Judge orders longest prison term so far in Gov. Whitmer plot

Dec 27, 2022, 8:00 AM | Updated: Dec 28, 2022, 10:36 am
Josh Blanchard, defense attorney for Barry Croft Jr., speaks outside the Gerald R. Ford Federal Bui...

Josh Blanchard, defense attorney for Barry Croft Jr., speaks outside the Gerald R. Ford Federal Building in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2022. Croft, considered one of the two leaders in a plot to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, was sentenced to more than 19 years in prison. (Cory Morse/MLive.com/The Grand Rapids Press via AP)

(Cory Morse/MLive.com/The Grand Rapids Press via AP)

              Josh Blanchard, defense attorney for Barry Croft Jr., speaks outside the Gerald R. Ford Federal Building in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2022. Croft, considered one of the two leaders in a plot to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, was sentenced to more than 19 years in prison. (Cory Morse/MLive.com/The Grand Rapids Press via AP)
            
              FILE - This undated booking photo provided by the Delaware Department of Justice shows Barry Croft Jr. Croft, a Delaware trucker described as a co-leader of the conspiracy to kidnap Michigan’s governor, was sentenced to more than 19 years in prison Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2022, a day after an accomplice received 16 years behind bars. (Delaware Department of Justice via AP, File)
            
              FILE - This undated booking photo provided by the Delaware Department of Justice shows Barry Croft Jr. Croft, a Delaware trucker described as a co-leader of the conspiracy to kidnap Michigan’s governor, was sentenced to more than 19 years in prison Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2022, a day after an accomplice received 16 years behind bars. (Delaware Department of Justice via AP, File)
            
              FILE - This undated booking photo provided by the Delaware Department of Justice shows Barry Croft Jr. Croft, a Delaware trucker described as a co-leader of the conspiracy to kidnap Michigan’s governor, was sentenced to more than 19 years in prison Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2022, a day after an accomplice received 16 years behind bars. (Delaware Department of Justice via AP, File)
            
              FILE - Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addresses the media after signing the final piece of a $76 billion state budget into law, July 20, 2022, in Detroit. Adam Fox, the co-leader of a plot to kidnap Whitmer, was sentenced Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2022, to 16 years in prison for conspiring to abduct the Democrat and blow up a bridge to ease an escape. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)
            
              FILE - This undated booking photo provided by the Delaware Department of Justice shows Barry Croft Jr. Prosecutors are recommending a life prison sentence for the co-leader of the conspiracy to kidnap Michigan’s governor. They have reminded a judge that social media posts and secretly recorded conversations revealed a chilling desire by Croft Jr. to spark a “reign of terror” in 2020. Croft Jr. is due in federal court Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2022, a day after key ally Adam Fox was sentenced to 16 years in prison after prosecutors also recommended a life sentence for him. (Delaware Department of Justice via AP, File)

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) — A Delaware trucker described as an architect of the conspiracy to kidnap Michigan’s governor was sentenced Wednesday to more than 19 years in prison — the longest term yet given to anyone convicted in the plot.

Prosecutors had sought a life sentence for Barry Croft Jr., 47, who was the fourth and final federal defendant to learn his fate. Judge Robert J. Jonker described him as “the idea guy” behind the plot and called him “a very convincing communicator” for people who were open to his views.

“However twisted or irrational it may seem to many of us, it did resonate to the targeted audience,” the judge said. “That is as important a method of leadership as being out in the field telling people where to go.”

Defense attorney Joshua Blanchard said he would appeal the sentence.

Croft and Adam Fox were convicted in August of conspiracy charges in Grand Rapids. Croft also was found guilty of possessing an unregistered explosive.

Fox, 39, was sentenced Tuesday to 16 years behind bars. The government also sought a life sentence for him.

Both men were accused of hatching a stunning plot to abduct Gov. Gretchen Whitmer from her vacation home just before the 2020 presidential election. The conspirators were furious over tough COVID-19 restrictions that Whitmer and officials in other states had put in place during the early months of the pandemic, as well as perceived threats to gun ownership.

Whitmer was not physically harmed. The FBI was secretly embedded in the group and made 14 arrests.

“We’re talking about a conspiracy to physically kidnap the governor, potentially assassinate her as well. It doesn’t get much more serious than that,” Jonker said before announcing Croft’s sentence. “The group had a lot of guns. This group had all kinds of material ready to go to achieve their end.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Nils Kessler called Croft the “spiritual leader” of the group of conspirators, comparing his role to that of “some sheikh in ISIS.”

“He essentially was putting himself as a role of a prophet … there are people who believe this sort of rhetoric, and he used it,” Kessler told the judge.

“This man is fully radicalized. He hasn’t changed his viewpoint,” Kessler added. “He’s not admitting the ideas are wrong because he still holds them. This whole thing was Mr. Croft’s idea.”

Whitmer’s office declined to comment Wednesday. She said in August that the guilty verdicts proved that “those who seek to divide us will be held accountable.” She also said such plots are “a disturbing extension of radicalized domestic terrorism” that threaten “the very foundation of our republic.”

Croft regularly wore the type of tricorn hat common during the American Revolution and had tattoos on his arms symbolizing resistance — “Expect Us” — as he traveled to Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan to meet with like-minded extremists.

A different jury in Grand Rapids couldn’t reach a verdict on the pair at the first trial last spring but acquitted two other men.

The abduction was meant to be the beginning of a “reign of terror,” Kessler said in court documents. Croft’s plan called for riots, “torching” government officials in their sleep and setting off violence across the country.

In one key piece of evidence, Croft, Fox and others traveled to see Whitmer’s vacation home in northern Michigan, with undercover agents and informants inside the cabal.

At one point, Croft told allies: “I don’t like seeing anybody get killed either. But you don’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, you know what I mean?”

Croft’s attorney tried to soften his client’s role. In a court filing, Blanchard said Croft did not actually have authority over others and often frustrated them because he “just kept talking.”

Croft “went way down a conspiracy rabbit hole,” Blanchard said Wednesday in seeking a sentence less than life.

“When the pandemic touched off, a lot of people went down a similar rabbit hole and suddenly Mr. Croft was connected with a lot of people who felt the same way he did,” Blanchard told the judge.

Blanchard, who got emotional in the courtroom when speaking about Croft’s three children, told reporters outside the courthouse that the sentence means Croft will not get to see his kids grow up.

Blanchard also maintained that Croft wasn’t the “ideas guy” he’s been portrayed as. He insisted that “most of what Mr. Croft said was excluded because the government didn’t want the jury to hear it.”

Two men who pleaded guilty and testified against Fox and Croft received substantial breaks: Ty Garbin already is free after a 2 1/2-year prison term, while Kaleb Franks was given a four-year sentence.

In state court, three men recently received lengthy sentences for assisting Fox in the summer of 2020. Five more are awaiting trial in Antrim County, where Whitmer’s vacation home is.

When the plot was extinguished, Whitmer blamed then-President Donald Trump, saying he had given “comfort to those who spread fear and hatred and division.” In August, 19 months after leaving office, Trump said the kidnapping plan was a “fake deal.”

___

Associated Press Writer Ed White in Detroit contributed to this story. Joey Cappelletti is a corps member for The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Judge orders longest prison term so far in Gov. Whitmer plot