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Lawyer for accused domestic terrorist says suspect was just 'playing army'

Attorney Mark Satawa represents Ty Garbin, one of five suspects accused with conspiracy to kidnap MI Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. He told CNN's Sara Sidner his client was just "playing army."

Posted: Oct 27, 2020 1:31 PM
Updated: Oct 27, 2020 1:31 PM

It's a late summer weekend in northwestern Michigan, and leaves have started to turn from green to shades of yellow and orange in the village of Luther, home to about 320. A mile or so off the main road, deep in the woods, a few people live in mobile homes parked atop a hill. There's no running water or electricity and the best way to get there is four-wheel-drive.

Just past one mobile home, neat piles of seven or eight tires stretch out 15 feet. Beyond them, wooden pallets have been stacked to form a C-shaped wall. Human silhouettes have been spray-painted in red on some of them. They are pocked with bullet holes.

And on that mid-September weekend, there was a large explosion.

"We heard a big boom, a big one," said Cliff Demos, who lives about a mile away with his wife and horses. "It was right over there," he said, pointing up the road. "It was huge. It was huge."

The FBI says a September 12 field training exercise there included making a bomb as part of a domestic terrorist plot against Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer that has led to six men being charged at the federal level and eight more with state crimes.

The FBI says the Luther property belongs to Ty Garbin, and he along with eight others were training there for a possible attack.

But Garbin's lawyer, Mark Satawa, says there is much still to learn.

In an exclusive interview with CNN, Satawa said the FBI's account of that weekend omitted details about his client's reaction and willingness to participate.

He confirmed that Garbin, 24, who has been charged with conspiracy to commit kidnapping, was at his property with others and there was an explosion.

The government's case states one of Garbin's guests, Barry Croft, had brought what he called his "chemistry set," which included components to build an improvised explosive device with a firework, black powder, and pennies as shrapnel. Later that same day, the group put the device in the clearing by the wooden targets featuring human silhouettes, according to the FBI, and Croft set it off.

According to Satawa, that was a breaking point for Garbin.

"He had a smoke bomb in a balloon set off on his property that he quickly disavowed, took away, and said 'we're not doing this anymore' to the people that were doing it," Satawa said of Garbin, adding he questions whether his client was even aware of the bomb plans.

"Did anyone tell him in advance that they were bringing explosives? Did Ty Garbin say to anyone, 'You can't bring explosives'? Did they do it with his consent or with his wishes or against his wishes? Did they do it with his knowledge or despite his knowledge, without his knowledge?" Satawa asked.

But the FBI's account states that two months earlier, at another training exercise, Garbin had already helped Croft build a homemade bomb -- that time with a fuse. It was faulty and did not detonate, the FBI said.

The federal criminal complaint against Garbin and five others also details a message Garbin sent in response to an informant in an encrypted chat that alludes to what a bomb would do to a bridge close to Whitmer's vacation home, if they wanted to use an explosion to delay the arrival of law enforcement.

Satawa says the paid informant is relied heavily upon in the government's initial case. He adds that, in general, there is a trust deficit when it comes to paid informants.

The case against the 14 men follows a monthslong investigation using informants and undercover operatives to gather evidence.

The weekend in Luther is critical to the FBI's building of its case because after the bomb test on Saturday, the men drove about an hour and a half to conduct surveillance on Whitmer's vacation home, the complaint says.

Satawa paints a different picture. "This was, in many ways, a campout," he said. "There were bonfires and cookouts and barbecues and so even the government's evidence suggests that only a small fraction of the people that were there were part of the conversation (about kidnapping Whitmer)."

He rejects allegations that the men, whom he calls "a group of guys in the woods playing army," would have carried out any plan to overthrow the government.

"Saying things like, I hate the government, I hate the President, I hate the governor, you know, even more offensive things like Whitmer is a tyrant or Whitmer is a tyrannical you-know-what does not mean that they seriously were planning to overthrow the government, or even seriously planning to kidnap her, put her on a boat, and set her adrift in the middle of Lake Michigan," Satawa said.

Whitmer has said she was shocked by the plot against her. "When I put my hand on the Bible and took the oath of office 22 months ago, I knew this job would be hard. I'll be honest, I never could imagine anything like this," she said the day charges were announced.

Satawa says his client is far different from the image the public has been given. He's a diminutive, fastidious young man who takes notes and is "a bit of a nerd," he said.

"I speak for Ty Garbin and only Ty Garbin, but my client is not a crackpot. My client is not a knucklehead. He is a good kid. He had a good job as an airline mechanic at the airport."

Satawa says that Garbin is close with his grandfather. "He has a very sort of quiet and shy personality, and he's very likable," he said. Satawa revealed Garbin's grandparents were at his property the night it was raided along with several locations across the state.

That same night, October 7, the FBI arrested their grandson and five others at an alleged meeting to buy explosives from an undercover FBI agent.

There are hours of videos and audio and electronic communications that Satawa says he and the other defense attorneys have not yet received from prosecutors.

"We've seen about 5% of the evidence," Satawa said.

Echoes of an earlier alleged terror plot in Michigan

And while the evidence prosecutors are putting together with informants, undercover FBI agents, videos and messages looks damning, Satawa reminds everyone that a trial like this before in Michigan failed to end in guilty verdicts on the main thrust of the case.

In 2010, the federal government brought a conspiracy and sedition case against nine people accused of being part of a so-called "Christian Warrior" style armed group in Michigan called Hutaree. The suspects were accused of an anti-government plot in which they planned to kill a Michigan police officer and then planned to show up at the funeral to ambush more police officers.

The indictment said the suspects also wanted to use homemade bombs to attack law enforcement vehicles during the funeral procession. They faced charges of seditious conspiracy and attempting to use weapons of mass destruction, among other accusations.

But these most serious charges never even made it to jury deliberations. The judge said the government had not proven its case.

"While this evidence could certainly lead a rational fact finder to conclude that 'something fishy' was going on, it does not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Defendants reached a concrete agreement to forcibly oppose the United States Government," Judge Victoria Roberts wrote in her ruling.

Satawa, who represented one of the Hutaree accused, said: "The government lost, and they lost big time. They were just flat out wrong." His client walked free.

Satawa said that case also had video, informants and undercover FBI officers involved. He points to it to say no one should jump to conclusions before all the evidence is in view.

"The justice system presumes people innocent until proven guilty," he said.

And although his client is accused of being anti-government, Satawa says Garbin thinks the justice system will work.

"He believes in the system, that the system is going to work for him, that the truth is going to come out," Satawa said.

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