By JOEY CAPPELLETTI and COREY WILLIAMS (Associated Press/Report for America)
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) — The co-leader of a plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was sentenced Tuesday to 16 years in prison for conspiring to abduct the Democrat and blow up a bridge to ease an escape.
Adam Fox’s sentence is the longest of anyone convicted in the plot so far, though it’s significantly shorter than the life sentence that prosecutors sought.
Fox, 39, returned to federal court four months after he and Barry Croft Jr. were convicted of conspiracy charges at a second trial in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
They were accused of organizing a wild plot to whip up anti-government extremists just before the 2020 presidential election. Their arrest, as well as the capture of 12 others, was a stunning coda to a tumultuous year of racial strife and political turmoil in the U.S.
The government said Croft offered bomb-making skills and ideology while Fox was the “driving force urging their recruits to take up arms, kidnap the governor and kill those who stood in their way.”
But Judge Robert J. Jonker said that while Fox’s sentence was needed as a punishment and deterrent to future similar acts, the government’s request for life in prison is “not necessary to achieve those purposes.”
“It’s too much. Something less than life gets the job done in this case,” Jonker said, later adding that 16 years in prison “is still in my mind a very long time.”
Jonker said he also considered the emotional baggage Whitmer will have to carry due to the plot.
“It undoubtedly affects other people who are in public office or are considering public office,” he said. “They have to count the cost. That does need a forceful sentence from the court.”
In addition to the prison sentence, Fox will have to serve five years of supervised release. He’ll also get credit for more than two years in custody since his arrest.
“Responding to domestic terrorism plots has been a priority for the Department of Justice since its founding and we’re going to continue to spare no expense to make sure we disrupt plots like these,” U.S. Attorney Andrew Birge told reporters outside the courthouse following the sentencing.
Fox wore orange prison clothes with long slicked-back hair and a full beard. He showed little reaction when the sentence was read.
Daniel Harris, who was acquitted by a jury earlier this year for his involvement in the plot, sat next to Fox’s mother in the gallery and hugged her after the sentencing was read. Fox looked into the gallery multiple times, often mouthing words.
He shook his head and repeatedly smirked while Assistant U.S. Attorney Nils Kessler spoke. Kessler said Fox’s smirking was a sign that he showed no regret.
Fox and Croft were convicted at a second trial in August, months after a different Grand Rapids jury couldn’t reach a verdict but acquitted Harris and one other man. Croft, a trucker from Bear, Delaware, will be sentenced Wednesday.
In 2020, Fox and Croft met with like-minded provocateurs in Ohio, trained with weapons in Michigan and Wisconsin and took a ride to “put eyes” on Whitmer’s vacation home with night-vision goggles, according to evidence.
“People need to stop with the misplaced anger and place the anger where it should go, and that’s against our tyrannical … government,” Fox declared that spring, boiling over COVID-19 restrictions and perceived threats to gun ownership.
Whitmer wasn’t physically harmed. The FBI, which was secretly embedded in the group, broke things up by fall.
“They had no real plan for what to do with the governor if they actually seized her. Paradoxically, this made them more dangerous, not less,” Kessler said in a court filing ahead of the hearing.
At the time, Fox was living in the basement of a Grand Rapids-area vacuum shop, the site of clandestine meetings with members of a paramilitary group and an undercover FBI agent. His lawyer, Christopher Gibbons, said he was depressed, anxious and smoking marijuana daily.
Gibbons said a life sentence would be extreme.
Jonker said there was nothing that made him think of Fox as a “natural leader,” but said conspiracies like the plot to kidnap Whitmer take “a lot of fuel” and that Fox “provided it.”
“It’s important to recognize the likelihood of this ever happening, thank God, was low because law enforcement was on it early,” Jonker said. “I think the chances of this actually happening were incredibly remote.”
In arguing Tuesday for a life sentence, Kessler said, “I think you could say that none of this would have happened if Mr. Fox was not involved.”
“They wanted a second civil war or revolution,” Kessler said of the conspirators before Jonker’s sentence. “They wanted to ruin everything for everybody. This wasn’t about masks or about vaccines. They were talking about overthrowing the government before the coronavirus pandemic. They had enough guns and armor for a small war.”
Fox was regularly exposed to “inflammatory rhetoric” by FBI informants, especially Army veteran Dan Chappel, who “manipulated not only Fox’s sense of ‘patriotism’ but also his need for friendship, acceptance and male approval,” Gibbons said in a court filing.
Two men who pleaded guilty to conspiracy 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.
Three members of a paramilitary group that trained with Fox were convicted in October of providing material support for a terrorist act. Their sentences, handed down earlier this month in state court, ranged between 7 to 12 years.
Five more are awaiting trial in Antrim County, where Whitmer’s vacation home is located.
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.”
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.