Former prosecutors and defense lawyers say there is almost no chance five men accused of plotting to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and overthrow the government will be released on bond during court hearings Tuesday.
The circumstances of an alleged plot to kidnap Whitmer, kill police officers and hatch a widespread bombing campaign in hopes of sparking a civil war likely will convince a federal magistrate judge to keep the five men in jail pending trial, legal experts said.
The detention hearings in front of U.S. Magistrate Judge Sally Berens in federal court in Grand Rapids will mark the most substantial legal development since FBI agents announced Thursday they had thwarted the kidnapping plot. Six men are facing federal charges and seven others are charged in state court.
The hearings are expected to shed light on the criminal past of several accused members of the kidnapping plot. Though incomplete, available public records reveal nothing in the defendants’ backgrounds comparable to a grand conspiracy to kill a prominent state leader and topple governments in several states.
The hearings give prosecutors a chance to argue the defendants are dangerous and flight risks because the conspiracy to commit kidnapping charge is a felony punishable by up to life in prison. The magistrate will consider other factors, too, including the defendants’ ties to Michigan.
“The odds of them being released on bond are not good,” said Keith Corbett, a prominent defense lawyer and former chief of the federal Organized Crime Strike Force in Detroit. “These guys are clearly dangerous based on the nature of the charges and you could have the greatest ties to the community but life in prison is a reason to split.”
Adam Fox, Ty Garbin, Kaleb Franks, Daniel Harris, and Brandon Caserta are scheduled to appear for detention hearings at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday in federal court in Grand Rapids. A sixth defendant, Barry Gordon Croft Jr., 44, of Bear, Delaware, is in custody in that state and expected to be transferred to Michigan soon.
The defendants in state court are facing steep odds at leaving jail while awaiting charges. For example, Pete Musico, 42, and Joseph Morrison, 26, both of Munith, are being held on $10 million bond.
Magistrate judges in the Western District of Michigan have a reputation for being more conservative than their counterparts in the eastern side of the state in granting bond, lawyers said.
Magistrates are required to consider the nature and circumstances of the alleged crime, the weight of the evidence and the person’s history and characteristics.
“Because of the seriousness of the charges, there is virtually no chance of them getting bond,” veteran defense lawyer Ben Gonek said.
Federal documents filed in court Thursday allege the conspirators twice conducted surveillance at Whitmer’s personal vacation home in northern Michigan and discussed kidnapping her to a “secure location” in Wisconsin to stand “trial” for treason prior to the Nov. 3 election.
Earlier this year, Croft and Adam Fox, who was also charged in the kidnapping plot, were identified by federal authorities as individuals who allegedly agreed to unite with others in their cause to take “violent action” against multiple state governments that they believed are violating the U.S. Constitution.
The pair met with others in Dublin, Ohio, on June 6 and talked about creating a society that followed the U.S. Bill of Rights, according to the federal affidavit.
Croft and Fox allegedly discussed detonating explosive devices to divert police from the area of Whitmer’s vacation home.
As part of training for the operation, Croft built an improvised explosive device wrapped in shrapnel, which they set off in a clearing surrounded by “human silhouette targets” to test its capabilities, the affidavit says.
There is nothing comparable in the backgrounds of most of the men charged in the case.
Delaware Gov. John Carney pardoned Croft last year for charges dating to the mid-1990s, including possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, assault and burglary, according to documents obtained by The Detroit News.
Croft was also convicted on charges of conspiracy, receiving stolen property and disorderly conduct.
Caserta, 32, of Canton Township, has three minor traffic offenses on his criminal record.
According to federal authorities, Caserta is part of the Wolverine Watchmen anti-government militia group. He has a prodigious social media presence, including videos and Facebook messages, including one in which he asks whether it’s all right to “initiate violence” against non-violent people.
Fox, 37, of Potterville, is portrayed in an FBI affidavit as the mastermind of the group’s discussions over a series of months as they plotted the “violent overthrow” of government that included kidnapping Whitmer and putting her “on trial” for “treason.”
His criminal record includes a reckless driving conviction from 2003.
The conspiracy charge filed against him last week is punishable by life in prison.
“If you’re looking at spending the rest of your life and you get on (on bond), what do you have to lose by taking off?” Corbett said. “The second thing is: Would you want to be the magistrate that lets these guys out and lets them try to do the thing they were planning on doing anyway?”