On October 13, 2020, a judge denied Brandon Caserta’s release from custody less than a week after federal authorities arrested him at his workplace for conspiring to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. U.S. Magistrate Judge Sally Berens, relying mostly on evidence produced by the Justice Department, ruled Caserta posed a danger to the community and would be held awaiting trial.
While acknowledging Caserta broke no law by attending field training events in 2020—exercises organized by FBI agents and informants—Berens focused on texts posted by Caserta in an encrypted group chat that allegedly discussed threats against law enforcement.
According to the government, one message said, “I’m taking out as many of those motherfuckers as I can,” referring to police officers. Calling the charge against Caserta a “very serious and dangerous offense,” Berens concluded that prosecutors had presented “clear and convincing evidence that there is no condition or combination of conditions that will reasonably assure the safety of the community or of other persons.”
Caserta spent the next 18 months in the Newaygo County Prison in White Cloud, Michigan. “I had everything taken away from me,” Caserta told American Greatness this week. “Time just stopped. My main focus became the case.”
After determining Caserta could not afford to hire a private attorney, Judge Berens appointed Michael Hills, a Kalmazoo defense attorney, to represent him. Hills immediately got to work. The government did not turn over all its discovery until June 2021—and that’s when the central role of the FBI came into focus.
“We saw all these conversations between Dan Chappel (the main FBI informant) and Adam Fox. The whole time, Dan was trying to get Adam to do criminal stuff. Then I found text messages between FBI agents and informants and Dan with people I never saw.”
Defense attorneys filed bombshell motions beginning in the summer of 2021 that described the FBI’s involvement. The attorney representing Kaleb Franks notified the court that he would raise an entrapment defense at trial after identifying the use of at least 12 confidential human sources otherwise known as informants in the case. “Only through the efforts of ‘confidential human sources’ (CHSs) and undercover agents did the government come up with its allegations here. Everything in this case points toward a defense of entrapment,” Franks’ attorney Scott Graham wrote in a July 2021 motion.
Shortly after that motion was filed, BuzzFeed News published a lengthy investigative report providing more details on how FBI agents and informants lured the men into the kidnapping plot. BuzzFeed News reporters Ken Bensinger and Jessica Garrison concluded that FBI assets “had a hand in nearly every aspect of the alleged plot, starting with its inception,” and questioned “whether there would have even been a conspiracy without them.” The piece ignited new interest in the kidnapping scandal on the Right, particularly as a backdrop to the January 6 investigation and possible use of government instigators.
Similarities between the kidnapping scheme and January 6 began to emerge including plans to “storm the Capitol” in Lansing that produced many of the same optics as the U.S. Capitol protest. Further, the head of the Detroit FBI field office—which oversaw the lead agents and informants in the Whitmer case—was promoted to head of the D.C. FBI field office just a few months before January 6.
There were more troubling headlines for the FBI. The day after the BuzzFeed story dropped, local media reported that Richard Trask, the FBI agent who signed the criminal affidavit against Caserta and his co-defendants, had been arrested for assaulting his wife in a drunken rage after a swingers’ party near their Kalamazoo home.
Trask, according to a Detroit newspaper, “repeatedly slammed his wife’s head into a nightstand and choked her with both hands before she stopped the attack by grabbing his crotch.” Body-worn camera footage from the arresting officers later showed a clearly-inebriated Trask, shirtless and barefoot, exiting his car around 4 a.m. on July 18, 2021. Trask’s profane anti-Trump posts on social media, including one that referred to Trump as a “piece of shit” went public; the FBI fired Trask in September 2021.
Suddenly, the same corporate news organizations that had published nonstop articles and opinion pieces about the “kidnapping” caper before the election lost interest. Coverage evaporated. Caserta and Hills, however, powered on.
“Once we got the discovery, Mike and I dove straight in head first,” Caserta said. “Scrubbing every audio file, every PDF file, every text message. It was hard, but we had truth on our side made it easier to argue facts.” Meanwhile, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Jonker agreed to a motion filed by defense attorneys to delay the October 2021 trial until early 2022 to allow time to investigate the investigators.
