By John Flesher And Ed White in Grand Rapids
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) — A jury on Friday acquitted two men of all charges in a plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer but couldn’t reach verdicts against the two alleged leaders, a stunning defeat for the government after a weekslong trial that centered on a remarkable FBI sting operation just before the 2020 election.
Whitmer did not immediately comment on the outcome, though her chief of staff was critical, saying Americans are “living through the normalization of political violence.”
The result was announced on the fifth day of deliberations, a few hours after the jury said it had been struggling to find unanimity on charges in the 10-count indictment. The judge told the panel to keep working, but jurors emerged again after lunch to say they still were deadlocked on some counts.
Daniel Harris, 24, and Brandon Caserta, 33, were found not guilty of conspiracy. In addition, Harris was acquitted of charges related to explosives and a gun.
The jury could not reach verdicts for Adam Fox, 38, and Barry Croft Jr., 46, which means the government can put them on trial again for two conspiracy charges. Croft also faces a separate explosives charge. They’ll remain in custody.
No juror spoke publicly about the mixed result.
“Obviously we’re disappointed with the outcome. … We have two defendants that are awaiting trial and we’ll get back to work on that,” U.S. Attorney Andrew Birge said.
Harris and Caserta embraced their lawyers when U.S. District Judge Robert Jonker said they were free after 18 months in jail awaiting trial. Family members moments earlier gasped and cried with joy when the verdicts were read.
The arrests in Michigan came amid upheaval in the U.S. in 2020. The year had started with pandemic lockdowns then shifted to armed Capitol protests over COVID-19 restrictions ordered by Whitmer and other governors. By late May, anger over racial injustice and the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police erupted into demonstrations in cities nationwide.
In a Grand Rapids courtroom, during 13 days of testimony, prosecutors offered evidence from undercover agents, a crucial informant and two men who pleaded guilty to the plot. Jurors also read and heard secretly recorded conversations, violent social media posts and chat messages.
Ty Garbin, who pleaded guilty and is serving a six-year prison sentence, said the plan was to get Whitmer and cause enough chaos to trigger a civil war before the election , keeping Joe Biden from winning the presidency.
Garbin and Kaleb Franks, who also pleaded guilty and testified for the government, were among the six who were arrested in October 2020 amid talk of raising $4,000 for an explosive to blow up a bridge and stymie any police response to a kidnapping, according to trial testimony.
Prosecutors said the group was steeped in anti-government extremism and furious over Whitmer’s pandemic restrictions. There was evidence of a crudely built “shoot house” to practice going in and out of her vacation home, and a night ride by Croft, Fox and covert operatives to check the property.
But defense lawyers portrayed the men as credulous weekend warriors, often stoned on marijuana and prone to big, wild talk. They said FBI agents and informants tricked and cajoled the meninto targeting the governor.
During closing arguments a week ago, Fox’s attorney, Christopher Gibbons, said the plan was “utter nonsense,” and he pleaded with jurors to be the “firewall” against the government.
Harris was the only defendant to testify in his own defense, repeatedly telling jurors “absolutely not” when asked if he had targeted the governor.
“I think what the FBI did is unconscionable,” Caserta’s attorney, Michael Hills, said outside court. “And I think the jury just sent them a message loud and clear that these tactics — we’re not going to condone what they’ve done here.”
He said Whitmer was “never in any danger.”
Gibbons said the acquittals of Harris and Caserta demonstrated serious shortcomings in the government’s case.
“We’ll be ready for another trial. … We’ll eventually get what we wanted out of this, which is the truth and the justice I think Adam is entitled to,” Gibbons said.
Meanwhile, Michigan Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist said the “outcome is disappointing.” Whitmer’s office released a tough reaction from the governor’s chief of staff, JoAnne Huls.
“The plot to kidnap and kill a governor may seem like an anomaly. But we must be honest about what it really is: The result of violent, divisive rhetoric that is all too common across our country,” Huls said. “There must be accountability and consequences for those who commit heinous crimes. Without accountability, extremists will be emboldened.”
Deliberations resumed earlier Friday with a court employee handing jurors a large plastic bag containing pennies, known as evidence exhibit 291. The pennies were requested before jurors went home Thursday.
Pennies taped to a commercial-grade firework were intended to act like shrapnel against Whitmer’s security team, according to the government.
