Police clash with supporters of President Donald Trump during the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. (Alex Kent/Tennessee Lookout)
On the afternoon of Jan. 6, 2021, four men affiliated with the Kansas City chapter of the right-wing Proud Boys gathered on the west side of the U.S. Capitol, along with thousands of others urged on by then-President Donald Trump.
The crowd pushed ahead and overwhelmed the few Capitol Police officers guarding the entrance, toppling waist-high metal barriers and pressing into another police barrier closer to the building, according to court documents.
“You shoot and I’ll take your f***ing ass out!” William Chrestman, a 47-year-old Proud Boy from Johnson County, Kansas, clad in olive green body armor and carrying a wooden club wrapped in a blue flag, yelled at an officer, according to a probable cause affidavit.
Authorities arrested Chrestman, and his fellow Kansas City Proud Boys, all of whom pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial, after investigators pieced together that narrative — and hundreds more like it — from thousands of disturbing videos and photos of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
With the police battered and reeling on the day of the riot, few arrests were made and federal prosecutors have had to rely on recorded material. More than a year later, as national Republicans seek to downplay the attack on the Capitol as normal political debate, the Department of Justice continues to spend enormous amounts of time and energy pressing cases against insurrectionists from across the country who tried to overturn a presidential election with violence. The prosecutions appear destined to go on for months or even years yet. Two more people were arrested Wednesday.
Authorities have said in press releases that they have charged more than 725 attackers with federal crimes in connection with the January 2021 assault on the Capitol. The U.S. Justice Department maintains an online database that showed 696 defendants as of Thursday.
States Newsroom analyzed the court documents laying out cases against the 412 defendants from the 26 states with a States Newsroom outlet.
Of the defendants States Newsroom reviewed, more than 18% lived in Florida. Slightly fewer, 15.5%, had ties to Pennsylvania. All 26 states included in the sample had at least one defendant connected to the state.
Defendants in that sample are accused of a range of crimes, from seditious conspiracy and assaulting police officers to disorderly conduct and demonstrating in the Capitol. Many revealed themselves through their own boasts on social media.
Four rioters died that day. Ashli Babbitt was killed by a Capitol Police officer during a confrontation in the Speaker’s Lobby off the House floor. Three others died of natural causes.
Five police officers who were on duty at the Capitol that day also died. Brian Sicknick died of a stroke on Jan. 7 after being attacked with bear spray the day before. Four other officers later died by suicide.
Firearms were relatively rare among these 412 people, but defendants did wield weapons. Prosecutors say some rioters used bear spray or a similar irritant, or a blunt weapon such as a baseball bat, axe handle or, in the case of one defendant from Maryland, a lacrosse stick.
More than 165 people have pleaded guilty to charges connected to the attack, according to the DOJ. That leaves nearly 500 pending cases. The first trial, of Texas resident Guy Reffitt, began this week.
Of the defendants in the sample States Newsroom analyzed, 246 — nearly 60% — were identified by law enforcement through some social media, either their own or others, that placed them at the Capitol during the attack. Of the 412 defendants in the sample, 150 implicated themselves in their own social media.
Those numbers represent only cases in which prosecutors explicitly cited social media accounts in charging documents and likely undercount the actual figures. Many charging documents cite nonspecific videos or photographs of the defendants that plausibly came from social media.
William Calhoun, of Georgia, posted on Facebook on Jan. 6 that he was among “the first of us who got upstairs kicked in Nancy Pelosi’s office door and pushed down the hall toward her inner sanctum.”
“We physically took control of the Capitol Building in a hand to hand hostile takeover,” Calhoun, who pleaded not guilty, wrote, according to court documents. “We occupied the Capitol and shut down the Government — we shut down their stolen election shenanigans.”
The eagerness of participants to post their exploits to platforms like Facebook may show that the defendants believed themselves to be heroes.
“Their mentality was they’re very happy to participate in some sort of movement they really believe they were taking back their country,” Shan Wu, a criminal defense attorney and former federal prosecutor, said in an interview. “So social media was particularly valuable to mine.”
The Republican National Committee last month approved a resolution calling the events of Jan. 6 “legitimate political discourse.”
RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel later clarified that the resolution wasn’t meant to include those who committed violence, though that is not clear from the resolution itself.
But in the States Newsroom sample alone, 44 defendants — more than 10% — had ties to the Proud Boys or Oath Keepers, another extremist group that sought to disrupt the presidential transition.
That includes a group of 11 Oath Keepers, hailing from Florida, Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, New Jersey, Georgia, Arizona, Texas and Alabama, who were charged together in an indictment that alleges seditious conspiracy and 16 other charges.
A grand jury added the seditious conspiracy charge in January with a superseding indictment that named Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes as a defendant. Prosecutors say Rhodes, a Texas resident with ties to Montana, coordinated the group’s planning for the Capitol assault. Rhodes has pleaded not guilty.
Prosecutors say the group planned for weeks to travel to Washington heavily armed and sought to stop Congress from validating the Electoral College results of Joe Biden’s victory over Trump.
Joshua James, of Alabama, became the first of that group to plead guilty Wednesday.
Arizona siblings Felicia and Cory Konold joined the group of four Kansas City Proud Boys during the attack. The Konolds stayed close to Chrestman as the crowd overtook police on the Capitol’s west side, according to charging documents. The Konolds also pleaded not guilty.
The extremist groups viewed the attack, which caused an hours-long delay in the certification of the vote as the rioters overran the Capitol and members of Congress evacuated, as a success.
“We f***ing did it,” Felicia Konold said in a social media video that night.
