What happened when the ABC met two of the men charged over a plot to kidnap Michigan’s Governor Gretchen Whitmer
They were armed to the teeth and looked mean as hell, but it wasn’t clear if they were the real deal, or just playing dress-ups.
We met brothers Michael and William Null while filming Life and Liberty, a documentary for Foreign Correspondent on ABC.
In fact, we went along to a shooting range with them and filmed them loading high-capacity magazines into semi-automatic assault weapons and firing them off at targets.
William helpfully explained to me what a hollow-point bullet, which expands on impact, would do to a human body.
Now they’re both facing up to 20 years in prison on terrorism- and gang-related charges over an alleged plot to storm the Michigan state capitol building and kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer.
Police allege the Null brothers and five others were members of a Michigan militia group called Wolverine Watchmen.
State and federal officials claim members of the group twice conducted surveillance at Gretchen Whitmer’s personal holiday home in northern Michigan, and discussed abducting her and taking her to a secure location to stand “trial” for treason.
It’s claimed they provided support for six others who are facing federal charges after an FBI sting operation.
The Null brothers have both been charged with providing material support for terrorist acts, a crime which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.
They’re also charged with carrying a firearm while committing a felony, which carries a two-year maximum prison sentence.
During two separate brushes with the Null brothers, I spent most of the time trying to work out if they were the real deal or just playing dress-ups on the weekend.
The FBI and state police clearly think it’s the former.
Not the kind of people you’d argue with
We first met them in June, at an “open carry” rally at the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing.
This is the same place where, a few months earlier, heavily armed protesters gained access to the Capitol building to rail against the coronavirus lockdowns.
Once inside, they vented their fury at the politicians who had ordered the restrictions, especially Governor Whitmer, because they saw it as a stomp on their constitutional freedoms.
President Donald Trump seemed to back their cause and may have even spurred them on with a tweet a few weeks earlier urging his followers to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!”.
The rally we attended in June was called A Well Regulated Militia and the theme was much the same.
It involved several hundred heavily-armed citizens rallying around a general anti-tyrant theme.
Governor Whitmer was their primary target.
They were also railing against the ongoing, and often destructive, Black Lives Matter protests raging around the country.
And judging by the number of MAGA hats and Trump flags and those we spoke to directly, almost all of them were ardent supporters of Mr Trump.
On that day, the Nulls were there under the banner of Michigan Liberty Militia (MLM), another one of the estimated 300 militia groups active in the United States today.
We were introduced to them by Phil Robinson, the spokesman of Michigan Liberty Militia and one of our primary contacts on the day. Mr Robinson has not been linked to any of the alleged plots outlined this week.
Both of them are very big, bearded men, 120 kilograms at least.
William sported a ponytail, with the sides of his head shaved bald.
He carried two semi-automatic rifles, a pistol and enough ammunition to fight off a small army, with a hunting knife thrown in for good measure.
Michael wore a cap and carried a semi-automatic rifle with a telescopic sight on it.
Both had radios connected to earpieces.
They didn’t look like the kind of people you’d argue with.
But they were friendly enough with us and had no issues with us sticking cameras in their faces.
They just didn’t want to say anything on the record.
Brothers didn’t seem interested in instigating violence
We were told the Michigan Liberty Militia was there to help provide security in case things got out of hand.
As it turned out, things did get very tense when Black Lives Matter protesters marched, fists in the air, into the middle of the group and lay down on the ground with their hands behind their backs, in reference to the killing of George Floyd.
When some of the militia members started hurling abuse at the protesters, William and Michael Null stood close by, in an apparent attempt to ensure things didn’t get physical.
Indeed, when one particularly hyped-up member of the pro-militia crowd started jumping up and down, screaming “Let’s go! Let’s do it!” at the counter-protesters, William Null sidled up to him, seeking to calm him down.
He tried to explain that, with the cameras rolling, it wasn’t a good look for the pro-militia protesters to be seen as the aggressors.
The Null brothers didn’t seem like the kind of people interested in instigating violence against anyone, no matter how angry they were about their God-given rights.
‘I feel tension’
A few days later, we caught up with the Michigan Liberty Militia again.
Spokesman Phil Robinson had agreed to allow us to film him and a few of the others firing off rounds at a shooting range near Grand Rapids, Michigan.
William and Michael were there and in good spirits.
We filmed them loading shell after shell after shell into high-capacity magazines, while they laughed about their escapades the night before: something about a digger and running through the woods.
William was wearing a crude shirt featuring a round of ammunition with the words “Just the tip. I promise.”
I know a little about guns but not much, so I was asking about some of the hardware they were using.
William demonstrated how the mechanism for a semi-automatic rifle magazine was actually very simple and easy to repair.
“It’s just a spring and a couple of clips and you’re ready to go,” he said.
Michael helped explain the difference between “home defence” and “target” rounds.
It turns out home defence rounds, also called “hollow-points”, expand on impact.
I asked what it would do in a human body.
“It just makes a bigger hole,” he told me casually.
“When it goes in it expands out. But it’s also meant not to go through.”
He explained that, in an enclosed space, you don’t want the bullet passing through a person and potentially bouncing off walls because you “could hit the next guy or an innocent person”.
They obligingly fired off their weapons for our cameras, before I sat down to interview Mr Robinson about the group.
I wanted to know how serious they were about physically fighting for their rights, amid all the alarmingly casual talk of a looming civil war.
I wanted to know when the talking would stop and the shooting would begin.
Mr Robinson was cagey.
“I feel tension, but I will never be the one who starts it,” he said.
When asked if there’d be violence if Mr Trump lost the election, he replied: “Not from me, there wouldn’t be. But possibly from other people.”
It was clear he was keenly aware of the potential danger that comes with speaking openly about armed insurrection, when you’re a member of a militia group.
According to the FBI case files, two of his mates with us that day weren’t so savvy.