Lansing — As they allegedly plotted to storm and attack the Michigan Capitol, at least four of the 13 individuals identified by authorities attended rallies at the building earlier this year, according to law enforcement and others at the events.
Carrying firearms, brothers Michael Null, 38, of Plainwell and William Null, 38, of Shelbyville were among a group of militia members who stood on the Capitol steps during an April 30 demonstration against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s COVID-19 restrictions, said Michelle Gregoire of Battle Creek, a member of one Michigan militia.
Gregoire said she had met the Nulls multiple times.
“They never came off as these ‘screw the government, we’re going to take it over’ type of people,” Gregoire said.
Along with members of a group called the Wolverine Watchmen, William Null and Michael Null allegedly went on to aid “in physical surveillance” of Whitmer’s vacation home in northern Michigan as a plan was being hatched to kidnap her.
The Nulls are each charged with providing material support for terrorist acts, which can bring up to 20 years in prison, and carrying or possessing a firearm during the commission of a felony, which can bring a two-year penalty.
They are two of 13 individuals whom authorities identified Thursday as they revealed plots to target law enforcement officials, storm the Michigan Capitol building and kidnap Whitmer, the state’s Democratic governor.
The men were quietly training and discussing their plans as unrest and protests stirred in Michigan over Whitmer’s efforts to stem the spread of COVID-19.
One of the largest demonstrations was the event on April 30 that the Nulls attended. It featured dozens of armed protesters venturing inside the Michigan Capitol and chanting, “Let us in,” outside the Michigan House chamber as lawmakers met inside.
But there were other demonstrations as well this year, including a pro-militia rally on the evening of June 18. That event drew Adam Fox, 37, of Potterville and Ty Garbin, 24, of Hartland, two others involved in the plot against Whitmer, according to a criminal complaint filed Thursday in federal court.
During the rally, pro-militia demonstrators verbally clashed with a group of individuals protesting police brutality.
Ryan Kelley, an organizer of the “American Patriot Rally,” said he was “totally surprised” by the criminal charges announced Thursday. Kelley said he had met William and Michael Null at one of the rallies but had no other communication with them.
Gregoire said she had encountered the Nulls multiple times and met Fox previously. Fox rubbed her the wrong way, and she tried to stay away from him, she said.
In photographs from a past demonstration, the Null brothers appear to be wearing Michigan Liberty Militia logos on their clothes. But Gregoire said she’s not sure that the Nulls were still part of the group.
As for the Wolverine Watchmen organization, which authorities say is at the center of the plot, Gregoire said she had never heard of the group before Thursday.
“Who the hell are the Wolverine Watchmen?” she said of her reaction to the announcements the day earlier.
There are about 13 militia groups in Michigan, said Gregoire, who is involved with one called Home Guard. Its website describes the group as “Michigan’s largest and most active militia.”
“We are dedicated to each other and training to be prepared for tyranny, social discord, natural disasters or anything else that may arise,” the website adds.
Of the individuals arrested this week, Gregoire noted one of them had an anarchist flag and some were talking about harming police officers.
“That is not what a militia does, at all,” she said.
Most militias train people to survive in the woods and provide First Aid care, she said. They also shoot weapons, she acknowledged.
The Wolverine Watchmen “flew under the radar,” said Jon Lewis, a research fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University.
“This is simply not a big group that we’d ever heard of,” Lewis told The Detroit News on Thursday. “I know anecdotally there are a lot of militia organizations operating both nationally and in Michigan, but this one has not popped up in our research.”
Staff Writer George Hunter contributed.