10 January 2024

Man branded undercover agent in Capitol attack conspiracy theories spared jail

10 January 2024

A man targeted by right-wing conspiracy theories about the US Capitol riot was sentenced to a year of probation for joining the January 6 2021 attack by a mob of fellow Donald Trump supporters.

Ray Epps, a former Arizona resident who was driven into hiding by death threats, pleaded guilty in September to a misdemeanour charge.

He received no jail time, and there were no restrictions placed on his travel during his probation, but he will have to serve 100 hours of community service.

He appeared remotely by video conference and was not in the Washington, DC, courtroom when Chief Judge James Boasberg sentenced him.

Prosecutors had recommended a six-month term of imprisonment for Epps.

Epps’ sentencing took place in the same building where Mr Trump was attending an appeals court hearing as the Republican former president’s lawyers argued he is immune from prosecution on charges he plotted to overturn the results of the 2020 election he lost.

Even if Epps did not physically touch law enforcement officers or go inside of the building, he undoubtedly engaged in collective aggressive conduct

Fox News Channel and other right-wing media outlets amplified conspiracy theories that Epps, 62, was an undercover government agent who helped incite the Capitol attack to entrap Trump supporters.

Epps filed a defamation lawsuit against Fox News last year, saying the network was to blame for spreading baseless claims about him.

Epps told the judge that he now knows that he never should have believed the lies about a stolen election that Mr Trump and his allies told and that Fox News broadcast.

“I have learned that truth is not always found in the places that I used to trust,” said Epps, who asked for mercy before learning his sentence.

The judge noted that many conspiracy theorists still refuse to believe that the Capitol riot was an insurrection carried out by Trump supporters.

The judge said he hopes that the threats against Epps and his wife subside so they can move on with their lives.

“You were hounded out of your home,” the judge said.

“You were hounded out of your town.”

Federal prosecutors have backed up Epps’ vehement denials that he was a government plant or FBI operative.

They say Epps has never been a government employee or agent beyond serving in the US Marines from 1979 to 1983.

The ordeal has forced Epps and his wife to sell their property and businesses and flee their home in Queen Creek, Arizona, according to his lawyer.

“He enjoys no golf, tennis, travel, or other trappings of retirement.

“They live in a trailer in the woods, away from their family, friends, and community,” lawyer Edward Ungvarsky wrote in a court filing.

The internet-fuelled accusations that upended Epps’ life have persisted even after the Justice Department charged him with participating in the January 6 siege.

“Fear of demented extremists has no apparent end in sight so long as those who spread hate and lies about Mr Epps don’t speak loudly and publicly to correct the messaging they delivered,” Epps’ lawyer wrote.

Epps pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct on restricted grounds, a charge punishable by a maximum of one year behind bars.

A prosecutor, Michael Gordon, said Epps does not deserve to be inundated with death threats but should serve jail time for his conduct on January 6.

“He didn’t start the riot. He made it worse,” Mr Gordon told the judge.

Epps’ lawyer sought six months of probation without any jail time.

Mr Ungvarsky said his client went to Washington on January 6 to peacefully protest the certification of the Electoral College vote for Joe Biden, a Democrat, over Mr Trump, a Republican.

“You’re never going to see Mr Epps commit a crime again,” the defence lawyer said.

On the evening of January 5 2021, Epps was in a crowd at Washington’s Black Lives Matter Plaza when he was captured on video advocating for entering the Capitol the following day.

At Mr Trump’s Stop The Steal rally on January 6, Epps was recorded telling other attendees: “As soon as the President is done speaking, we go to the Capitol.

“The Capitol is this way!”

At the Capitol, Epps was photographed whispering into the ear of another man before rioters breached a police barricade.

Epps also helped other rioters push a large, metal-framed sign into a group of police officers and participated in “a rugby scrum-like group effort” to push past a line of officers, Mr Gordon, an assistant US lawyer, said in a court filing.

“Even if Epps did not physically touch law enforcement officers or go inside of the building, he undoubtedly engaged in collective aggressive conduct,” Mr Gordon wrote.

Epps surrendered to the FBI two days after the riot after learning that agents were trying to identify him.

He agreed to be interviewed by FBI agents as well as by the House committee that investigated the January 6 insurrection.

The government initially declined to prosecute Epps in 2021 after the FBI investigated his conduct on January 6 and found insufficient evidence to charge him with a crime, according to Mr Ungvarsky.

Mr Epps is not accused of entering the Capitol or engaging in any violence or destruction on January 6.

“Mr Epps was one of many who trespassed outside the Capitol building.

“Through the exercise of prosecutorial discretion, most of those persons will never be charged,” the defence lawyer wrote.

More than 1,200 defendants have been charged with Capitol riot-related federal crimes.

Over 900 of them have pleaded guilty or been convicted after trials decided by a judge or jury. Approximately 750 rioters have been sentenced, with nearly two-thirds getting some term of imprisonment.

Epps once served as an Arizona chapter leader for the Oath Keepers, but he parted ways with the anti-government extremist group a few years before the January 6 attack.

Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and other members were convicted of seditious conspiracy for plotting to stop the peaceful transfer of presidential power from Mr Trump to Mr Biden after the 2020 election.

Rhodes was sentenced last year to 18 years in prison.

Fox News has sought the dismissal of Epps’ lawsuit, calling it “a direct attack on the First Amendment”.

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