HASTINGS, MI — An organized protest against Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf may have been canceled over safety concerns, but that didn’t stop residents from showing up to show support or denounce the sheriff.
Individuals and crowds of people began to gather more than an hour before Tuesday morning’s Barry County Board of Commissioners meeting to express their views on the sheriff and, if space allowed, get inside the meeting to voice their opinions.
Leaf came under fire for having shared the stage at a Grand Rapids rally in May with militia members, including one who’s since been arrested for the alleged governor-kidnapping plot, and for controversial comments he made after the arrests last week.
With capacity limits maxed out indoors due to social distancing protocols, some 40 people listened from speakers outside the community foundation center as public comment was given Oct. 13.
More spoke in favor of the sheriff than against, as nearly a dozen individuals praised his constitutionality, loyalty and dedication to the community, many doing so to much applause.
Related: Michigan sheriff accepts criticism of association with militia members, will not resign
Leaf supporter Joel Ibbotson said he knew many people who vehemently oppose Leaf’s personal politics, but publicly advocate for him as sheriff.
“Simply put, his personal politics do not get in the way of his public duty to the Constitution of the United States,” Ibbotson said. “He was elected constitutionality by we the people and has run the office in a way to serve the people not to arrest them.”
Olivia Bennett, who organized the protest against Leaf, asked commissioners to pass a resolution asking for Leaf’s resignation.
Bennett, who is transgender, spoke using her legal name, Cody Hayes.
“Unlike others in my county, I believe safety to be of the utmost importance,” she said. “I think this really paints a picture for where we are at in this county; a state of fear of speaking out against powerful figures such as Dar Leaf which ultimately lead to intimidation practices and potential violence.”
Bennett pointed to comments made by the sheriff last week suggesting that the men arrested for their roles in the alleged plot to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer — two whom he knows personally — were only trying to arrest Whitmer and not kidnap her.
Related: Calls intensify for resignation of Michigan sheriff who shared stage with militia
State and federal officials have charged 13 men with various offenses related to the alleged coup plotted against Whitmer, an elaborate scheme that involved months of planning and even rehearsals to kidnap the governor from her vacation home. Seven of the suspects are facing charges on the state level, while the other six are federally charged.
“These people had all the intentions of harming the governor, starting a civil war and harming law enforcement and Mr. Leaf provided them with a defense,” Bennett said. “I believe a sheriff who doesn’t condemn kidnapping attempts on government officials has no place in law enforcement.”
Barry County Prosecutor Julie Nakfoor Pratt, who was not in attendance at the meeting, issued a statement expressing concerns over Leaf’s recent remarks regarding citizen arrests.
“Sheriff Leaf is not a lawyer, nor is he licensed to practice law in the State of Michigan, yet he inaccurately cited a law that is inapplicable and is meant to aid the very citizens and law enforcement he is sworn to protect,” Nakfoor Pratt said.
“As a prosecutor, I find this concerning. There is no logical, legal or ethical basis for statements that defend or condone behavior that threatens the safety of Governor Whitmer, fellow law enforcement, or any other citizen in this country.”
Leaf who, when asked by Commissioner Ben Geiger, shot down the notion that he believed citizens should take the law into their own hands, said after the meeting he would not be resigning.
Among those speaking on his behalf was Yankee Springs resident Arnie Rodriguez, who said when Leaf spoke out against following Whitmer’s orders in May, it wasn’t the sheriff who wasn’t following the law, but as the Michigan State Supreme Court recently ruled, it was the governor.
Related: Michigan sheriff says Gov. Whitmer’s stay-at-home order is akin to mass arrest
At the May 18 Michigan Patriots Rally at Rosa Parks Circle in Grand Rapids, Leaf compared the governor’s stay-at-home orders to being held unlawfully under house arrest. At the rally, he stood alongside one of the men, William Null, accused in the alleged plot to kidnap Whitmer.
Those actions, along with others, have proven to show the sheriff has aligned himself with militia groups and extremist individuals who attend those types of rallies, said Scott Savage of Hastings Township.
Savage, who said the sheriff enables and encourages militia members, accused Leaf of speaking in other jurisdictions while in uniform to intentionally “lend an increased legitimacy to the cause.”
“Very few militia members align themselves with the guys that were part of this conspiracy thing,” countered Mike Marlow. “Most militia members are freedom loving, American loving constitutionalists and patriots and are the last line of defense in case civil order breaks down. And Dar Leaf, I respect him very much.”
Marlow wasn’t the only Leaf supporter upset about the notion that all militia groups “too often get lumped together.”
“I know some of these militia people because they come to some of the events that I have been speaking at and I’ve never had any problems with them,” said Kent County conservative Mark Gurley. “But this group that was arrested didn’t really line up with what I’ve seen from a well-regulated militia.”
Gurley, who was behind a 2015 billboard in opposition to gay marriage that stated “homosexuality is a behavior, not a civil right,” said he has hosted largescale conservative events in Grand Rapids opposing the Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS where he has hired Leaf’s deputies to run security.
He’s done so, he said, “because they knew what they were doing, were well-trained and they understood the constitution and they understood what it meant to be American.”
Barry County residents Johnny DeMay and Christina Bush both said they are afraid Leaf’s recent rhetoric may lead to domestic terrorists or militia members seeking refuge or taking up roots in Barry County, however.
“Tens of thousands of individuals live, work and play in Barry County and the safety of these individuals is paramount to the proper functioning of our community,” DeMay said. “The sheriff has exhibited a dangerous pattern specifically toward these militia members who have been charged with statewide terrorism.”
Hastings resident Jean Ann Wahl-Piotrowski did not speak at the meeting but arrived early, carrying a sign outside that read “Words Matter, Actions Matter, Facts Matter.”
She said Leaf’s words dating back to May when he spoke out at Rosa Parks Circle in Grand Rapids are words that embolden those he surrounds himself with.
“The company that we keep says a lot about us,” Wahl-Piotrowski said. “Seeing the armed terrorists at the capital shouting in the face of law enforcement, everyone in the state saw that. To say that kind of action is OK and to stand and support people who are continuing those kinds of actions is totally inappropriate.”
Nancy Hammond, of Hastings, added that people need to reserve judgement on those accused in the domestic terrorist plot until due process occurs.
She was angered though, “because Sheriff Leaf refused to condemn the actions of men he is being condemned. Because he refused to comment of guilt of men, he’s under attack.
“Dar is a constitutionalist, and many of us are and we support him and we appreciate what he has done for this community,” she said. “He has integrity. He has loyalty. He is honest and he serves our community and he serves his church.”
Leaf said after the meeting he would not speak directly to the criticism he’s faced in recent days.
“I’m not going to comment on criticism, I’m going to take it,” he told MLive.
Also on MLive:
Sheriff who shared stage with militia defends their rights but not alleged governor kidnapping plot
What we know about men accused in Whitmer kidnapping plot
Plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, kill ‘tyrants,’ revealed in court filing