Records show fervent Trump fans fueled US Capitol takeover
WASHINGTON (AP) — They came from across America, summoned by President Donald Trump to march on Washington in support of his false claim that the November election was stolen and to stop the congressional certification of Democrat Joe Biden as the victor.
“Big protest in D.C. on January 6th,” Trump tweeted a week before Christmas. “Be there, will be wild!”
The resulting takeover and looting of the U.S. Capitol building by an armed mob of Trump supporters shook the foundations of American democracy and resulted in five deaths. Trump could become the first president in history to face impeachment for a second time.
But within hours of Wednesday’s violent attack, some of Trump’s most ardent supporters sought to shift blame to left-wing antifa thugs they claimed without evidence had disguised themselves with red MAGA hats and Trump flags.
“If the reports are true,” Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., said on the House floor Wednesday night, “some of the people who breached the Capitol today were not Trump supporters. They were masquerading as Trump supporters and, in fact, were members of the violent terrorist group antifa.”
Gaetz’s assertion, which he said was based on a story in the conservative Washington Times newspaper that was later retracted as false, was met with a chorus of jeers and boos. But in the following days several pro-Trump politicians and Fox News hosts repeated the conspiracy theory.
The Associated Press reviewed social media posts, voter registrations, court files and other public records for more than 120 people either facing criminal charges related to the Jan. 6 unrest or who, going maskless amid the pandemic, were later identified through photographs and videos taken during the melee.
That evidence shows the mob was overwhelmingly made up of longtime Trump supporters, including Republican Party officials, GOP political donors, far-right militants, white supremacists and adherents of the QAnon myth that the government is secretly controlled by a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophile cannibals. Records show the rowdy crowd also included convicted criminals, including a Florida man recently released from prison for attempted murder.
Many had taken to social media after the November election to retweet and parrot false claims by Trump that the vote had been stolen in a vast international conspiracy. Several had openly threatened violence against Democrats and Republicans they considered insufficiently loyal to the president.
As the mob smashed through doors and windows to invade the Capitol, a loud chant went up calling for the hanging of Vice President Mike Pence, the recent target of a Trump Twitter tirade for not subverting the Constitution and overturning the legitimate vote tally. Outside, a wooden scaffold had been erected on the National Mall, a rope noose dangling at the ready.
So far, at least 90 people have been arrested on charges ranging from misdemeanor curfew violations to felonies related to assaults on police officers, possessing illegal weapons and making death threats against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi D-Calif.
Among them was Lonnie Leroy Coffman, 70, an Alabama grandfather who drove to Washington to attend Trump’s “Save America Rally” in a red GMC Sierra pickup packed with an M4 assault rifle, multiple loaded magazines, three handguns and 11 Mason jars filled with homemade napalm, according to court filings.
The truck was found during a security sweep involving explosives-sniffing dogs after two pipe bombs were found and disarmed Wednesday near the national headquarters of the Republican and Democratic parties. Coffman was arrested that evening when he returned to the truck carrying a 9mm Smith & Wesson handgun and a .22-caliber derringer pistol in his pockets. Federal officials said Coffman is not suspected of planting the pipe bombs, though he was charged with having Molotov cocktails in the bed of his truck.
His grandson, Brandon Coffman, told the AP on Friday his grandfather was a Republican who had expressed admiration for Trump at holiday gatherings. He said he had no idea why Coffman would show up in the nation’s capital armed for civil war.
Also facing federal charges is Cleveland Gover Meredith Jr., a Georgia man who in the wake of the election had protested outside the home of Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, whom Trump had publicly blamed for his loss in the state. Meredith drove to Washington last week for the “Save America” rally but arrived late because of a problem with the lights on his trailer, according to court filings that include expletive-laden texts.
“Headed to DC with a (s—-) ton of 5.56 armor-piercing ammo,” he texted friends and relatives on Jan. 6, adding a purple devil emoji, according to court filings. The following day, he texted to the group: “Thinking about heading over to Pelosi (C——'s) speech and putting a bullet in her noggin on Live TV.” He once again added a purple devil emoji, and wrote he might hit her with his truck instead. “I’m gonna run that (C—-) Pelosi over while she chews on her gums. … Dead (B——) Walking. I predict that within 12 days, many in our country will die.”
Meredith, who is white, then texted a photo of himself in blackface. “I’m gonna walk around DC FKG with people by yelling ‘Allahu ak Bar’ randomly.”
A participant in the text exchange provided screenshots to the FBI, who tracked Meredith to a Holiday Inn a short walk from the Capitol. They found a compact Tavor X95 assault rifle, a 9mm Glock 19 handgun and about 100 rounds of ammunition, according to court filings. The agents also seized a stash of THC edibles and a vial of injectable testosterone.
Meredith is charged with transmitting a threat, as well as felony counts for possession of firearms and ammunition.
Michael Thomas Curzio was arrested in relation to the riots less than two years after he was released from a Florida prison in 2019 after serving an eight-year sentence for attempted murder. Court records from Florida show that he shot the boyfriend of his former girlfriend in a fight at her home.
