys led him through a timeline of "the events from February 2020 up until the arrest in chronological order, with Garbin listing off who was at each meeting and training and what was discussed," according to broadcast reporter Eric Lloyd of WMTV, who tweets coverage summaries during courtroom breaks.
Garbin also decsribed a late-night trip to Gretchen Whitmer's weekend home on Birch Lake in Elk Rapids, the planned site of a scheme to kidnap her before the 2020 election in retaliation for Covid-19 restrictions. From Lloyd's live-tweets:
FBI informants were in attendance, but Garbin has been very adamant they did not drive the conversation or ideas.
The defendants were all in on the plan. They believed the kidnapping would kick off the "Boogaloo," which is [a] second Civil or Revolutionary War. Other states would follow Michigan.
At one point, there is a a recording of [defendant] Brandon Caserta saying, "This is my personal choice to be here. ... I accept all responsibility to be here."
Garbin says at each training, the understanding was they were training to kidnap Gov. Whitmer.
The government also showed jurors the first physical evidence -- "Garbin's full tactical kit," as the Freep calls it with these details:
A modified AR-15 rifle with a red dot sight, pistol grip, attached flashlight and threading on the barrel to attach a silencer.
The prosecutor showed the jury the rifle, along with a Glock-19, a bulletproof vest, a tactical helmet and a night vision scope.
Garbin testified that the gear was part of the kidnapping plan and the center of chat conversations.
On Wednesday afternoon, defense attorneys began cross-examining the star witness with Metro Detroit roots in Wyandotte. "Garbin's testimony is expected to take the entire day and into tomorrow," tweets TV newsman Lloyd.
A second plotter who pleaded guilty, 27-year-old Kaleb Franks of Waterford, began testifying Thursday.
The trial began March 8 and could last until mid-April.
Original article, Tuesday night:
Federal jurors in the Gretchen Whitmer kidnap trial are hearing how an Iraq combat veteran navigated a tricky balancing act after flipping from militia member to FBI informant.
Dan Chappel, a 35-year-old former Army sergeant, is the star witness so far in the two-week-old Grand Rapids trial. Chappel -- a stocky, bald and bearded man, according to the Detroit Free Press -- testified that he's a firearms instructor who joined the Wolverine Watchmen to spend time with other gun-rights guys. He was known as “Big Dan” in the state militia group, where anti-government talk became more extreme as pandemic restrictions intensified in the spring and summer of 2020.
He contacted a law enforcement pal when conversations in an encrypted chat group alarmed him, Chappel said on the stand. The Freep shares his account of defecting:
"They were trying to get the addresses of law enforcement. I was not OK with that," Dan testified, noting he became concerned after hearing the group discuss an operation known as "a reverse red flag."
That involves targeting police and killing them, said Dan, who quickly reached out to a police officer friend and reported what he heard. Within a week, the FBI contacted him.
Dan said the FBI asked him whether he would stay in the group and monitor their activity. He agreed, telling the jury that he was concerned about the safety of his 5-year-old daughter, but did it anyway.
His self-initiated flip from insider to spy makes a strong point for Justice Department prosecutors, according to University of Michigan law professor Barb McQuade, former head of the U.S. Attorney’s office in Detroit. "There goes the entrapment defense," she tweets.
But that legal strategy remains the only route as lawyers for four kidnap conspiracy defendants work to undercut recorded evidence and testimony expected from other informants and two plotters who pleaded guilty.
Alleged leaders Barry Croft, a 46-year-old Delaware trucker, and Adam Fox, a 38-year-old from Potterville, Mich., are on trial with Daniel Harris, 24, of Lake Orion and Brandon Caserta, 33, of Canton Township. They face up to life in prison if convicted.
The government says they planed to snatch the governor at her vacation home two years ago because they were angry about Covid restrictions. The defendants and other self-described militia members were arrested in October 2020 because of a "real concern they might obtain real, live explosives," FBI agent Todd Reineck said on the second day of testimony March 10.
Defense attorneys claim Chappel and others working with the bureau improperly influenced their clients. In opening arguments, defense attorneys portrayed Chappel as motivated mainly by money. From the stand, he told jurors he gets just $38 a day for FBI work. (His full-time job is as a contract truck driver for the U.S. Postal Service.)
Delicate dance in a dual role
Chappel, who has been on the stand since late last week, testified that in June 2020 he turned down an offer by fellow members to lead the Watchmen and instead became executive officer (second-in-command). He helped with training, organization and tactical operations, all while reporting to FBI contacts.
Wall Street Journal coverage shows the delicate dance:
Around this time, though, he and his two FBI handlers grew frustrated with the group' s lack of direction.
"The agreement between the three of you was that these guys don’t have a plan," said Julia Kelly, lawyer for defendant Daniel Harris, during cross-examination [Monday]. "You remember saying that? I think you said that they're wasting your time."
Mr. Chappel said he did.
That testimony gets to the heart of defense allegations that Chappel … had goaded the group into a plan that none of them would have pushed to the point of execution without him.
Government lawyers have argued that they only need to show that the accused were predisposed to the crime and that any inducement provided by agents or informants were fair game.
Also this week, Fox's attorney, Christopher Gibbons, pointed out that Chappel had proposed firing a gun and mailing the ammunition casing as a threat to Whitmer. Chappel said he could have been kicked out of the group if he had appeared too soft, AP's dispatch says.
"I want to continue dialogue with him and see where his mindset's at," Chappel said of Fox. "I’m not professional law enforcement. I'm just an average guy with somebody who wants to kidnap and kill the governor. I had no playbook. This was all fluid every day."
Under other intense cross-examination Monday, Chappel acknowledged that the FBI told him not to come up with attack plans, but he did anyway -- such as the best route to reach the governor's retreat in Antrim County.
On Tuesday, Caserta attorney Mike Hills questioned the informant about efforts to avoid rifts among the alleged plotters.
"Some members were going off into their own groups, certain group chats excluded certain members," Eric Lloyd of WWTV, a CBS affiliate in Grand Rapids, says in a series of live tweets on the trial.
Seemed like trust and difference of vision were the main cause. Dan admitted to working to keep the Watchmen together to help surveillance efforts.
Hills argues Dan pushed Caserta to attend events and join causes. Tried to keep Caserta and Fox together as the group was breaking up.
Cross-examination today by Chris Gibbons, representing Fox, "did establish Dan was the source of several parts of the plan. He offered the plan to cut off the US-31 bridge in Elk Rapids to slow police response. He suggested ways to find [Whitmer's] cottage address," according to Lloyd's thread.
Next up: An ally who flipped
The government and defense will finish Wednesday with Chappel. By the end of the day, jurors are expected to hear from Ty Garbin, one of the two men who took a plea deal to avoid trial.
Trial Judge Robert Jonker last August sentenced Garbin to six years and three months in prison and fined him $2,500. Kaleb Franks, who admitted guilt Feb. 9, isn't sentenced yet.
During last summer’s hearing, Garbin apologized to Whitmer, who was not present. NBC News reported:
"First, I would like to take this opportunity to apologize to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and her family," he said in court. "I've had a lot of time to reflect on my actions, and I never realized what my actions would have caused to her, but also her family.
"I can't even begin to imagine the amount of stress and fear her family members felt because of my actions, and for that I'm truly sorry," he said.