The probe hit pay dirt; by the end of December, amid alleged misconduct by FBI agents Jayson Chambers and Henrik Impola, both of whom were primarily responsible for handling Dan Chappel, prosecutors notified the court that neither Trask, Chambers, nor Impola would be called as government witnesses during the trial; defense attorneys quickly filed a motion to dismiss the case. (Jonker denied the motion.)
As the trial date approached, however, the defense endured a number of setbacks. Judge Jonker sided with the government on nearly every pre-trial motion; Jonker described more than 200 incriminating communications between FBI agents and informants as “hearsay” that could not be presented to the jury. Jurors also would not hear the criminal history of Stephen Robeson, the other lead informant who committed at least two crimes while working the Whitmer caper, after Robeson threatened to invoke his Fifth Amendment rights and prosecutors accused him of acting as a “double agent.”
And a few weeks before trial, Kaleb Franks accepted a plea deal in exchange for his cooperation and a lighter prison sentence. (Ty Garbin had pleaded guilty in January 2021.) Both planned to testify for the prosecution.
The FBI Goes on Trial
Caserta, Fox, Croft, and Harris were moved to a jail facility near the federal courthouse in Grand Rapids right before the trial began on March 8. Caserta was ready. “Now we can expose these bastards for what they did. We had enough ammunition to show we were innocent. I thought, ‘let’s do this shit.’”
Caserta and his remaining co-defendants finally did receive some good news; Jonker ruled their attorneys could present an entrapment defense to the jury.
Numerous FBI agents and experts took the stand during the three-week trial. Dan Chappel testified for nearly three days, defending his participation as a concerned-citizen-turned-informant who took orders from Adam Fox. Garbin and Franks testified that the FBI did not entrap anyone and insisted the plans to kidnap Whitmer were a product of collaboration among the defendants, not the agents or informants.
Defense attorneys gave impassioned closing statements on April 1.
“When I look at what happened in this case, I am ashamed of the behavior of the leading law enforcement agency in the United States,” Joshua Blanchard, the attorney for Barry Croft, Jr., told the jury that afternoon. Adam Fox’s attorney called the government’s conduct “unacceptable” and urged the jury to find the men not guilty. “They don’t make terrorists so you can arrest them,” Christopher Gibbons said about the FBI.
Still, the defense had a major hurdle to clear. American juries historically have been hesitant to find the nation’s top law enforcement agency guilty of setting up other Americans.
The jury deliberated for four full days before informing Jonker on April 8 that they could not reach a unanimous verdict on some of the charges. Jonker urged the jury to continue but to no avail. On the afternoon of April 8, 2022, Jonker called the defendants and their families into the courtroom to hear the results.
“I looked at my mom and thought, ‘here it is.’ As the judge started reading the verdicts, I just put my head on the table and started breathing deeply trying to remain calm.”
That’s when he heard the first verdict on Adam Fox: No verdict. Then Jonker read the same outcome for Barry Croft: No verdict.
When he heard a not guilty verdict for Daniel Harris, Caserta said he knew at that moment that he also would be acquitted. “I’m looking at my family and looking down. Then the judge reads the not guilty verdict and I just breathe a sigh of relief. I looked at the jury because I wanted them to know I love them. To say thank you so much.”
It was Caserta’s 34th birthday.
Family members and paralegals for the defense attorneys were crying. Caserta gave Hills a bear hug. “I hit the lottery by getting Mike Hills. He is an absolute badass. Such a genuine, personable guy.” As the verdict started to sink in as he prepared to leave the courthouse a free man for the first time in more than 18 months, Caserta said he started to laugh. “It felt so good, I was so happy. We did it, we beat them. We got justice.”
While Caserta and Daniel Harris went home that evening, Fox and Croft returned to their cells. Jonker declared a mistrial for both men; the Justice Department plans to re-try the case.
Meanwhile, Caserta is trying to put his life back together. He lost his job as well as nearly two years of income. His apartment complex is suing him for damages caused by the FBI raid of his home after his arrest. Caserta said he hasn’t been out in public much since his exoneration, unsure how people will respond to him.
Still, he’s glad he fought the government. (He hasn’t decided whether he will sue for damages.)
“My life was at stake but this could happen to anyone,” Caserta said. “I was fighting for everyone else’s rights, too. I didn’t want to make it harder for the next guy to fight these bastards.”