Some neighbors know James Nichols as an organic farmer about as quiet as the tiny Michigan town where he lives. They’d hear him gripe about taxes and the government, but never anything too serious.
Some know his younger brother, Terry, as the rebel. He tinkered with bombs, wrote letters renouncing his voting rights and objected to driver’s licenses and license plates.
But no one in Decker, Mich., was prepared Friday when the brothers came under investigation in the bombing of the federal office building in Oklahoma City.
“It’s just scary when you see something like that happening in Oklahoma and all of a sudden, they are a half-mile from your house,” said one friend and neighbor, Roy Hull.
Agents and local authorities began searching the farm of 41-year-old James Nichols on Friday, the same day Terry Nichols, 40, surrendered to authorities in Herington, Kan., where he lives.
On Saturday, federal authorities said the brothers were being held as material witnesses.
Timothy McVeigh, 27, was charged Friday in the bombing, and listed James Nichols as his next of kin during booking, according to an FBI affidavit.
Neighbors said McVeigh lived part of last year in James Nichols’ large, white farmhouse, often driving his car around town loaded with guns for sale. One friend said he believed Terry Nichols and McVeigh served together in the military.
Some said they knew the Nichols brothers attended meetings of the citizens group For The People and of the Michigan Militia - a paramilitary group that believes the government has outgrown its limits and violated the Constitution.
“(James) is concerned about people losing their rights. He’s really concerned with property tax issues,” said neighbor Frank Kieltyka. “When he filled out a loan from the bank he didn’t give his Social Security number. His privacy is his business.”
Nichols marks his money with a stamp that states he isn’t responsible for backing up its value, Bill Brown, a fertilizer dealer in Cass City, told the Detroit Free Press.
Neighbor John Gillig, 26, said James Nichols tried to get him to join a right-wing group called the Patriots about a year ago.
“He told me I should go to the meetings and that they were going to set the federal government straight,” said Gillig.
He and other neighbors said James Nichols sent back his Social Security card, renounced his U.S. citizenship and refused to carry a driver’s license, more than once ending up in court for driving without one.
“I always tried to avoid him,” Gillig said.
Hull said that Terry Nichols was “the type of guy who could do anything.”
“I have seen him make a bomb in the past. He could make a bomb in five minutes,” Hull said.
He said about five or six years ago, he saw Terry Nichols make and detonate a bomb in a field, making a hole in the ground about 5 feet wide.
In 1992, Terry wrote to the clerk of Sanilac County’s Evergreen Township, renouncing his right to vote.
“I didn’t know he was off the deep end like this until I got this letter,” said the clerk, Arthur Severance.