(Reuters) – Some suspects accused of trying to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer also discussed whether they should shoot her in the head and contemplated abducting Virginia Governor Ralph Northam as well, an FBI agent testified on Tuesday.
Thirteen people including at least seven tied to an armed militia were arrested last week and accused of plotting to kidnap the Whitmer, a Democrat assailed by Republican President Donald Trump and right-wing extremists for her handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Five of those defendants faced a hearing on Tuesday in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan, where a U.S. magistrate judge ordered three of them to be held without bail pending trial. Bail rulings on the other two defendants were expected at a hearing on Friday.
FBI Special Agent Richard Trask testified that some of the suspects also discussed targeting Northam, a Democrat who also enacted coronavirus restrictions they opposed.
Trask described a planning meeting that included at least two of the co-defendants in Dublin, Ohio, in June, basing his testimony on evidence from confidential informants and encrypted communications from the group.
“At this meeting they discussed possible targets, taking a sitting governor, specifically issues with the governor of Michigan and Virginia based on the lockdown orders,” Trask said,
The FBI gleaned from the group’s messages that one of the suspects had at one point suggested going to Whitmer’s house to “cap her,” possibly disguised as a pizza delivery man, Trask said.
Internal U.S. security memos in recent months have warned that violent domestic extremists could pose a threat to election-related targets, a concern exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, political tensions, civil unrest and foreign disinformation campaigns.
The arrests last week, in the final stretches of the Nov. 3 presidential campaign, underscored the country’s political polarization as Trump seeks re-election against Democratic challenger Joe Biden.
The defendants in Tuesday’s hearing are among six people facing federal kidnapping charges who could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted.
Magistrate Judge Sally Berens denied bail for three of the defendants, Kaleb Franks, Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta.
Franks’ defense lawyer Scott Graham argued that Franks was a follower, not a leader in any plot, and that he posed no flight risk.
Harris’ attorney Parker Douglas urged Berens to consider house arrest for Harris, who was dishonorably discharged from the Marine Corps last year.
“While this plot appears to have been disrupted, it’s not clear that … the movement has ended, and that there are not other individuals who would be able to help Mr. Harris,” Berens said.
Berens had yet to decide whether to grant bail to Adam Fox or Ty Garbin. A sixth co-defendant, Barry Croft, was being transferred to Michigan from Delaware on Tuesday after a brief court appearance at a federal court in Wilmington, The Detroit News reported.
Seven other suspects associated with the Wolverine Watchmen militia group face state charges in Michigan.
The plotting took place after Trump in April had tweeted “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!” in reference to gun rights under the U.S. Constitution.
(Reporting by Gabriella Borter; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Howard Goller)