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Now a ‘star witness,’ Gretchen Whitmer kidnapping plotter gets 75 months

Ty Garbin booking photo
Ty Garbin of Hartland could have faced up to 17 years in prison on the kidnapping charge, but had that amount reduced substantially because of his cooperation with prosecutors. (Kent County Sheriff)

LANSING—Ty Garbin of Hartland will spend up to 75 months in prison for his admitted role in a militia plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a punishment that was lightened because of what prosecutors called his “substantial” cooperation with investigators.

Garbin, a 25-year-old airplane mechanic, publicly apologized to the governor and her family on Wednesday before U.S. District Court Judge Robert Jonker handed down the six-and-a-quarter-year sentence. 

“I can’t even begin to imagine the amount of stress and fear her family members felt because of my actions,” Garbin said. “And for that, I'm truly sorry.”

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Garbin, who had joined the Wolverine Watchmen militia group last year amid frustration with Whitmer’s COVID-19 lockdown orders, pleaded guilty to a kidnapping conspiracy charge in January, giving prosecutors their first conviction in a closely watched case that expert say will test the government’s ability to combat growing domestic terrorism and homegrown extremism. 

Thirteen other men are accused of aiding the Whitmer kidnapping plot, including five defendants who are facing federal charges and are set to go to trial in October. 

Under normal circumstances, Garbin would have likely been sentenced to up to 17 years in prison under federal sentencing guidelines outlined in court documents. But because of his cooperation with investigators and willingness to undergo “deradicalization” therapy, prosecutors asked the court to sentence Garbin to 11 years or less. 

Jonker, in handing down an even lighter sentence of six-and-a-quarter years, said there “isn’t any doubt that (Garbin) crossed a line and joined a dangerous conspiracy” to kidnap Whitmer.

But Garbin has also “changed his behavior,” and perhaps his “heart and mind, too,” Jonker continued. “I think he is an excellent prospect to walk law-abiding paths once he’s finished paying for these very serious mistakes.”

Since he was arrested last October, Garbin has voluntarily given prosecutors an “insider account” of the kidnapping plot, filling in gaps that were not recorded by F.B.I. informants or undercover agents, his defense attorney Gary Springstead told Jonker on Wednesday.

“I don't think that that cooperation can be understated in a case like this,” Springstead said. “He is going to be a star witness” against other defendants and “by all accounts has been truthful, honest, and totally cooperative with the government.”

Prosecutors have offered a similar account, telling Jonker that Garbin has been “exceptionally forthright” with investigators, even before he had reached a plea deal that precluded him from facing other charges. 

“Garbin did not wait to see what his chances were of escaping accountability,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Nils Kessler wrote in a recent court filing. “He knew what he had done, knew it was wrong and took action.”

Whitmer, in a June 21 victim impact statement submitted to the court, called the rise in violent extremism "one of the gravest threats we face" as a nation and suggested "kidnapping plots and death threats endanger not just individuals but democracy itself."

The plot took "a toll" on both her and her family, Whitmer wrote, noting laws must be enforced to be effective. But she also acknowledged Garbin for "for taking responsibility, accepting the consequences of his action and assisting in bringing others to justice."

"To reunite as Americans, we must find a way to bring those who have lost their way back from the brink, to remind those for whom violence represents an acceptable strategy that it is a path that will ultimately, and possibly irrevocably, divorce us from the founding principles of our nation," Whitmer continued in the victim impact statement.

"Their imagined defense of liberty is what most endangers liberty itself. Lies, radicalization and violent extremism are an existential threat to what we value. Now, more than ever, it threatens our future and the future we envisioned for our children.”

The F.B.I. foiled the alleged kidnapping plot in October, arresting Garbin and a dozen other men active in the Wolverine Watchmen and Three Percenters militia groups. Several of the men are accused of surveilling Whitmer’s vacation home in northern Michigan.

According to his attorneys, Garbin had suffered years of physical and verbal abuse by his biological father that predisposed him to extremism. Since his arrest, he has undergone "deradicalization treatment" and wants to help others do the same. 

In brief remarks prior to his sentencing on Wednesday, Garbin told Jonker he wants to “build myself into a better person” and to also “help others from becoming radicalized and help them from making the decisions that I've made.”

Garbin joined the plot last year after Whitmer took aggressive steps to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, including a controversial stay-at-home order, his defense attorney told the court last week in a filing. As a result of emergency restrictions, his wages had been cut in half as he was put on paid "stand by," and "doing something about it just felt right."

"After all, what the governor was doing was unprecedented and, many thought, lawless," Springstead wrote. "Even the president of the United States of America called on citizens to "Liberate Michigan,” he added, referencing then-President Donald Trump. 

Garbin’s cooperation has already paid dividends, according to Kessler, the assistant U.S. Attorney: It allowed prosecutors to file additional charges against some of the defendants, he said, including conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction charges against Adam Fox of suburban Grand Rapids, Barry Croft of Delaware and Daniel Harris of Lake Orion. 

Fox, Croft and Harris allegedly made improvised explosive devices with shrapnel, which they tested on human silhouette targets. And Croft provided a “projectile launcher” to kill the governor’s security detail, Kessler said in court documents.

While federal agents compiled more than a thousand hours of covert recordings of the defendants discussing the alleged plot, Garbin's cooperation is a victory for prosecutors during a case marked by several setbacks. 

In recent months, an FBI agent who played a key role in the investigation was arrested on unrelated assault charges, another FBI agent was recorded describing efforts to intentionally confuse defense attorneys and one early FBI informant was indicted on gun charge, signaling he's no longer cooperating with prosecutors. 

Garbin's attorney requested a sentence "well below" sentencing guidelines because his client had "demonstrated extraordinary acceptance of responsibility" and could be “particularly vulnerable to physical assault or even death in prison due to his cooperation” with prosecutors. 

Garbin is helping the government prove "the grim reality" that he and colleagues took "very real steps" to follow through on the kidnapping, beyond mere talk, Springstead said.

That type of cooperation is especially important for prosecutors because attorneys for several other defendants have signaled they plan to use an entrapment defense, arguing their clients were essentially coaxed into the kidnapping plot by paid informants and undercover agents.

An attorney for Kaleb Franks of Waterford Township, for instance, recently suggested his client had joined the militia group to train in weaponry and tactics, enjoy time outdoors and "find respite" from personal and professional demands. 

"Only through the diligent efforts of government informants and undercover agents did Mr. Franks end up framed as a lawless agitator," the defense attorney, Scott Graham, argued last month.

But in recent government filings, prosecutors have suggested Garbin’s cooperative testimony has “dispelled any suggestion that the conspirators were entrapped by government informants,” describing Croft and Fox as “ring leaders” who others willingly followed. 

“He is fully expected to testify at the trial,” Kessler said Wednesday.

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