In the two months since an angry mob forced its way into the U.S. Capitol, agents in all but one of the FBI’s 56 field offices have been drafted to track down those who participated in the deadly insurrection.
Investigators who typically work cases involving the trafficking of drugs, child pornography and sex have taken calls from rioter’s angry ex-wives and former girlfriends and employers turned tipsters.
They’ve mined tens of thousands of photos and videos. They followed trails the rioters left on social media bragging about being inside the Capitol, like the Florida man toting a rostrum or the New Hampshire man who snapped a selfie with a pilfered bottle of wine.
And they’ve arrested almost 300. But, as many as 500 remain at large of the 800 who Capitol Police believe entered the Capitol. The riot claimed five lives and cost millions in damages and cleanup in the historic building.
Arrests are expected to continue given the more than 230,000 digital tips the agency received, but the flood of arrests in the weeks after the riot has slowed, dropping from 175 in January to around 90 in February.
Here’s what is known so far about the arrests:
- Most people face charges that could send them to prison for anywhere from 1-20 years, but their trials could be delayed for months as the federal court system labors under the coronavirus pandemic.
- An assistant U.S. attorney said in court last week that no plea offers have been made yet.
- The FBI is expanding its online wanted gallery, with photos of more than 200 individuals, most wanted for physical violence against officers and the news media, and shares it heavily on social media, hoping to keep those tips coming.
- Dozens of other rioters have been identified, after admitting to being in the Capitol on social media or in interviews with journalists, but haven’t been arrested yet.
The FBI declined to talk with USA TODAY about its work rounding up the rioters who beat police officers and shot wasp and bear spray at them, smashed windows and plundered desks and refrigerators.
However, agency director Christopher Wray told a Senate committee March 2: “We’re chasing down leads, we’re reviewing evidence, combing through digital media to identify, investigate and arrest anyone who broke the law that day.”
Court documents in the nearly 300 cases filed so far offer glimpses into the lives of the rioters. They reveal the complex work to bring them to justice and how the FBI is relying on the American public and volunteer cybersleuths to help bolster its cases.
Where did the rioters come from and where are they now?
Arrests have been made in 41 states and the District of Columbia. The crowd convened at the Capitol that day from every corner of the country: Beverly Hills and the heartland, big cities and tiny communities. They’re business owners and first responders, nurses and teachers, parents and grandparents. At least 30 are veterans. Most of them are voters.
They range in age from 18 to 70, but average around 40. They’re mostly men and almost all white. Many have bankruptcies or other financial troubles in their lives.
Some of those arrested were released on bond after judges ordered them to give up their passports and stay in their local areas except for their court dates in D.C. Others, such as Jackson Kostolsky of Allentown, Pennsylvania, are subject to greater restrictions, surrendering firearms, refraining from excessive use of alcohol and submitting to location monitoring and random drug testing.
More than a dozen remain in jail at the request of federal prosecutors for various reasons, such as fear of flight risk or witness intimidation. They include the man pictured sitting with his feet up on a desk in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, Richard Barnett, who had an emotional outburst during a virtual court hearing on Thursday.
Moving their cases through the court system is expected to be a lengthy process.
Like several others charged so far, Barnett’s next hearing isn’t scheduled until May. Other hearings are scheduled in June.
When 234 were arrested in violent protests after President Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017, it took more than a year for those cases to make their way through the system. And that was before the pandemic created backups and prompted awkward Zoom hearings with attorneys and defendants asking “can you hear me?”
One legal expert isn’t surprised by the pace of the arrests, saying building cases that stand up in court takes time.
“It’s a massive undertaking,” said Aitan Goelman, an attorney with the Washington-based law firm Zuckerman Spaeder who helped prosecute Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. “I’m pretty impressed with how quickly they’ve identified and apprehended a significant number of the insurrectionists that were in the building.”
What charges do they face?
Among the roughly 275 people charged through March 3, they’ve racked up more than 900 charges. Additional charges are levied as new indictments are delivered by a federal grand jury in D.C., where most of the cases are being prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney General’s office.
More than half the charges fall into two broad categories: disorderly, disruptive or violent conduct and entering a restricted building. Any location where the Secret Service is protecting someone, in this case Vice President Mike Pence, can be restricted. Conviction of each of those could result in up to a year in jail.
However, federal sentencing guidelines can be influenced by other factors, such as the additional charges each rioter faces, their criminal records or how the government characterizes their role, said Michael German, a former FBI special agent who’s a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program.
