Brandon Caserta had just ordered take-out—a bacon double cheeseburger with jalapeno and avocado that the restaurant named the “Spicy Brando” in his honor—when a coworker said the plant manager needed to see him. Instead of leaving to take his lunch break as planned, Caserta, who at the time worked as a machinist in a Michigan factory that manufactures parts for Ford trucks, walked to his boss’ office to see what was up.
When Caserta entered the office on October 7, 2020, at least 15 masked FBI agents and local law enforcement officers immediately tackled him to the ground. “Stop resisting, you’re under arrest!” they shouted, according to Caserta, who spoke with American Greatness by phone for four hours this week to discuss his nearly two-year ordeal at the hands of the U.S. government.
Caserta was taken from Plymouth to Ypsilanti that evening and interrogated. Hours later, FBI agents finally revealed why he was under arrest: for conspiring to kidnap Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic governor of Michigan.
“It was surreal. I was like, ‘are you serious right now?’ Then they said, ‘The other guys say you know all about it.’”
The “other guys” were acquaintances that Caserta had met for the first time earlier that summer. They, too, had been arrested on the same federal charge in what the Justice Department considered a potential act of domestic terrorism.
Caserta’s name, along with the names of five other defendants—Adam Fox, Ty Garbin, Kaleb Franks, Barry Croft, Jr., and Daniel Harris—went viral. Their mug shots were plastered across the front pages and cable news channels while reporters described the men as “white supremacists” and members of “right-wing militias” loyal to President Donald Trump.
Whitmer gave an emotional public statement the next day to blame Trump, her political nemesis, for inciting the alleged plot. Joe Biden did the same on the campaign stump in the waning weeks of the 2020 election as millions of Americans were voting for president. “There is a through line from President Trump’s dog whistles and tolerance of hate, vengeance, and lawlessness to plots such as this one,” Biden said in a statement on October 8, 2020.
That same day, Caserta and his co-defendants began an 18-month stint in county jail awaiting trial as federal prosecutors built their case while attempting to conceal the government’s deep involvement in the plot.
Turns out, Caserta and his alleged co-conspirators were not criminals planning to snatch Whitmer from her summer house and dump her in the middle of Lake Michigan but human pawns in yet another stunt by the Federal Bureau of Investigation designed to interfere in a national election and sabotage Donald Trump. And the elaborate, costly scheme had been months in the making.
“I Walked Into a Terrorism Enterprise Investigation”
In late February 2020, ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns that upended millions of American lives, Caserta was laid off from his 50-hour a week job where he worked the second shift from 2:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. every day. A self-described anarchist worried about government overreach from lockdown policies, Caserta went online to find like-minded citizens who shared his concerns.
“I was sort of stuck in my apartment with most of my family out-of-state,” Caserta said. “I was just trying to find people to network with.”
Caserta joined a private Facebook chat at the invitation of a man tied to a volunteer militia group in southwestern Michigan. Most of the chatter was “dude stuff,” Caserta said, and suggestions on how to repair and use firearms. None of the discussions were illegal.
He went back to work in mid-May. In June, a leader of the Wolverine Watchmen, a mostly online “militia” group allegedly at the center of the kidnapping plot, invited Caserta to attend firearms training in Munith, Michigan. It was there, for the first time, Caserta met a few of his future co-defendants and a man known to the group as “Big Dan.” A self-described Iraq War combat veteran, “Big Dan” offered to share his knowledge of firearms.
But “Big Dan” was hiding a secret: he had been hired in March 2020 as an informant for the FBI.
“I walked into a terrorism enterprise investigation without my knowledge,” Caserta said. One FBI agent later testified that the agency had designated the operation as a “TEI,” which involved numerous FBI field offices and expensive surveillance equipment such as drones and airplanes, and required approval at the highest levels of the FBI and Department of Justice.
The operation also included at least a dozen FBI confidential human sources (CHS) and undercover agents. “Big Dan,” whose real name is Dan Chappel, was the lead informant and was compensated at least $60,000—as well as given a new laptop, smart watch, and tires for his car—by the FBI to coordinate the plot from start to finish.
