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The first defendant to stand trial in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol in his own words “lit the match” that led participants of a mob to confront police, charge up stairs, break into the building and physically drive lawmakers from chambers where they were set to certify President Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory, prosecutors said Wednesday.
“A mob needs leaders and this man, Guy Wesley Reffitt of Wylie, Texas, drove all the way from home in Texas to D.C. to step up and fulfill that role,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey S. Nestler told a panel of 12 masked jurors in a federal courthouse during opening statements in the case.
He called Reffitt, 49, an out-of-work oil industry rig manager and alleged member of the right-wing antigovernment movement Three Percenters, “the tip of this mob’s spear.”
“He planned to light the match that would start the fire. He wanted to stop Congress from doing its job,” Nestler said as Reffitt, his wife and family members sat in a social distanced courtroom.
Reffitt has pleaded not guilty to five felony counts including transporting an AR-15 and a Smith & Wesson .40-caliber semiautomatic pistol for unlawful use in a riot, breaching Capitol grounds while armed with the holstered handgun, impeding police and obstructing an official proceeding of Congress before threatening to kill family members if they turned him in to law enforcement. He faces five felony charges punishable by up to five to 20 years each.
Nestler repeatedly used Reffitt’s own words to back up those allegations, saying the defendant “made it easy” for jurors. Defense attorney William C. Welch III spoke for only a few minutes in response, saying Reffitt was “bragging” and engaging in “hyperbole,” but did not enter the Capitol or assault anyone.
The jury comprises nine men and seven women, and there appears to be a similar racial breakdown that includes white and Black jurors and one Asian American. They include a nuclear scientist, a retired nuclear industry consultant and a NASA employee. Also represented are a CVS cashier; a Washington, D.C., school maintenance supervisor; a Pentagon analyst; the mother of a Homeland Security employee; a lobbyist; and an IT contractor.
The trial marks the first test of the U.S. government’s evidence amassed in an investigation that has produced charges against 750 people, about half of whom are accused of felonies. Prosecutors have called the hostile assault and occupation of the Capitol by American citizens unprecedented, leaving scores of police officers injured, causing more than $1 million in damage and forcing the evacuation of lawmakers in the middle of certifying Biden’s 2020 election victory.
Reffitt is among an estimated 2,000 people who authorities say laid siege to the Capitol after then-President Donald Trump urged his supporters to help overturn what he falsely called a stolen election.
More than 210 people have pleaded guilty so far, the vast majority to misdemeanor crimes of illegal demonstrating inside the Capitol. A handful of members of the right-wing Proud Boys and Oath Keepers groups have admitted they prepared and planned for violence in advance and agreed to cooperate with the government.
Reffitt is not accused of involvement in such a conspiracy, but he is alleged to have been a recruiter for an anti-government, right-wing armed group called the Texas Three Percenters. Prosecutors say that after the riot, he told fellow members to destroy evidence and prepare for future violence, adding that he had a plan to circumvent firearm restrictions.
“We had thousands of weapons and fired no rounds yet showed numbers. The next time we will not be so cordial,” he said, according to court records.
His defense has challenged the government’s evidence as exaggerated and its prosecution as overreaching.
Prosecutors acknowledge the challenges posed by the political circumstances surrounding the violence of that day.
The riot had “a collective impact, but individuals within the collective have engaged in very different conduct,” U.S. Attorney Matthew M. Graves of Washington, D.C., said in an interview last week about the investigation his office is leading with roughly 100 U.S. prosecutors from around the country. “Weighing all those equities and making sure that you’re treating people the same is one of the unique challenges.”
Reffitt has pleaded not guilty to five felony charges: obstructing an official proceeding of Congress, trespassing at the Capitol while armed with a holstered handgun, interfering with police in a riot, witness tampering and transporting firearms for unlawful use in a riot, an AR-15 rifle and .40-caliber pistol.
Three Capitol Police officers are set to testify that they failed to stop Reffitt from entering the building with rubber bullets and chemical spray. Prosecutors plan to play video showing Reffitt at the Capitol, carrying plastic flex-cuffs and wearing body armor, a blue jacket and a motorcycle helmet mounted with a camera.
Two of Reffitt’s three children are also set to testify. When he returned home from Washington, prosecutors say, Reffitt warned them against turning him in to authorities.
“Traitors get shot,” Reffitt, 49, is accused of telling his 18-year-old son, his 16-year-old daughter and her boyfriend in a conversation they recorded and his wife recounted to the FBI.
Another trial witness, according to court records, is expected to testify that Reffitt talked on the drive from Austin to Washington about “dragging those people out of the Capitol by their ankles” and installing a new government.
Following his arrest 13 days after the riot, a U.S. magistrate judge jailed Reffitt until trial, citing his apparent planning for armed political violence before and after Jan. 6, 2021.
Reffitt told FBI agents in defense that he brought a disassembled pistol to Washington and that he went to the Capitol on Jan. 6 but “did not go inside,” according to court filings. Welch, his court-appointed attorney, said there is no evidence that Reffitt carried a loaded firearm.
“My client likes to talk. He’s got a bit of an ego. He brags,” Welch said at a bond hearing. “But sometimes words are just words. … There are offenses that cross the line, but it still does not mean that they are an actual threat.”
On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Dabney L. Friedrich agreed to reverse an extraordinary restriction, a ban on in-person media coverage of testimony in the courtroom where the trial is taking place. Friedrich cited social distancing concerns amid the pandemic but reconsidered after a consortium of news organizations filed an emergency appeal warning that eliminating in-person public access to trials could undermine the First Amendment.
Reffitt pushed to face trial last fall against his attorney’s advice to wait to review more evidence, and has defended himself in letters from jail.
“There was no insurrection, no conspiracy, no sinister plan and no reason to think otherwise,” he wrote in one sent to ProPublica. Days before the trial, he posted a message online saying he was a “political prisoner” ready to “receive the bullet of freedom.”