The feds have seized most of the most viral figures of the insurrection. The QAnon Shaman. The Confederate flag flaunter. The guys with the flex cuffs. The man who sat in Vice President Mike Pence’s seat. The Texas realtor who flew to the insurrection on a private plane. The West Virginia lawmaker who livestreamed his crime. Far-right attention-seeker “Baked Alaska.”
But as a massive team of federal agents works on one of the most wide-spanning federal investigations in the country’s history, prosecutors are beginning to expand their body of cases beyond the “low-hanging fruit” prosecutions of insurrectionists who openly bragged about their crimes online or wore eye-popping outfits that made them internet famous and easily identifiable.
Authorities have a breathtaking amount of evidence against the defendants who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, after being told to march there by outgoing President Donald Trump, who had convinced them the presidential election had been stolen with his delusional lies about mass voter fraud. The Jan. 6 insurrection took at least five lives, including that of a Capitol Police officer.
Some of the cases, especially against the violent insurrectionists who didn’t openly brag about their exploits online, will be a bit tougher to piece together.
Authorities still haven’t caught the person who covered their face when they planted suspected pipe bombs near the Republican National Committee and Democratic National Committee offices near the Capitol, which distracted law enforcement authorities from responding to the protest that quickly turned into a mob scene.
“Initially, we were looking to fix, find, and charge the low-hanging fruit, the individuals that we could easily round up and charge,” Acting U.S. Attorney Michael Sherwin told reporters Friday.
“If this investigation was a football game, we’d still be in the first quarter,” said Steven D’Antuono, the assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Washington Field Office. “We will leave no stone unturned until we locate and apprehend anyone who participated in the violence.”
The FBI is investigating more than 300 people who took part in criminal activity that day, and the number is only expected to grow. The scope of the investigation is breathtaking, and the prosecutions would’ve been astonishingly simple had the perpetrators been arrested on the scene instead of allowed to walk off and return to their homes.
Though it’s taken a lot more work, many of the defendants are now being captured. The feds are getting thousands of tips from their friends, family, neighbors, old Facebook acquaintances and independent Internet sleuths. The evidence against them has come from every social media platform, including Facebook, TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram, Parler and YouTube.
Some defendants, having realized their extensive criminal exposure because of their actions on Jan. 6, are lawyering up and turning themselves in, hoping they’ll catch a break at sentencing because they proactively came forward and cooperated and didn’t make law enforcement hunt them down.
“We’re not cutting deals with anyone, even if people are self-reporting, they will be held accountable. But obviously we encourage those people to self-report because they could usually, at the end of the day, get some benefit that other people do not if they do not cooperate with law enforcement,” Sherwin said.
Others are signing themselves up for additional federal charges in their efforts to cover up their crimes. One defendant, who stormed the Capitol with a GoPro strapped to his helmet, allegedly threatened his family members if they turned him in, telling his son he would “do what he had to do” if his son reported him to the police and threatening to “put a bullet through” his daughter’s phone. “If you turn me in, you’re a traitor and you know what happens to traitors ... traitors get shot,” he reportedly said. (That effort failed; law enforcement arrested him on Monday.)
The feds are also very focused on finding the identify of a woman in a pink hat and sunglasses who was giving insurrectionists who had breached the Capitol building directions on what to do and where to go. While most FBI wanted posters for the Capitol insurrectionists have featured multiple suspects, the FBI put out a poster that solely featured the insurrectionist that internet sleuths have identified as “Bullhorn Lady.”
It’s still unclear how wide of a net the feds will ultimately cast. Right now, they seem primarily focused on the defendants who made entry into the interior of the U.S. Capitol or violently tried to push their way into the building. But anyone who crossed the police barrier and made their way onto the western steps of the Capitol or the platform where President-elect Joe Biden will be sworn in also has criminal exposure.
One recent case illustrates how wide the feds could go, and why anyone who crossed the barrier also has something to worry about. Over the weekend, the feds unveiled charges against New Mexico Commissioner Couy Griffin, the founder of an organization called “Cowboys for Trump.”
Griffin, the feds said, posted about how he went to the top of the Capitol steps on Jan. 6, and said that he had plans to go back on Jan. 20. Griffin, incorrectly, said that the mob had the right to be on the stairs, and said that Trump supporters “will plant our flag on the desk of Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer and Donald J. Trump if it boils down to it.”
When interviewed by FBI special agents, Griffin said he was “caught up” in the crowd, but told them that he remained on the steps of the Capitol and did not enter the building. By stating that he was on the steps, Griffin was admitting to criminal activity, and conceded that he committed “minor trespassing.” He provided the FBI with his video footage, and told them that he was hopeful that a change in leadership would be accomplished “without a single shot being fired,” but said that there’s “no option that’s off the table for the sake of freedom.” He’s now facing charges.