Federal law enforcement officials vowed Friday to bring additional charges against those who carried out the attack on the Capitol, launching a nationwide manhunt for dozens of suspects identified from photographic evidence. Steven D’Antuono, the assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Washington field office, told reporters that investigators had seen “no indication” antifa activists were disguised as Trump supporters in Wednesday’s riot.
The FBI has opened a murder probe into the death of Capitol Police Officer Brian D. Sicknick, who was hit in the head with a fire extinguisher, according to law enforcement officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the ongoing investigation publicly. He died at a hospital.
The Trump supporters who died in the riot were Kevin D. Greeson, 55, of Athens, Alabama; Benjamin Philips, 50, of Ringtown, Pennsylvania; Ashli Babbitt, 35, of San Diego; and Rosanne Boyland, 34, Kennesaw, Georgia.
Boyland's sister told the AP on Friday she was an adherent of the QAnon conspiracy theory that holds Trump is America’s savior. Her Facebook page featured photos and videos praising Trump and promoting fantasies, including one theory that a shadowy group was using the coronavirus to steal elections. Boyland’s final post on Twitter — a retweet of a post by White House social media director Dan Scavino — was a picture of thousands of people surrounding the Washington Monument on Wednesday.
“She would text me some things, and I would be like, ‘Let me fact-check that.’ And I’d sit there and I’d be like, ‘Well, I don’t think that’s actually right,’” Lonna Cave, Boyland’s sister, said. “We got in fights about it, arguments.”
The AP's review found that QAnon beliefs were common among those who heeded Trump's call to come to Washington.
Doug Jensen, 41, who was arrested by the FBI on Friday in Des Moines, Iowa, after returning home from the riot. An AP photographer captured images of him confronting Capitol Police officers outside of the Senate chamber on Wednesday.
Jensen was wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with a large Q and the phrase “Trust The Plan,” a reference to QAnon. Video posted online during the storming of the Capitol also appears to show Jensen, who is white, pursuing a Black police officer up an interior flight of stairs as a mob of people trails several steps behind. At several points, the officer says “get back,” but to no avail.
Jensen’s older brother, William Routh, told the AP on Saturday that Jensen believed that the person posting as Q was either Trump or someone very close to the president.
“I feel like he had a lot of influence from the internet that confused or obscured his views on certain things,” said Routh, of Clarksville, Arkansas, who described himself as a Republican Trump supporter. “When I talked to him, he thought that maybe this was Trump telling him what to do.”
Jensen’s employer, Forrest & Associate Masonry in Des Moines, announced Friday that he had been fired.
Tara Coleman, a 40-year-old mother who lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was arrested at the Capitol for a curfew violation and for unlawful entry. On her Facebook page, Coleman re-posted articles supporting the QAnon beliefs about a “deep state” conspiracy to target children. The AP could not find a working phone number for Coleman and her attorney, Peter Cooper, did not respond to an email seeking comment.
And Jake Chansley, who calls himself the “QAnon Shaman” and has long been a fixture at Trump rallies, surrendered to the FBI field office in Phoenix on Saturday. News photos show him at the riot shirtless, with his face painted and wearing a fur hat with horns, carrying a U.S. flag attached to a wooden pole topped with a spear.
Chansley’s unusual headwear is visible in a Nov. 7 AP photo at a rally of Trump supporters protesting election results outside of the Maricopa County election center in Phoenix. In that photo, Chansley, who also has gone by the last name Angeli, held a sign that read, “HOLD THE LINE PATRIOTS GOD WINS.” He also expressed his support for the president in an interview with the AP that day.
The FBI identified Chansley by his distinctive tattoos, which include bricks circling his biceps in an apparent reference to Trump’s border wall. Chansley didn’t respond last week to messages seeking comment to one of his social media accounts.
The insurrectionist mob also included members of the neofascist group known as the Proud Boys, whom Trump urged to “stand back and stand by” when asked to condemn them by a moderator during a presidential debate in September.
Nicholas R. Ochs, 34, was arrested Saturday after returning home to Hawaii, where he is the founder of the local Proud Boys chapter. On Wednesday, Ochs posted a photo of himself on Twitter inside the Capitol, grinning broadly and smoking a cigarette. According to court filings, the FBI matched photos of Ochs taken during the riot to photos taken when Ochs campaigned unsuccessfully last year as the Republican nominee for a seat in the Hawaii statehouse.
Proud Boys leader Henry “Enrique” Tarrio was arrested Monday in Washington on weapons charges and ordered to stay out of the nation’s capital. Tarrio is accused of vandalizing a Black Lives Matter banner at a historic Black church last month.
Jay Robert Thaxton, 46, was arrested near the Capitol for curfew violations on Wednesday. A North Carolina man with the same name has also been linked to the Proud Boys. He told The Stanly News & Press in 2019 that he was a Proud Boys supporter but wouldn’t say if he was an official member of the group. Another North Carolina newspaper, The Jacksonville Daily News, published a photo of Thaxton wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat at a 2019 protest over the removal of Confederate statues.
