Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf said he was unaware of the planned crimes. But his apparently friendly relationship with members of the armed group suggests that there may be blind spots for local law enforcement.
After 13 men were charged related to the conspiracy, Leaf said some of their actions could have been lawful.
Leaf told WXMI, “So are you trying to arrest or was it an attempted kidnapping? Because you can still arrest a crime in Michigan if it is a crime.”
He continued, “And (it) does not say, if you are in elected office, that you are exempt from this arrest. So I have to look at it from that angle. And I hope that it is more like it is. “
Leaf said the terror allegations against twin brothers Michael and William Null and eleven others had not been proven and deserved the presumption of innocence. “In fact, these guys are innocent until proven guilty. I̵
William and Michael Null and five others are charged by the state with providing material support for acts of terrorism and carrying or possessing a firearm while committing a crime. Six other men are charged by the federal government.
The brothers, who are accused of acting as lookouts while monitoring Whitmer’s vacation home, are arrested. The bond was set at $ 250,000. Neither of them have made a case so far, and hearings on likely reasons are scheduled for October 14th. CNN’s requests for comments to their lawyers received no response.
Leaf did not respond to multiple attempts to contact him. Barry County is located in southwest Michigan between Grand Rapids, Lansing, and Kalamazoo.
In his WXMI interview, Leaf appeared not only to be saying that Michigan’s criminal code allowed citizens to arrest officials, but also gave the men recognition as part of an armed group known as the Wolverine Watchmen.
“Well, you look at the militia itself and the origins of the militia,” Leaf told WXMI. “You have more legal position in this country than the authorities who arrested you.”
On Tuesday, the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association issued a statement condemning Leaf’s words.
“It is frankly disheartening that any law enforcement officer in the service of his oath at all times can react this way,” said Matt Saxton, group CEO. “His comments were dangerous, and let me be clear, there is nothing about this alleged conspiracy that can be construed as legal, moral, or American.”
Militias and the law
Leaf’s comments point to the long and deep relationship between some sheriffs and self-styled militias, particularly in Michigan.
Participants and state and federal officials often refer to these groups as “militias” but do not meet the standard of being a group of citizens who are enrolled for military service, regularly called up for exercises, but only serve full-time in emergencies.
The second amendment speaks of a “well-regulated militia” in its gun law codification, but the Supreme Court ruled twice – in 1886 and in 2008 – that this did not prevent bans on private paramilitary organizations.
The Michigan constitution prohibits private military units operating outside of state authority provided that “the military is strictly subordinate to civil power in all cases and at all times”.
Even so, there is a history of coziness between these armed groups and county sheriffs, said a former FBI member who spoke to CNN on condition of anonymity.
“The sheriffs are the only ones they trust because they were duly elected,” said the former agent who was investigating Michigan.
“One of their biggest worries is that the government will come for their weapons.”
Amy Cooter, who teaches sociology at Vanderbilt University, studies extremist groups, says the relationships are in part because elected sheriffs need support from their constituencies.
“It has been true since the early 1990s that sheriffs in many places in Michigan have had cooperative relationships with militias,” she said. “You can ask them to search for missing people or at other times as an extra force.”
And when some sheriffs see value in civil groups, respect goes the other way too.
Norman Olson, who then called himself the Michigan militia commander, told US Senators in a 1995 judiciary subcommittee that local sheriffs were the only authority he recognized.
“We will submit to the rightful historical authority that the county sheriff is. He is indeed the commander of the local militia and when a situation arises that we would be represented in,” Olson said in the post-bombing hearing was called on Oklahoma City killing 168 people.
Legislators tried to get to the bottom of the anti-government sentiment that led Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols to bomb Alfred P. Murrah’s federal building.
In 1995, a relative of Nichols said he was a former member of the Michigan militia. And Cooter told CNN that she learned from members of the group that McVeigh had met with them.
Olson, dubbed the “godfather of the Michigan militia” by the former FBI agent, is no longer believed to be associated with extremist movements in Michigan.
Sheriff: These are grave charges
After a backlash to his apparent defense of the zeros, including calling for his resignation, he spoke to WXMI again.
“The actions are terrible, but we cannot try this in the media or public opinion right now,” he said. “Clarifying is what I’m doing here. I don’t want anyone to think I understand these allegations, okay? These are very serious allegations.”
There is concern among federal law enforcement officials that labor relations may blind local justice officials to the potential risks posed by the vigilante forces, who generally have an extreme dislike, sometimes hate, for state and federal governments and their agents.
The FBI said it became implicated in the activities that grew into the alleged Whitmer abduction plan when members of an armed group tried to track down the addresses of local law enforcement officers.
Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, which tracks and alarms extremist activity, says controversial election cycles like the one we are in can spark outbreaks.
“The potential for violent conflict in connection with the elections is quite high both during the vote and in the days, weeks and months after election day,” Greenblatt told CNN.
“A number of possible scenarios suggest that a controversial election or narrow victory for a (presidential) candidate could lead to both a constitutional and political crisis that extremist groups are likely to exploit.”
In his previous comments on William Null, Leaf told WXMI, “There’s a little relationship there. It’s not someone I’ve ever had lunch with or anything.”
He said he met the Zero Brothers when the Black Lives Matter movement began.
“They started a ‘My Lives Matter’ and came into my office,” Leaf told WXMI.
While they were named as members of the Wolverine Watchmen, Leaf understood that they were part of a group they called the Michigan Liberty Militia.
Leaf said he would hit zeros on political events. In May, as the FBI was setting up its undercover case, Leaf took to the stage with William Null to protest pandemic shutdowns dubbed the “America Patriot Rally – Sheriffs Speak Out”.
“Every now and then I would meet these people like at a rally and they are always, always very nice, indeed very excited to see their sheriff,” Leaf told WXMI.
“They come out and shake their hands, shake my hand. And sometimes they hug me with an arm and a big old bear.”
CNN’s Julia Jones contributed to this story.