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2 men acquitted in 2020 plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A jury has found 2 of the 4 men accused of plotting to kidnap the governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, not guilty yesterday. But jurors couldn't reach a verdict on charges against the other two men. Prosecutors allege the defendants were planning to kidnap the governor and eliminate her security detail in 2020.

We're joined now by Rick Pluta, senior Capitol correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. Rick, thanks for being with us.

RICK PLUTA, BYLINE: Oh, you bet. Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: Please take us back to 2020 and remind us of the allegations in this case.

PLUTA: Sure. A couple of years ago, the FBI caught wind of a plot to kidnap the Democratic governor. The suspects were apparently upset over her COVID-19 restrictions and pandemic orders, and according to the indictment, they decided to do something about it. And it reached the point where investigators said they made plans to kidnap the governor. Prosecutors say they even staked out her vacation home in northern Michigan, and they talked about either putting her on trial or just setting her adrift on a boat in Lake Michigan.

SIMON: And who are the men accused in this plot?

PLUTA: Their names are Daniel Harris, Daniel (ph) Caserta, Adam Fox and Barry Croft, and they called themselves the Wolverine Watchmen. They were members of a self-styled militia group that practice paramilitary training. They talked about assaulting the Michigan State Capitol, but they decided that was too risky. So they allegedly settled on a different plan. Plan was this kidnapping plot.

SIMON: And there were explosives - not only explosive charges but actual explosives in the charges, weren't there?

PLUTA: Yeah. Law enforcement says they put together homemade bombs, ostensibly to blow up a bridge to slow down the police, and they practiced with guns and explosives. In fact, in a secretly taped conversation with an FBI informant, one of the men warns one of his kids to stay away while he builds a bomb.

SIMON: And how did the defense counter these charges?

PLUTA: Well, the men's defense was that they weren't serious, that they were entrapped. And they smoked a lot of pot and talked a tough game, but in the end, nothing happened. One of the defense attorneys described the alleged plot as, quote, "laced with marijuana, smoke and mirrors." Here, defense attorney Michael Hill (ph) says it was a government informant known as Big Dan who really prodded the conspiracy along.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL HILLS: I think what the FBI did is unconscionable, is what I think. And I think the jury just sent them a message loud and clear that these tactics are not going to be, you know - we're not going to condone what they've done here.

SIMON: And Rick, what happens now to the two men who didn't get a verdict?

PLUTA: Well, two of the defendants were acquitted, so they go free. But the other two - Adam Fox and Barry Croft - the jury deadlocked on the charges against those two, and the government says they will be tried again.

SIMON: And what might prosecutors do in a new trial?

PLUTA: Well, among others, I spoke with Matthew Schneider, a former U.S. attorney for the eastern district of Michigan. He says cases like this can turn on small things. Like, was it one juror who held out? A new jury presented with the same facts and the same testimony might reach a different conclusion.

MATTHEW SCHNEIDER: What you take from this is only that the government failed to prove its case. What you cannot take from this verdict is that it's OK to threaten Governor Whitmer or it's OK to do harm to her because that's not right, and that's not what this verdict means.

SIMON: And what has the governor's response been to this verdict?

PLUTA: Yes, her office put out a statement saying in part that a plot to kidnap and murder a governor might seem like an anomaly, but it is, in fact, a product of our times. I will quote from it here. It is, quote, "the result of violent, divisive rhetoric that is all too common across our country," end quote.

SIMON: Rick Pluta, senior Capitol correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network, thanks so much.

PLUTA: You bet. Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.