The trial covered 20 days since March 8, including jury selection, evidence, final arguments and jury deliberations. Croft is from Bear, Delaware, while the others are from Michigan.
Whitmer, a Democrat, wasn’t a trial witness and didn’t attend. She rarely talks publicly about the plot, though she referred to “surprises” during her term that seemed like “something out of fiction” when she filed for reelection on March 17.
She has blamed former President Donald Trump for fomenting anger over coronavirus restrictions and refusing to condemn right-wing extremists like those charged in the case.
A jury of six women and six men heard the case, as well as four alternates. Little is known about them. Citing privacy, Jonker ordered that they be only identified by numbers. Two jurors were dismissed during the trial because of illness.
The jury pool was drawn from a 22-county region in western and northern Michigan that is largely rural, Republican and conservative. Several people were dismissed after saying they had strong feelings about Whitmer — positive or negative — or the government.
Matthew Schneider, a former U.S. attorney in Detroit, believes prosecutors “could have done a better job” of learning about the backgrounds and personal views of some jurors who were called up near the end of the all-day selection process.
“The government had laid out its case. The jury didn’t believe it,” Schneider said of the verdict.
Separately, authorities in state court are prosecuting eight men who are accused of aiding the group that was on trial in federal court.
Find AP’s full coverage of the Whitmer kidnap plot trial at: https://apnews.com/hub/whitmer-kidnap-plot-trial
White reported from Detroit. Associated Press reporters Sara Burnett in Chicago; David Eggert in Grand Rapids, Michigan; and Mike Householder in Detroit contributed to this report.
India suspends visa services in Canada and rift widens between countries
India’s visa processing centre in Canada suspended services Thursday as a rift widened between the countries after Canada’s leader said India may have been involved in the killing of a Canadian citizen. The High Commission of India is seen in Ottawa, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Patrick Doyle
India’s visa processing centre in Canada suspended services Thursday as a rift widened between the countries after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said India may have been involved in the killing of a Canadian citizen.
Trudeau told Parliament on Monday that there were “credible allegations” of Indian involvement in the assassination of Sikh independence activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar, who had been wanted by India for years and was gunned down in June outside the temple he led.
Canada also expelled an Indian diplomat, and India followed by expelling a Canadian diplomat on Tuesday. It called the allegations being investigated in Canada absurd and an attempt to shift attention from the presence of Nijjar and other wanted suspects in Canada.
“Important notice from Indian Mission: Due to operational reasons, with effect from 21 Sept. Indian visa services have been suspended till further notice,” the BLS Indian Visa Application Center in Canada said. It gave no further details. BLS is the agency that processes visa requests for India.
India’s External Affairs Ministry did not immediately comment.
The Canadian High Commission in New Delhi said all its consulates in India are open and are continuing to provide services, but staff safety is being assessed.
“In light of the current environment where tensions have heightened, we are taking action to ensure the safety of our diplomats. With some diplomats having received threats on various social media platforms, Global Affairs Canada is assessing its staff complement in India,” it said in a statement.
It said Canada expects India to provide for the security of its diplomats and consular officers under the Vienna conventions.
In 2021, 80,000 Canadian tourists visited India, making them the fourth largest group, according to India’s Bureau of Immigration.
On Wednesday, India’s External Affairs Ministry issued an updated travel advisory urging its citizens travelling in Canada and especially those studying in the North American country to be cautious because of “growing anti-India activities and politically condoned hate-crimes.”
Indians should also avoid going to venues in Canada where “threats have particularly targeted Indian diplomats and sections of the Indian community who oppose anti-India agenda,” the ministry said.
Nijjar was working to organize an unofficial referendum among the Sikh diaspora on independence from India at the time of his killing. He had denied India’s accusation that he was a terrorist.
The second stage of B.C. voting on whether a Sikh homeland should be established in India’s Punjab province is scheduled to be held on Oct. 29.
The Vancouver Police Department beefed up security outside India’s Consulate after Trudeau’s announcement this week.
Const. Tania Visintin, Vancouver police media relations officer, said in a statement Wednesday that police are “closely monitoring the situation.”
“We’re doing significant work behind the scenes, which includes continuous risk assessments, with a goal of maintaining public safety and preventing violence,” Visintin said in an emailed statement.
