After repeatedly praising the FBI for its work, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Jonker on Tuesday sentenced Adam Fox, one of two men convicted of attempting to kidnap and kill Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer in 2020, to 16 years in prison.
The U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Michigan sought a life sentence for Fox, arguing his conduct amounted to an act of domestic terrorism. In the government’s sentencing memorandum, prosecutors compared Fox to Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon attack in 2013. Prosecutors also cited the “insurrection” on January 6, 2021 as a consequence of the kidnapping plot. “As the public became aware after January 2020 [sic], Fox’s plot was a harbinger of more widespread anti-government militia extremism,” assistant U.S. Attorney Nils Kessler wrote.
But Jonker said a life sentence was too excessive. “Something less than that gets the job done.” Jonker also sentenced Fox to five years probation and ordered him to undergo drug rehab.
Fox and his co-defendant, Barry Croft, Jr., received a hung jury at the government’s first trial in April 2022. Two other men were acquitted after defense attorneys presented a detailed case of FBI entrapment. Fox and Croft faced a second trial in August 2022; both were convicted thanks to Jonker’s heavy-handed approach on behalf of the government the second time around and questions about a juror’s prejudicial statements to co-workers before jury selection. (Croft’s sentencing is Wednesday morning.)
At least a dozen FBI informants working with FBI handlers and undercover agents out of numerous FBI field offices engineered the hoax in 2020. Dan Chappel, a contract truck driver for the Postal Service, was hired as the key informant in March 2020; he primarily led the effort to stitch the random group of outliers together. The FBI compensated Chappel roughly $60,000 in cash and personal items, a sum Chappel admitted at trial had exceeded his annual salary.
Chappel particularly fixated on Fox, who lived alone at the time in the dilapidated cellar of a vacuum repair shop without running water, exchanging thousands of text messages and phone calls over a six month period. Chappel and other informants organized “militia” meetings, field training exercises, and reconnaissance trips to Whitmer’s remote summer cottage, the alleged scene of the crime. (Whitmer knew about the plan months before; the FBI installed pole cameras around her property to collect evidence.)
On several occasions, Chappel offered Fox a $5,000 credit card to use to purchase gear and weapons; a destitute Fox refused each offer. Chappel created two encrypted chat groups, monitored in real time by the FBI, to foment secret discussions about a possible kidnapping attempt.
The case, however, is rife with scandal. One of the chief FBI investigators on the case, Richard Trask, was fired by the FBI last year after he was arrested for assaulting his wife in a drunken rage following a swinger’s party. Local reporters also discovered several anti-Trump posts on Trask’s social media accounts.
Chappel’s handlers were also removed from the federal case amid accusations of perjury and moonlighting. Stephen Robeson, a convicted felon and longtime FBI informant who held a “national militia” meeting in Ohio in June 2020 to lure the targets into the trap, was accused of committing at least two other crimes while working the caper. He notified the court of his intent to plead the Fifth if called to testify for the defense; Jonker refused to compel his testimony.
FBI informants admittedly broke bureau rules; one female informant shared a hotel room with her male target. Informants also got drunk and stoned with their targets while recording impaired conversations for evidence. Chappel, in violation of FBI protocol, was sworn in as the commanding officer of an imaginary militia invented by the FBI.
Despite extensive evidence, Jonker dismissed accusations the plot was an FBI entrapment operation. “This is what law enforcement is supposed to do,” Jonker said Tuesday morning before announcing Fox’s sentence. “I don’t see anything on the entrapment front. In my mind, law enforcement deserves a pat on the back.” He claimed the FBI informants “pulled the plug early” and commended the agency for its “careful monitoring from beginning to end.”
He also compared the kidnapping ring to ISIS.
Jonker’s comments undoubtedly will bolster an appeal. Following the verdicts in the August retrial, attorneys representing Fox and Croft immediately sought another trial based on reports of juror misconduct and judicial bias. “Throughout the trial, the Court expressed its opinion on the persuasiveness of the evidence being elicited by defense counsel on cross examination,” Christopher Gibbons and Joshua Blanchard wrote in a September filing. “Many times, the Court interjected with commentary about defense counsel wasting time, asking questions that it viewed as unpersuasive, commenting that it believed that counsel was being unnecessarily repetitive, threatening to impose time limits on defense counsel only, or otherwise demeaning the performance of defense counsel.”
At one point, Jonker described defense questioning as “crap.” In a stunning move, Jonker limited cross examination of Kaleb Franks, one of two men who pleaded guilty in the case, to 50 minutes between both defense attorneys.
Jonker also refused to dismiss a juror who reportedly told co-workers he hoped to serve on the Whitmer jury so he could “hang” the defendants. The judge held a private meeting with the juror on the second day of the trial and concluded the allegations were not supported. Before the verdict was announced on August 23, the same juror contacted relatives to reveal a verdict had been reached in violation of court rules.
Defense attorneys have 14 days to file an appeal.