According to court papers, Null was part of a group that called itself the Wolverine Watchmen, and they engaged in regular firearms training and discussed a variety of potential attacks on law enforcement, the state capital complex, and the governor.
Leaf — who knew Null to be the founder of a different group called the Michigan Liberty Militia — said he was generally supportive of self-styled militias, which he said often grow in numbers when people feel their rights are threatened. He sought to distinguish what such groups do from the allegations against Null and the others.
“There’s your militia duties, and if they did what they’re accused of doing, those are not militia duties,” said the sheriff, adding he was shocked by the charges. “I did not see this coming. Had I caught wind they were even talking about this, I would have stopped it immediately.”
Leaf said he occasionally ran into Null at Second Amendment rallies in the state, and was introduced to his brother, Michael, who was also charged Thursday. The sheriff said William Null “seemed to be a very concerned, straight-shooting guy.” During the Flint water crisis, Leaf said Null told him he drove to Flint to pass out water bottles alongside those involved in the Black Lives Matter movement. He said Null’s group also met with Black Lives Matter supporters at a Grand Rapids protest and “were chasing out the agitators so they could have a peaceful protest.”
Since the arrests, Leaf has faced criticism not just for his past public support of Null and his compatriots but also for his suggestion, first made in an interview with a local Fox reporter, that the defendants might have been trying to make a citizen’s arrest of the governor.
“The point is that, were they going to arrest her, which they legally can, they can legally make a felony arrest . . . It was just trying to make a point of why we cannot jump to conclusions,” he said, adding later, “If there was ever a regret, that would be the statement, because it does not communicate well.”
Michigan’s history of groups like the Wolverine Watchmen has long vexed law enforcement officials.
In the more than two decades that Andrew Arena worked as an FBI agent in Michigan before retiring from the Bureau in 2012, “the 64 million dollar question,” he said, “was always: Why Michigan?
“We had representatives of every known right-wing, white supremacist, anti-government group out there. And why Michigan, we just could never tell,” said Arena, who now teaches at Western Michigan University’s Thomas M. Cooley Law School. “But obviously you got to deal with it.”
Michigan was one of the early strongholds of what was called “the militia movement,” which arose in the 1990s, and has typically manifested as paramilitary groups — often with no more than 10 or 12 members — that oppose the U.S. government, and believe it is actively involved in a conspiracy to seize Americans’ guns and enslave the American people to a new world order.
The state was home to the Michigan Militia, one of the largest groups to form within the movement, and which has since splintered. And more infamously, Michigan was also the plotting ground for Oklahoma City bombers Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, whose anti-government and racist ideology drove their 1995 attack, which left 168 people dead.
Emily Grattan, a 20-year-old resident of Hartland, Mich., where FBI agents on Wednesday arrested one of the suspects, Ty Garbin, at a mobile home park, said she had little sense growing up that anyone in her conservative town could be secretly plotting against the state government, but there was always an undercurrent of extreme beliefs.
“I do know that there are many people where I’m from that are very extremist and they definitely voice their opinions of hating the governor and wanting her thrown out of office,” she said.
Across Michigan, an awareness of extremist groups that call themselves militias — and a shared mistrust of Washington — has for decades been a pervasive theme for many white Michiganders, particularly in the rural swaths of the state outside of metropolitan Detroit, Ann Arbor and Lansing, residents say.
The arrests of this past week have thrown a fresh spotlight on that history and culture. The ideologies and behaviors outlined in court documents, in many ways, are “very similar” to those of the Oklahoma City bombers, Arena said.
Today’s network of right-wing extremist groups in the United States is vast, and easily confusing. Mark Pitcavage, a senior researcher at the Anti-Defamation League, prefers to group them into two main spheres: white supremacist and anti-government. There is also sometimes overlap, and drawing set definitions of individuals or groups can be misleading.
“If you get hung up on the groups, you will greatly underestimate the number of militia-related people in Michigan or anywhere,” Pitcavage said. Social media has made formal membership in a particular group or cause less necessary, he said.
“You can imbibe an ideology, and network with other people, and even participate in real world events, thanks to the Internet,” he said, and the groups that do exist are often short-lived or constantly changing.
The group that the Null brothers allegedly belonged to, the Wolverine Watchmen, appears to have formed just last year. And the Michigan Militia, formerly one of the most formidable in the national landscape, splintered years ago over divisions on white supremacy. The largest outgrowth of that split currently calls itself the Southeast Michigan Volunteer Militia, Pitcavage said.
A movement whose ideology is built on a fundamental mistrust of government broadly embraced President Trump during his run for office in 2015 and 2016, as he seemed to subscribe to many of the same conspiracy theories.
But Trump’s transformation from outsider to insider, at the helm of the federal government, has created a conundrum for the groups, Pitcavage said.
“The fact that he won meant that they could not maintain their angry focus on the federal government to the degree they had previously because Donald Trump, who they loved, was at the head of it. So they’ve been focusing on different things: antifa, immigrants,” Pitcavage said. And in 2020, especially, state government policies — particularly in states headed by Democrats.