WASHINGTON — On the afternoon of Jan. 6, 2021, a man who authorities say was a member of a Texas Ellipse militia in Washington, where President Donald J. Trump had spoken about electoral fraud, walked toward the Capitol. He was wearing what he described as his “full battle ratchet”: body armor, a helmet with a camera attached, a set of plastic hand ties and a .40-caliber handgun on his hip.
Over the next few minutes, prosecutors said, the gunman, Guy Wesley Reffitt, not only helped a crowd lead a flight of stairs from the building, but also recorded his role in the march.
“We’ll take the Capitol before the day is out and rip them out by the hair,” Mr. Reffitt said for the camera. Then he made a specific threat to the Speaker of the House: “I just want to see Nancy Pelosi’s head touch every step of the way out.”
With a repeat of this dramatic scene, prosecutors opened the first criminal trial following the Capitol bombing on Wednesday, saying that Mr. Reffitt was at the forefront of the pro-Trump mob storming into the building as lawmakers reviewed the results. of the 2020 election.
“He intended to light the match that would set the fire,” Jeffrey S. Nestler, a federal prosecutor, said in an opening statement. “He wanted to stop Congress from doing its job.”
As the trial unfolds in the coming days, the government plans to provide evidence that Mr Reffitt, 41, had a standoff with police outside the Capitol after traveling to Washington from his home in Wylie, Texas. Prosecutors say Mr Reffitt came to Washington with a fellow member of the Texas Three Percenters, a loosely organized militia movement that takes its name from the alleged 3 percent of the American colonial population who fought the British.
Mr. Nestler said prosecutors would introduce messages Mr. Reffitt had sent to other members of the group prior to the attack, stating that “the fuel is ready” and that he intended to “finish the game in DC on Jan. 6. to hit. .” The Three Percenter who traveled to Washington with him, Rocky Hardy, will testify under an immunity deal with the government.
Prosecutors also plan to coerce testimonies from two of Mr. Reffitt, Jackson and Peyton, who were teenagers at the time of the attack. The kids plan to say their father threatened them after he returned to Texas to prevent them from turning him into the authorities.
A tall man with a barrel chest and a ponytail, Mr. Reffitt sat without showing much emotion as Mr. Nestler told the jury how he led a large group of rioters up a flight of stairs near the Capitol just outside the Senate Chamber, brushing off police attempts to stop him with pepperballs and heavier projectiles. Even after he was eventually intoxicated with a can of pepper spray, Mr. Reffitt urged the crowd around him to keep going, Mr. Nestler said.
In his own brief opening statement, Mr. Reffitt’s attorney, William L. Welch, downplayed the confrontation with the police, saying that his client had never attacked officers or helped anyone attack them. While Mr. Welch admitted that Mr. Reffitt was prone to “tirades” and “hyperboles”, he insisted he was not aggressive.
“This case was a rush to judgement,” Mr. Welch said, “based on bragging rights, based on a lot of hype.”
The first witness at the trial, Shauni Kerkhoff, a former Capitol police officer, appeared to contradict Mr. Welch’s description of Mr. Reffitt. While watching a security camera video of her confrontation with Mr. Reffitt, Ms. Kerkhoff told the jury that after he came up to her up the stairs and disobeyed her orders, she used a Tippmann PepperBall Launcher to fire 40 to 50 projectiles.
That did little to slow him down, she recalled. Mr Reffitt was also undeterred by larger projectiles fired by her partner and pepper spray used by a third officer.
At that moment, Mrs. Kerkhoff, in a panic, called for help on her radio.
“We have a person breaking through the west terrace, up the west terrace up the stairs,” she shouted in a breathless message played before the jury. “We need reinforcements.”
After more than 200 IOUs in January 6-related cases, Mr. Reffitt’s the first to reach a courtroom, and it’s the first time a jury considers the legal theory under which the government has charged hundreds of defendants. His case is one of several accused with links to far-right extremist or militia groups such as the Proud Boys or the Oath Keepers.
Shortly after Mr Reffitt’s trial ended for that day, a member of the Oath Keepers pleaded guilty in a separate case to charges of seditious conspiracy – the most serious charges yet brought against any of the more than 750 people who have been charged in the case. Capitol attack.
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Defendant attorneys. The House Committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack has subpoenaed half a dozen lawyers and other allies of former President Donald J. Trump who promoted false claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 election and worked to reverse his loss .
In court papers, Joshua James, the oath officer who pleaded guilty, told the administration that the group’s leader, Stewart Rhodes, had ordered him and his compatriots to use “lethal force” against anyone who tried to remove President Trump from office, including the National Guard or ‘other state actors’.
At the heart of Mr Reffitt’s case is the accusation that he obstructed the work of Congress during the attack by helping to drive lawmakers out of the building while they oversaw the certification of the Electoral College vote. The obstruction charge — one of five charges filed against him — has been used in place of other crimes such as sedition or insurrection in dozens of Capitol riots to describe the disruption that occurred when the mob forced lawmakers to flee.
In the months leading up to the trial, several defense attorneys — including Mr. Reffitt – using the law out, arguing that prosecutors had stretched the law well beyond its original draft as a way to solicit activities such as destroying documents or tampering with witnesses in Congress. But 10 federal judges — including Judge Dabney L. Friedrich, who oversees the Reffitt trial — have upheld the law’s use. The case of mr. Reffitt will be the first time a jury will decide whether the charges fit the crime.
There’s one wrinkle, though: Judge Friedrich ruled before trial that she could single-handedly drop the obstruction charge if she doesn’t believe the evidence supports the claim that Mr. Reffitt acted “corrupt” by corrupting the work of Congress. disrupt as required by statute. Prosecutors will try to convince her – and the jury – that Mr Reffitt acted corruptly by claiming that he intended to attack the police and perhaps how he planned violence that day.
To that end, Mr. Nestler told the jury in his opening statement that Mr. Reffitt had begun preparations to storm the Capitol well before January 6. In late December, he sent a message to members of his family saying that “tyranny” is coming and that “what is going to happen will shock the world.”
Mr. Reffitt’s son, Jackson, was so concerned that he called the FBI on Christmas Eve 2020 to warn agents about his father — “a drastic decision,” as Mr. Nestler put it.
Less than two weeks later, Mr. Reffitt and Mr. Hardy set out from Texas and drove 2,000 miles across the country to Washington. They took a car, Mr. Nestler said, so they could take a stash of weapons — including the pistol Mr. Reffitt was carrying and an assault rifle.