Barry Croft Jr., 47, of Delaware was described by prosecutors in a federal courtroom in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Wednesday as the “spiritual leader” and “the ideas guy” of the plot, which was ultimately undone after a sting that involved informants and undercover FBI agents who embedded with the group of men drawn together by their association with the armed right-wing “Wolverine Watchmen” group.
Croft and his co-conspirator, 39-year-old Adam Fox of Michigan, were convicted by a federal jury after a second trial in August on two counts of conspiracy, while Croft also was found guilty of an additional weapons charge. Prosecutors depicted the two men as furious over covid-19 lockdowns and supposed “tyranny” by elected officials, and said they poured their anger into a violent plot they were eager to see grow into a bloody “revolution.”
The case has underscored the escalating threat of extremist violence, particularly from the far right, at a point of deep political division in the country. Federal prosecutors said the seriousness of the plot made a life sentence for the defendants appropriate. Croft’s defense argued that he was less involved than Fox and not viewed as a real leader among the group’s members.
Fox was sentenced Tuesday to 16 years in prison, while two other defendants pleaded guilty in 2021 and early 2022 and agreed to testify against Croft and Fox. Another two defendants were acquitted at their federal trial in April.
Fourteen people were eventually arrested by state and federal authorities in an October 2020 sting after investigators found the men had gathered weapons, trained and planned to kidnap Whitmer from her vacation home in northern Michigan and detonate a bridge to disrupt her security detail and the law enforcement response ahead of the 2020 election.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Croft’s defense attorney Joshua Blanchard acknowledged the effect of the case on Whitmer, the public and elected officials, but said Croft’s role did not warrant a life sentence. He described his client as an isolated truck driver who lived in an echo chamber and descended down a “conspiracy rabbit hole.”
“The government has painted a picture, perhaps fairly, of Mr. Croft as a radical in the time leading up to the summer of 2020. He’s said some horrible, awful things. But I can tell the court a sober Mr. Croft finds those things difficult to listen to,” Blanchard said.
Nils Kessler, a federal prosecutor, argued that even more than his co-defendant, Croft embraced a “poisonous” ideology for which he still hasn’t shown remorse, highlighted by the fact that Croft has continued to give interviews from prison, and in one on Tuesday night called the government “illegitimate.”
“He could at least admit the ideas are wrong, but he’s not because he still holds them,” Kessler said.
In explaining why he would not hand down a life sentence, U.S. District Judge Robert J. Jonker said no one was ultimately injured and no infrastructure was destroyed.
“The end of the conspiracy was never realized, thank goodness. And it was never going to be realized because law enforcement was never going to let it get that far,” Jonker said, in reference to the embedded agents.
But the judge also noted that Croft “was in a different tranche” than his co-defendants and was involved for a longer time in anti-government activities.
“I’m not persuaded that what we’ve seen is meaningful change yet from Mr. Croft,” Jonker said.
In court Wednesday, Croft declined to speak, on the advice of his lawyers.
While Croft’s sentencing wrapped up the federal prosecutions of six defendants, several more alleged collaborators still face state trials. In October, three men were convicted in Jackson County Circuit Court of breaking Michigan anti-terrorism laws enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Pete Musico, 45; Joseph Morrison, 28; and Paul Bellar, 24, were sentenced to minimums of 12 years, 10 years and seven years in prison, respectively, for aiding in the plan.
Five more men are awaiting trial on state charges in Antrim County, the northern Michigan area where Whitmer has a vacation home.