- Oct 5, 2019
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WATCHING THE WATCHMEN
In the inky darkness of a late summer night last September, three cars filled with armed men began circling Birch Lake in northern Michigan, looking for ways to approach Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s three-bedroom vacation cottage, subdue her — using a stun gun if necessary — and drag her away.
One vehicle stopped to check out a boat launch while a second searched in vain for the right house in the thick woods ringing the lake. The third car ran countersurveillance, using night vision goggles to look out for cops and handheld radios to communicate with the others.
Earlier, they had scoped out a bridge over the Elk River, just a few miles away, scrambling down under the span to figure out where plastic explosives would need to be placed to blow it sky-high. That would slow police response, giving the men time to escape with the governor — who had infuriated them by imposing COVID lockdowns, among other outrages — and either take her to Lake Michigan, where they could abandon her on a boat, or whisk her to Wisconsin, where she would be tried as a “tyrant.”
“Everybody down with what’s going on?” an Iraq War veteran in the group demanded to know when they ended their recon mission, well past midnight, at a campsite where they were all staying.
“If you’re not down with the thought of kidnapping,” someone else replied, “don’t sit here.”
The men planned for all kinds of obstacles, but there was one they didn’t anticipate: The FBI had been listening in all along.
For six months, the Iraq War vet had been wearing a wire, gathering hundreds of hours of recordings. He wasn’t the only one. A biker who had traveled from Wisconsin to join the group was another informant. The man who’d advised them on where to put the explosives — and offered to get them as much as the task would require — was an undercover FBI agent. So was a man in one of the other cars who said little and went by the name Mark.
…A longtime government informant from Wisconsin, for example, helped organize a series of meetings around the country where many of the alleged plotters first met one another and the earliest notions of a plan took root, some of those people say. The Wisconsin informant even paid for some hotel rooms and food as an incentive to get people to come.
The Iraq War vet, for his part, became so deeply enmeshed in a Michigan militant group that he rose to become its second-in-command, encouraging members to collaborate with other potential suspects and paying for their transportation to meetings. He prodded the alleged mastermind of the kidnapping plot to advance his plan, then baited the trap that led to the arrest.
This account is based on an analysis of court filings, transcripts, exhibits, audio recordings, and other documents, as well as interviews with more than two dozen people with direct knowledge of the case, including several who were present at meetings and training sessions where prosecutors say the plot was hatched. All but one of the 14 original defendants have pleaded not guilty, and they vigorously deny that they were involved in a conspiracy to kidnap anyone.
Last week, the lawyer for one defendant filed a motion that included texts from an FBI agent to a key informant, the Iraq War veteran, directing him to draw specific people into the conspiracy — potential evidence of entrapment that he said the government “inadvertently disclosed.” He is requesting all texts sent and received by that informant, and other attorneys are now considering motions that accuse the government of intentionally withholding evidence of entrapment.
Meanwhile, Gregory Townsend, one of the lead prosecutors handling the cases against eight of the defendants in Michigan state court, was reassigned in Maypending an attorney general audit into whether he had withheld evidence about deals cut with informants during a murder and arson trial in Oakland County in 2000. And on Sunday, in a matter apparently unrelated to the alleged kidnapping conspiracy, one of the lead FBI agents in the case, Richard J. Trask, was charged in state court in Kalamazoo with assault with intent to do great bodily harm.
The FBI has a history of questionable tactics when it comes to confidential informants, entrapment, and their involvement in the plots where they are arresting and prosecuting people. Shouldn’t we be closely examining their involvement and methods or should we just trust the FBI?
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