Skip to main content

The rioter next door: How the Dallas suburbs spawned domestic extremists

North Texas remains a focus of the investigation into the Capitol insurrection after 19 local residents have been charged in connection with the Jan. 6 attack, according to federal authorities. That's one of the largest numbers in any place in the country.

Armed protesters gathere at the Capitol on Jan. 17, 2021.

Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

FRISCO — Sunlight gleamed off the tiled roofs of the taupe mini-mansions and walkable shopping centers as March 4 dawned in this corner of North Texas. According to specious speculations online, this was the day when Donald Trump would be reinstalled as president.

"We are optimistic . . . If you're in morning [sic] Please stay at home!!!" the group's organizer, Jeff Hauk, told the weekly meeting of a group of conservatives who call themselves the "DFW Deplorables."

In posts on their private Facebook page, Hauk said he still believed Trump had their backs and that the former president was working behind the scenes to return to power. "It is not over," Hauk wrote.

Hope for Trump's return is fervent in Frisco and across the northern Dallas suburbs, an area of rapid growth and rapidly increasing diversity. Nineteen local residents have been charged in connection with the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, according to federal authorities, one of the largest numbers in any place in the country.

Many of the rioters came from the "mainstream of society," according to the FBI's Dallas field office, including three real estate agents, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, an oilman and an actor who once appeared on the popular television show "Friday Night Lights." They were driven by a "salad bowl of grievances," the FBI said, including anger over the presidential election, white-supremacist ideology and the discredited extremist ideology QAnon, which holds that Trump will save the world from a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles.

Their groundless claims are being fed by conservative politicians and from the pulpits of large, powerful evangelical churches with teachings that verge on white nationalism, both motivated by fear that they are losing a largely white, conservative enclave that views these changes with suspicion.

More arrests are coming, and North Texas remains a focus for investigators who expect to charge as many as 400 people from across the country in the attack on the Capitol.

Local law enforcement authorities had been grappling for months with the poisonous impact of baseless claims. In September, Frisco authorities were flooded with calls and emails after QAnon conspiracy theorists latched onto a video shared on social media of a crying little girl in the back seat of a car. In reality, the girl, who police say was part of a custody dispute, was safe, but her privacy was violated by the video being shared repeatedly and time spent addressing the false accusation affected the investigation, authorities said.

Police also were forced to address a viral social media post that falsely labeled the town's sprawling Stonebriar Centre the "No. 1 mall in the U.S. for sex trafficking," assuring the public that teenagers were not being kidnapped.

On the DFW Deplorables site, members followed and debated the case of the distraught little girl in the video, but they were sure about one thing: Trump was doing "God's work" to rid the land of "pedos," rapists and sex traffickers.

"Trump is taking them all down," Hauk, a swimming pool salesman, said.

At the Community Grill in Frisco, the silver thermoses of coffee were waiting and the Deplorables indulged in other baseless speculations. President Biden is senile, they said. He's being fed his words through an earpiece by former president Barack Obama.

They didn't want to talk about the Jan. 6 attack. Many of them believed the attack was carried out by left-wing "antifa" and Black Lives Matter infiltrators, rather than more than a dozen of their neighbors who stormed the Capitol "in the name of Jesus," bearing zip-tie restraints and, in one case, a crutch to beat police.

Jane Ann Sellars, vice president for "Americanism" for a local Republican women's group, said coffee was a chance to strategize and work on promoting politicians who share their views.

"We just want more conservative candidates for the future," Sellars said.

March 4 proved to be an uneventful springlike day in Frisco. The Storm had not arrived. There was no Great Awakening. Biden was still president. If Hauk was disappointed, he wouldn’t say.

Over the past two decades, Collin County, north of Dallas, more than doubled its population to 1 million, according to census data, with newcomers drawn by the mild weather, good schools, low taxes and the arrival of several big employers and new corporate headquarters, including Toyota, Liberty Mutual and the Dallas Cowboys. The rapid expansion created an air of Disney World built on the clay soil of the Texas plains, one Frisco consultant noted, where everything is new and planned. The median household income is $97,000, well above the U.S. median of $69,000.

But this utopia on the Dallas North Tollway has its fissures, which have deepened in the last year, with debate over pandemic restrictions, the country’s racial reckoning and the divisive 2020 presidential election that pitted neighbor against neighbor and continues to divide. Unlike many other suburban counties in the country that helped sway the election for Biden, Collin County stayed red, with 51% voting for Trump and 46% for Biden.

The county’s rapid growth has increased its diversity — with the Latino and Asian American populations growing, and the white population in decline — causing tensions, some residents say. In 2017, Plano Mayor Harry LaRosiliere was challenged by an opponent who promised to “keep Plano suburban,” which LaRosiliere, who is Black, said was a “dog whistle” for residents wanting to keep the town white and affluent. LaRosiliere won the four-way nonpartisan race with 52% of the votes, but his “keep Plano suburban” opponent won 42%. This year, Plano City Coucil member Shelby Williams came under fire when he said in a post-riot blog post that “things could be much worse . . . People in many parts of the Muslim world are still slaughtering one another today.”

Frisco Realtor Hava Johnston said some residents feel the area has become “too diverse.”

“They created this perfect little bubble of the way they wanted things … now we’ve got true diversity, and those Christian nationalists are afraid of losing their power,” said Johnston, a Democratic activist and one of the internet sleuths who helped unmask local residents who participated in the Capitol riots. “These are the very people who would do things like have Trump parades every weekend and take a private jet to a riot.”

Brian Miller was among those who boarded a private plane to the nation’s capital — posting gleefully on Facebook he was “D.C. bound to #stopthesteal!” He said economic fears drove the rioters, many of whom were small-business owners struggling to maintain their North Texas lifestyles even before the pandemic hit.