Visintin said Vancouver police were not aware of any specific threats to Indian consular officials, but have increased their presence at the downtown Vancouver consulate.
Demands for an independent Sikh homeland, known as Khalistan, started as an insurgency in India’s Punjab state in the 1970s that was crushed in an Indian government crackdown that killed thousands. The movement has since lost much of its political power but still has supporters in Punjab, where Sikhs form a majority, as well as among the sizable overseas Sikh diaspora.
India’s National Investigation Agency said Wednesday it has intensified its crackdown on Sikh insurgents operating in India.
It announced rewards of up to 1 million rupees (CAD$16,240) for information leading to the arrest of five insurgents, one of whom is believed to be based in neighboring Pakistan.
The agency accused them of extorting money from businesses for a banned Sikh organization, the Babbar Khalsa International, and of targeted killings in India. “They also have established a network of operatives in various countries to further their terrorist activities in India,” it said in a statement, without naming any country.
India accuses Pakistan of supporting insurgencies in Kashmir and Punjab, a charge Islamabad denies.
— with files from The Associated Press
Who was Hardeep Singh Nijjar, slain B.C. Sikh leader at heart of diplomatic crisis?
An image of Hardeep Singh Nijjar is seen on a poster as people gather outside the Indian Consulatein Vancouver, B.C., during a protest on Saturday, June 24, 2023. Nijjar is being remembered by family and supporters as a generous community activist. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ethan Cairns
By Nono Shen
On June 18, Hardeep Singh Nijjar phoned his eldest son for the last time, to say he was on his way home for dinner.
Baljar Singh Nijjar, 21, said his father had been in a good mood earlier that Father’s Day, joking about the jeans Baljar and his younger brother had bought him as a gift.
“I’m on a diet, why did you give me this size, I’m not going to fit,” Baljar recalled his father saying.
But a few minutes after the 8:20 p.m. call, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, 45, was dead, shot in his pickup truck by two masked gunmen in the parking lot of the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara, in Surrey, B.C.
Nijjar is now at the heart of a diplomatic crisis between India and Canada, after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on Monday that intelligence services were investigating “credible” information about “a potential link” between India’s government and the killing.
He’s being remembered by family and supporters as a giving community activist. But in India, Nijjar was a wanted man, after authorities labelled him a terrorist in 2020.
Balraj Singh Nijjar said his father was “generous, outgoing and a jolly person.”
“I know, people have been saying that India labelled my father as a terrorist. But (the Indian government) tried to extradite my father, but the Canadian government had denied that request,” he said, calling the accusations “false news.”
He said his father had moved from India to Canada in 1997 and had worked as a plumber in B.C. for more than 20 years.
Hardeep Singh Nijjar was also president of the Surrey gurdwara where he died, and a vocal supporter of the Khalistan movement that advocates for a separate Sikh homeland in India’s Punjab province.
At the time of his death, he was organizing an unofficial referendum about Khalistan among the Sikh diaspora in B.C. with the organization Sikhs For Justice.
In 2016, Indian media reported that he was suspected of masterminding a bombing in the Sikh-majority state of Punjab and training terrorists in B.C. Last year, Indian authorities accused Nijjar of involvement in an alleged attack on a Hindu priest in India and announced a reward of about $16,000 for information leading to his arrest.
He denied the terrorism allegations and told the Vancouver Sun that he was too busy to participate in Sikh diaspora politics, calling the claims “garbage.”
Balraj Singh Nijjar emphasized that his father was a Canadian citizen. Then-immigration minister Marc Miller, aiming to “dispel the baseless rumours” about Nijjar’s citizenship, said on social media that Nijjar had indeed become Canadian in 2015.
Balraj said everyone at the temple remembered his father’s “iconic laugh.”
“Dad’s personality was just so outgoing … it made us feel like there is someone here that you can talk to if you have any problems,” he said.
He said the loss of his father hit his family “really hard.”
On June 24, about 200 protesters gathered in front of the Indian Consulate in Vancouver to demonstrate against Nijjar’s killing. They described him as “peaceful” and “humble” and dismissed allegations that he was connected to violence.
Many of the protesters were already convinced that Nijjar’s killing was linked to his calls for an independent Sikh state.
“He was a loving man, a hard-working man, a family man,” said Gurkeerat Singh, one of the protesters.
— With files from The Associated Press
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 20, 2023.
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