Without Chappel, the random group never would have met let alone dreamed up a far-fetched plan to kill Whitmer’s security detail and abduct her from an isolated cottage. In fact, in a text message with Chappel in August 2020, his FBI handler commended Chappel for “bringing people together.” Chappel created at least two encrypted group chats to connect his targets; both chats were named “Fuck Around and Find Out.”
According to defense attorneys, Chappel and another informant, a convicted felon named Steven Robeson, coordinated every event while recording conversations later used as evidence against their clients.
“The government’s agents actively planned and coordinated its efforts to induce the defendants to engage in incriminating behavior and statements, even going so far as designing the objective and structural components of the conspiracy alleged in the indictment,” one attorney wrote in a 2021 filing.
A different attorney described the recorded conversations as “stoned crazy talk,” since many of the meetings involved the use of alcohol and marijuana. The FBI assets exploited the men’s outrage over sustained lockdowns in Michigan and riots in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, which prompted heightened interest in gun rights among the group.
“Dan ran the training every time,” Caserta said. “It was their idea to do many of the things we did. They took unconnected people [and] created events to make it seem legitimate then recorded conversations to make it look like there was some sort of connection between all of us.”
Caserta didn’t even meet the man the government still insists is the ringleader of the caper until three months after the FBI purportedly began its investigation. Caserta and Adam Fox, a down-on-his-luck man in his 30s living in the dilapidated cellar of a vacuum repair shop in a Grand Rapids strip mall, both attended a training event in Munith on June 28.
“I didn’t know who he was or what [was] going on,” Caserta said about Fox.
According to court filings, Chappel had daily contact, sometimes multiple times a day, with Fox starting in June 2020 resulting in thousands of text messages and phone calls in addition to numerous in-person meetings, some of which took place at the vacuum shop. On at least five occasions, Chappel offered Fox a $5,000 gift card, which Fox repeatedly declined even though he was broke. Fox, Caserta said, was “preyed on heavily by the government, manipulated by the government.”
But the FBI had a problem: according to Caserta, no one liked Fox.
“The only people actually connected to Fox were Dan, [Steve] Robeson, and [FBI undercover agent] Mark.” (The undercover agent known as “Mark” pretended to have a girlfriend, also an undercover FBI agent, to get close to Fox and his then-girlfriend, Amanda.) “Dan was selling the idea that Adam was the leader coming up with all the ideas. The government said Adam was my leader. He was not. I never got along with him and never will.”
The first time Caserta met Barry Croft, Jr. was at a training event in Cambria, Wisconsin hosted by CHS Steve Robeson and his wife in July 2020. Chappel spent $1,000, Caserta says, to rent a Chevy Suburban and drive the Michigan targets to Wisconsin. But despite the FBI’s best efforts, by the end of August, there was no plan to kidnap Whitmer. Further, the group was splintering; the FBI encouraged Chappel and another informant named “Jenny” to convince the men to stay united.
To do so, Chappel and Robeson organized another event in Luther, Michigan on the weekend of September 11, 2020, where Chappel introduced an “old military buddy” named “Red” to the group. “Red,” Chappel explained, was an explosives expert who could help with training. “Red” also showed the group a video of an SUV being blown up by an explosive device. (In April 2021, the Justice Department added a weapons of mass destruction charge to Fox, Croft, and Harris.)
“Red,” of course, was yet another FBI undercover agent; the video was produced by the FBI.
Chappel also encouraged the group to drive to Elk Rapids to “surveil” Whitmer’s cottage. Caserta did not go.
That was the last time Caserta personally interacted with the FBI assets or the men later named as his co-defendants. On the same day Caserta was arrested at work in October 2020, Fox, Garbin, Harris, and Franks were arrested after the embedded FBI assets, including Chappel, drove the men to meet “Red” under the pretense of picking up free gear. Instead, they were taken down by federal agents. Barry Croft, Jr., who lived in Delaware, was arrested by FBI agents in New Jersey.
And that’s when Brandon Caserta’s nightmare began.
Read part two on Friday: “Time Just Stopped.”