“They’re more concerned about losing everything we have gained in the last four years,” Miller, 49, said. The real estate agent said he spent six months on unemployment last year.

“A lot of people lost their livelihoods because of the pandemic, moving in with family to try and make ends meet,” he said.

A Washington Post analysis last month of the financial records of more than 100 of those facing charges in the riot found nearly 60% of them had prior money troubles, including bankruptcies, bad debts and tax liens. That includes Jennifer “Jenna” Ryan, 50, the Frisco real estate agent who had invited Miller on the plane ride. Ryan once filed for bankruptcy and nearly lost a home to foreclosure.

During the riot, Miller had been separated from his friends and said he stayed outside on the west side of the Capitol, filming with his phone as rioters broke windows and pepper spray soured the air. Meanwhile, Ryan was on the other side of the building doing a Facebook Live, perfectly done with an Instagram-worthy “45” ski cap.

“We are going to f---king go in here. Life or death, it doesn’t matter. Here we go,” Ryan said, adding a plug for her business. “Y’all know who to hire for your Realtor. Jenna Ryan for your Realtor.”

Back in Texas, after her arrest on federal charges of unlawful entry, disorderly conduct and disrupting government business, Ryan told The Post last month that she had been sucked into a web of spurious claims during the election, reading far-right websites and following the QAnon movement. Since her arrest, she has been banned from social media platforms and faces fresh money troubles, and a self-help book she was writing was canceled by the publisher.

“I bought into a lie, and the lie is the lie, and it’s embarrassing,” she said. “I regret everything.”

For Miller’s part, he now frames his Capitol insurrection journey as a joyride to party and see Trump’s “last hurrah.” He believes Ryan and their two other friends now charged were exercising their right to free speech and should never have been arrested. “It’s totally bogus,” he said.

Shortly before Biden's inauguration, Pastor Brandon Burden of the KingdomLife church — a boxy, largely windowless sanctuary in Frisco — mounted the pulpit and gave a stemwinder of a sermon that went viral.

Burden spoke in tongues and urged his flock of “warriors” to load their weapons and stock up on food and water as the transfer of power loomed. The emergency broadcast system might be tampered with, so if Trump “took over the country,” he could not tell them what to do, he said.

“We ain't going silently into the night. We ain't going down. This is Texas,” Burden preached.

Prophetic voices had decreed Trump would remain in office, he said.

“We have an executive order — not from Congress or D.C., but from the desk of the CEO of heaven, the boss of the planet,” Burden said. “He said from his desk in heaven, ‘This is my will. Trump will be in office for eight years.’ ”

Here in the heart of the Bible Belt, the Capitol insurrectionists’ embrace of Christian nationalist symbols — they went bearing crosses, toting signs that said “God, Guns and Trump” — has prompted reflection in the faith community. Some say evangelical Christian leaders went too far linking love for God and country, stoked fear in their communities and bear some responsibility for the tragic events of Jan. 6.

“I really think that churches need to acknowledge that we have been irresponsible in the way we have tried to project America’s history or America’s founding as one that is inextricably tied to Christianity. We have to repent of that,” said Alex Lee-Cornell, interim pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Dallas, who gave a Feb. 28 sermon on the theme. “We have to confess that we have conflated support of the nation with Christian discipleship — especially in the Republican Party.”

Burden — who declined to comment for this article — later acknowledged some of his comments were “inartfully said,” but he has been supportive of the rioters and their cause.

One of those was Paul MacNeal Davis, who filmed himself live on Instagram getting tear-gassed at the Capitol, saying he was trying to get into the building to stop the certification of the vote. He replied to one of Trump’s tweets, saying “Never stop fighting Mr. President! Never give in no matter how ugly it gets! We are willing to die to preserve our freedom!”

In an interview, Davis said he did not do anything illegal during the riot and spent time praying over the police officers who blocked him from entering, joining others who prayed “God forgive them, they know not what they do.”

When the 39-year-old University of Texas-educated lawyer returned home, he was fired from his job as associate general counsel and director of human resources for an insurance company. He and his fiancee parted ways, and vandals stuffed debris into his home’s sewer pipes, causing a flood of fecal matter-tinged water in his duplex.

He rejects QAnon but does believe there were “irregularities” in the presidential election, although federal election officials have said there is no evidence of voter fraud.

“I don’t really care what people think of me,” Davis said. “I’m going to do right no matter what.”

Davis, a deeply religious man with a half-sleeve of Bible-themed tattoos on one arm, has found support at Burden’s church and defends the pastor’s controversial rhetoric, saying he was speaking about a spiritual battle, not a physical one.

“I’ve received an overwhelming amount of support and love from my community,” Davis said. “They understand that the leftist movement is extremely vicious and anybody who disagrees with leftism and asserts their right to protest and peaceably assemble is going to get viciously attacked.”

Davis has been keeping busy with the latest version of a lawsuit he has filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, claiming the 2020 election results are invalid. He was recently invited to speak about the case by a local conservative group at Burden’s church.

His lawsuit argues a “well-funded cabal” of powerful people — such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California; Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky; Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg; the entire 117th Congress; and state election officials — conspired to cheat the American people out of their right to vote and violated federal election laws with a number of pandemic-related measures such as expanded mail-in voting, rendering the entire election “null and void” and asking the courts for a do-over.

Davis, who has not been charged in the Capitol attack, said he had no regrets.

“I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life,” he said. “I feel like I’m doing what I was created to do.”

Julie Tate and Todd Frankel contributed to this report.

Disclosure: Facebook and the University of Texas have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Quality journalism doesn't come free

Yes, I'll donate today