Though charging documents allege the Oath Keepers discussed in detail plans for moving firearms close to the Washington, D.C., border to have them easily accessible, few rioters were charged with gun crimes.
Only two people in the States Newsroom sample, less than one-half of 1%, were charged with improper firearms possession.
Using the ‘normies’
With Trump holding a “stop the steal” rally in the morning, thousands of Trump supporters without ties to right-wing groups were in place to become part of a mob, Jon Lewis, a research fellow with George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, said.
“So much of the violence was alleged to have been done by individuals who had no real clear known named affiliation to any coherent, identified domestic violent extremist group,” Lewis said. “Individuals who were part of this stop the steal conspiracy or adherents to QAnon and kind of fell down that rabbit hole.”
“The government alleges that the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers were content to… ‘let the normies burn the city to the ground,’” Lewis said.
Felicia Konold bragged on social media later in the day about her role leading other rioters, authorities say.
“I never could (unintelligible) have imagined having that much of an influence on the events that unfolded today,” Konold said in a video recorded later on Jan. 6, according to court records. “Dude, people were willing to follow. You f***ing lead, and everyone had my back, dude.”
In his speech earlier in the day, Trump did his part to whip up the crowd, telling the supporters the election had been stolen by Democrats and media and urging them to “fight like hell” or “you won’t have a country anymore.”
“You will have an illegitimate president. That’s what you’ll have,” he told the crowd. “And we can’t let that happen.”
For prosecutors, the focus is on the leaders at the Capitol and those who committed violence, said Gregg Sofer, a former state and federal prosecutor now in private practice.
“That’s a much deeper dive than a trespass case where … there’s videotape of John and Jill sauntering through the Capitol, and really not doing anything else,” Sofer said.
Beating an officer with a crutch
Jack Wade Whitton, of Locust Grove, Georgia, had no ties to extremist groups. He didn’t post on social media that he planned to stop the election certification.
But he engaged in one of the more violent episodes of the day on the Capitol’s lower West Terrace, prosecutors say.
He used a crutch to beat one Capitol Police officer and kicked another.
He told an officer, “You’re going to die tonight.”
Afterward, he boasted of his bloody hands and that he “fed an officer to the people,” according to court documents.
Whitton’s defense in an April 2021 hearing over whether he would be released pending trial argued his actions were at least in part due to being part of a hive.
“This was a very rare and unusual event that is not likely to reoccur, hopefully ever, obviously, in our country’s history,” his attorney, Benjamin Alper said. “There’s a reason why we have the phrase ‘mob mentality,’ because crazy things happen when these events occur.”
Whitton has pleaded not guilty.
Coast to coast
George Washington University’s data shows the most defendants overall came from Florida, followed by Texas and Pennsylvania.
Only one defendant in the States Newsroom review had any connection to Nebraska, and none lived in the state at the time of the attack.
Brandon Straka, a pro-Trump online influencer with a substantial online following, has lived in New York City since at least 2018, but was arrested in Omaha weeks after the siege. He grew up in rural Nebraska, according to his website.
In Jan. 6 tweets he later deleted, Straka urged the rioters to “hold the line” and bemoaned a perceived loss in enthusiasm for the riot. Prosecutors recorded the tweets before they were deleted.
“I’m completely confused,” he tweeted. “For 6-8 weeks everybody on the right has been saying ‘1776!’ & that if congress moves forward it will mean a revolution! …now everybody is virtual signaling their embarrassment that this happened.”
Straka also responded to a falsehood that took place in some conservative circles following the attack — that the pro-Trump attack was infiltrated by members of the loosely organized radical leftist group known as antifa who sparked most of the violence
“Also- be embarrassed & hide if you need to- but I was there,” he wrote. “It was not Antifa at the Capitol. It was freedom loving Patriots who were DESPERATE to fight for the final hope of our Republic because literally nobody cares about them. Everyone else can denounce them. I will not.”
Straka pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge.
Loyalty to Trump
Vocal Trump supporters comprised the mob. MAGA apparel, Trump campaign flags and other signals of their connection to Trump flooded the landscape of the day.
As pro-Trump as the group was, it was almost equally against his political opponents. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, was perhaps the most frequent target of threats.
In a video depicting Coloradan Hunter Palm walking through a Capitol hallway, a crowd can be heard calling for “Nancy,” in an apparent reference to Pelosi, authorities said. “One individual shouts ‘Where are you?,’ and another can be heard stating ‘We’re gonna kill her.’”
Palm, accused of obstruction of Congress and other charges, has pleaded not guilty.
The charging documents provide an insight into how much influence Trump exerted over the group — and how an earlier call for the group to disperse could have quelled much of the day’s threat.
Pamela Hemphill, a Boise resident, posted to Facebook in late 2020 that she planned to travel to Washington for the Trump rally on Jan. 6. It would not be “a FUN Trump rally,” she wrote, but “a WAR.”
Despite her rhetoric, Hemphill is not alleged to have been on the front lines of skirmishes with police or committed any other violence. She pleaded guilty to parading, demonstrating or picketing in the Capitol, a misdemeanor.
After arriving in Washington on Jan. 5, she told several people at an outdoor event that night that Trump would remain president.
She stayed inside the Capitol for nine minutes before asking for help out because she feared injury from the crowd, according to a statement of facts she signed as part of a guilty plea.
She remained on the steps outside for more than half an hour, taking video of the riot and talking with others, according to the statement.
She left when other rioters told her Trump had tweeted they should go home.
“When Trump says something, I listen,” she said.
Correction: An earlier version of this report misstated the first name of Pamela Hemphill of Boise.
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