The Capitol siege: The cases behind the biggest criminal investigation in U.S. history
Updated November 19, 2021 at 4:42 PM ET
Editor's note: This story was first published on Feb. 9, 2021. It is regularly updated, and includes explicit language.
The riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 has led to what the Department of Justice calls the largest criminal investigation in American history. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has classified the attack as an act of domestic terrorism.
The violent breach forced the evacuation of the Capitol, and threatened the country's peaceful transfer of presidential power. Approximately 140 members of law enforcement suffered injuries in the attack, including brain damage and crushed spinal discs. More than 130 rioters have been accused of assaulting police, and many allegedly used weapons such as pepper spray, stun guns, bats, and American flags wielded as clubs.
Five people ultimately died. One rioter, 35-year-old Ashli Babbitt, was shot and killed by a police officer. And Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick, who investigators allege was attacked with a chemical spray, died the day after the riot. The medical examiner determined that death was the result of natural causes - two strokes - though stated that "all that transpired [on Jan. 6] played a role in his condition." Two other people died of natural causes, authorities concluded, and a third as the result of "acute amphetamine intoxication."
Since that day, the government has brought criminal charges against almost 700 individuals, and even now, more than ten months after the attack, the FBI continues to arrest new suspects. Meanwhile, some of these cases are reaching their conclusions. At least 140 defendants have pleaded guilty to one or more charges, and the charges against one defendant were dismissed. Over 40 people have been sentenced. No defendants have gone to trial.
The stories of those charged provide clues to key questions surrounding the Capitol breach: Who exactly joined the mob? What did they do? And why? To try to answer those questions, NPR is examining the criminal cases related to the Capitol riot, drawing on court documents, public records, news accounts and social media.
A group this large defies generalization. The defendants are predominantly white and male, though there were exceptions. Federal prosecutors say a former member of the Latin Kings gang joined the mob, as did two Virginia police officers. A man in a "Camp Auschwitz" sweatshirt allegedly took part, as did a Messianic Rabbi, and a Christian pastor. Far-right militia members decked out in tactical gear allegedly rioted next to a county commissioner, a New York City sanitation worker, and a two-time Olympic gold medalist.
Still, NPR's examination did identify certain commonalities.
There were those with connections to extremist groups or fringe ideas. At least 33 defendants appear to have expressed support for QAnon, the pro-Trump conspiracy theory.
At least 37 of the defendants appear to have links to the Proud Boys, a far-right group with a history of violent rhetoric and street violence. Their values have been widely described as racist, misogynist, anti-immigrant and hateful against other minority groups.
At least 23 of the defendants have alleged ties to the Oath Keepers, which the Anti-Defamation League calls an "anti-government right-wing fringe organization."
And at least 12 defendants have alleged associations with the Three Percenters, a part of the anti-government militia movement that has grown over the last decade. The Anti-Defamation League says that the group has "a track record of criminal activity ranging from weapons violations to terrorist plots and attacks."
But a large majority of those charged have no known connections to established extremist groups. That has led researchers to raise concerns about how extremist ideologies have moved increasingly into the mainstream.
The presence of current and former law enforcement officers, as well as military service members and veterans, has especially alarmed government officials. NPR found at least 14% of those charged had possible ties to the military or to law enforcement.
An analysis from West Point and George Washington University found that the Capitol riot defendants included current or former service members from every military branch except the Coast Guard. That analysis also found that less than half (44%) of the defendants with military history had deployed overseas.
Experts say there's little evidence that current or former members of the military are more susceptible to radicalization than the general population. Still, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has called combating extremism in the ranks a top priority.
Lawmakers who supported impeaching former President Donald Trump argue that he "incited a violent mob to attack the United States Capitol." There is some evidence of that in court documents: Some who allegedly stormed the Capitol - at least 10% - explicitly said they were inspired by Trump.
"IF TRUMP TELLS US TO STORM THE F***IN CAPITAL IMA DO THAT THEN!" one defendant wrote. "I thought I was following my President," said yet another.
Most of those charged in the riot come from areas of the country that are not dominated by Trump supporters. According to an analysis from the Chicago Project on Security & Threats, a majority of the alleged rioters came from counties that President Joe Biden won in the 2020 election.
Most of the people charged in connection with the storming of the Capitol face allegations primarily related to breaching the building. But a smaller number face more serious charges and a greater threat of prison time if convicted.
At least 48 are accused of committing conspiracy, one of the most serious charges brought. At least 161 are accused of committing acts of violence, particularly against police. At least 52 are suspected of causing property damage, like breaking windows or doors to gain entry to the building. At least 40 are accused of theft, like the woman who allegedly took a laptop from Pelosi's office.
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