German said he was concerned that early on the FBI “seemed to prioritize investigations of people who unlawfully entered the Capitol rather than people who fought with police officers and assaulted police officers.” He fears that could leave them with too many resources focused on those early cases, rather than the more serious charges that have come later.
Federal authorities have alleged 88 counts of disturbing, disrupting or obstructing Congress as it met to confirm the Electoral College vote. The most serious of those — obstructing an official proceeding — carries a maximum penalty of up to 20 years.
More than 20 are charged with conspiracy, for coordinating and planning their assault on the Capitol in the weeks leading up to the riot and via radio and other equipment during the riot. The penalties for conspiracy depend on the crimes they were conspiring to commit. So, for example, if they were convicted of conspiring to obstruct Congress, the maximum penalty for each charge could be up to 20 years.
The charges also include 51 counts of physical violence or assaulting, resisting or impeding a federal officer, including 16 counts of using a dangerous weapon, which could lead to a sentence of up to 10 years. Supporting documents describe brutal beatings of the officers with axe handles and lacrosse or hockey sticks disguised as flag holders and efforts to rip off their gas masks and other protective equipment.
Many are waiting to see if the government brings more serious charges such as sedition or inciting a riot against any of the speakers or organizers of the rally before the riot. Goelman, the former prosecutor, thinks it’s unlikely any of the rally speakers or organizers will be charged given the evidence required to trump First Amendment concerns.
The FBI seems to be going about putting the cases together methodically, and making sure the more serious charges stick, Goelman said. “It’s obvious from the court filings that the FBI is trying to delineate different levels of culpability. They’ll start at the bottom and then try to flip higher members of the conspiracy if they can.”
What tools are being used to track people down?
Court documents go into great detail about the FBI’s work to verify tips, match photos with drivers license pictures, and track the suspect’s trips to and from the D.C. area on license plate toll readers. In photos and videos, they study moles, scars and tattoos in every visible body location.
Agents interviewed officers with the Capitol Police and Metropolitan Police departments, listening to their harrowing stories of being pummeled, sprayed with fire extinguishers packed with pepper spray, insulted and overrun. They’ve watched hours of the evidence on footage from security and body cameras.
Agents also are using higher-level technologies. In one filing last week, the FBI revealed it has a list of every cell phone or device authorized to be in the Capitol building on Jan. 6 and is using it to identify owners of cell phones that pinged in the Capitol that day who aren’t on the list. One rioter snapped and shared a selfie showing the Senate wifi signal on his cell phone.
The sheer scale of information available to help identify the rioters is “mind-blowing,” said John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher studying technological threats at The Citizen Lab at The University of Toronto. A U.S. citizen, Railton is working with several groups and dozens of volunteer investigators in what he terms an “unprecedented” volunteer effort to scour photos, videos and social media posts to help the FBI.
The collaborative volunteer effort sprang up in the hours and days after the riot. Volunteers search for details and research brands, logos and symbols they spot on clothing and backpacks. They share spreadsheets of their work. They’ve used controversial facial recognition software. And, they attach creative hashtags to make it easier to track individual rioters, such as #BeardedHammer, #PartyPantsGnome and #PinkyNTheBrainless.
Railton hopes their work will keep the attention of the American public riveted on helping to identify the remaining rioters.
The work of the volunteers — and their hashtags — also finds its way into charging documents. An FBI document supporting the arrest of Kentucky resident Clayton Ray Mullins noted a Twitter group using #seditionhunters had dubbed him “Slickback” for his hairstyle.
The identification of Rachel Powell, the Pennsylvania mother of six known to volunteer researchers as “Pink hat lady” or “BullHorn Lady,” also attracted a lot of attention.
She was outed in a New Yorker story, which credited the Twitter group Deep State Dogs with identifying Powell. Forrest Rogers, who runs that group’s Twitter account, @1600PennPooch, is a consultant in corporate intelligence and business development.
Rogers estimates Deep State Dogs is now working on around 20 suspects. Once the team locates a person and confirms their identity, they put a package together with the person’s name, address, phone number and several images and send it to the FBI.
The groups search for unique characteristics in the plentiful photos and videos from the scene. Rogers said it makes their search easier that many of the rioters don’t wear masks.
In Powell’s case, they focused on her pink hat, black boots and Kate Spade hollyhock floral iPhone case and searched for those same details in other video snippets to find a photo of her face, Rogers said. They also searched videos of previous rallies and events, because people often wear the same coats and other items.
Their group focuses only on significant characters who can only be seen partially in photos and videos.
They don’t try to identify people with clear photos in the FBI’s photo gallery, Rogers said. “There’s plenty of ex-wives for that.”