A man who answered a telephone number associated with Thaxton hung up on an AP reporter. The recipient of a text message to the same number responded with an expletive.
Also arrested at the Capitol was William Arthur Leary, who owns a manufactured housing business in Utica, New York. In an interview Friday, Leary told the AP that he strongly believes the election was stolen from Trump and that he went to Washington to show his support.
Leary said he doesn’t trust information reported by the mainstream media and that one of his main sources of information was Infowars, the far-right conspiracy site run by Alex Jones. He denied he ever set foot in the Capitol and complained that he was held for more than 24 hours and had his cell phone seized.
“They treated us like animals,” he complained. “They took all our phones. I didn’t get to make a phone call to tell anybody where I was.”
Leary said he remembers seeing a woman, Kristina Malimon, 28, sobbing at the detention center because she had been separated and not allowed to translate for her mother, who primarily speaks Russian. Both women had been charged with curfew violation and unlawful entry. According to a video posted on her Instagram account, the younger Malimon says she was born in Moldova, where her family had faced persecution under the Soviet-era regime for their Christian beliefs.
Malimon, who traveled to D.C. from Portland, Oregon, is vice chairwoman of the Young Republicans of Oregon, according to the group’s website and is also listed as an “ambassador” for the pro-Trump group Turning Point USA. Her social media feeds are full of photos taken at Trump events, including the earlier “Million MAGA March” held in Washington last month. She also posted photos of herself posing with Donald Trump Jr. and Roger Stone, who was convicted of crimes including obstruction of justice and pardoned by Trump on Christmas Eve.
Media reports from Oregon quoted Malimon in August as the primary organizer of a Trump boat parade on the Willamette River, where big waves created by speeding boats flying Trump flags swamped and sank a smaller boat that was not participating, throwing a family into the water to be rescued by the sheriff’s department.
“Oregon, today you came out and showed your love and support for our wonderful President, Donald J. Trump thank you!” Kristina Malimon wrote on Facebook following the parade.
Malimon also served as a Republican poll watcher in Georgia and spoke at an event organized by the Trump campaign in December, claiming to have seen voting machines and tabulation computers in Savannah, Georgia, with suspiciously blinking green lights she interpreted as a sign they were being secretly controlled by outside hackers — a claim debunked as false by GOP election officials in the state.
A phone number listed for Kristina Malimon rang without being answered on Friday. At the address listed for her in southeast Portland on Friday night, her teenage brother answered the door as other family members, including young children, ran around.
The family spoke Russian to each other and the brother, Nick Malimon, translated. He said his sister was still in Washington but had called the family following her release from jail and didn’t seem upset about her arrest.
But others are facing consequences even beyond their arrests.
A Texas sheriff announced Thursday that he had reported one of his lieutenants to the FBI after she posted photos of herself on social media with a crowd outside the Capitol. Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar said Lt. Roxanne Mathai, a 46-year-old jailer, had the right to attend the rally but he’s investigating whether she may have broken the law.
One of the posts Mathai shared was a photo that appeared to be taken Wednesday from among the mass of Trump supporters outside the Capitol, “Not gonna lie......aside from my kids, this was, indeed, the best day of my life. And it’s not over yet.”
A lawyer for Mathai, a mother and longtime San Antonio resident, said she attended the Trump rally but never entered the Capitol.
Attorney Hector Cortes said Mathai’s contract bars her from speaking directly with the press but that she welcomes an FBI investigation and that her actions were squarely within the bounds of the First Amendment.
Brad Rukstales, a Republican political donor and CEO of Cogensia, a Chicago-based data analytics firm, was arrested with a group of a half-dozen Trump supporters who clashed with officers Wednesday inside the Capitol. Campaign finance reports show Rukstales contributed more than $25,000 to Trump’s campaign and other GOP committees during to 2020 election cycle.
He told a local CBS news channel last week that he had entered the Capitol and apologized. He was fired Friday and did not respond to calls and emails seeking comment.
Derrick Evans, a Republican recently sworn in as a delegate to the West Virginia House, resigned Saturday following his arrest on two charges related to the Capitol riot. He had streamed video of himself charging into the building with the mob.
“They’re making an announcement now saying if Pence betrays us you better get your mind right because we’re storming the building,” Evans, 35, says in the video, as the door to the Capitol building is smashed and rioters rush through. “The door is cracked! … We’re in, we’re in! Derrick Evans is in the Capitol!”
On Saturday he issued a statement saying he regretted taking part.
“I take full responsibility for my actions, and deeply regret any hurt, pain or embarrassment I may have caused my family, friends, constituents and fellow West Virginians,” the statement said.
Kunzelman reported from College Park, Maryland, Flaccus from Portland, Oregon, and Mustian from New York. Associated Press writers Jake Bleiberg in Dallas; Michael R. Sisak in New York; Michael Balsamo in Washington; Rebecca Boone in Boise, Idaho; and Heather Hollingsworth in Mission, Kansas, contributed to this report.
Follow Associated Press investigative reporter Michael Biesecker at http://twitter.com/mbieseck
Contact AP’s global investigative team at [email protected]