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WARREN, Ohio – Stephen Ayres was deep into online conspiracy theories by the time he joined a mob that marched through the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Sporting a white-and-black hat, he recorded the scene that he would later tell online followers was evidence of the debunked theory that the event was planned by the left.
In the days leading up to the attack, he wrote on social media that alleged vandalism at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s home was “just the beginning,” that a civil war was likely, and that people following him should “fight for the American Dream.”
Initially indicted on four counts that could have left him in prison more than 22 years, the 39-year-old has pleaded guilty to one and faces up to six months of jail time and a fine. Matthew Perna, his co-defendant, died by suicide.
More than 800 people face criminal prosecution for Jan. 6, but Ayres is the only charged rioter to testify live in front of the House Jan. 6 committee investigating the attack. In a crowded hearing room July 12, he urged other Trump supporters to get off social media and apologized to Capitol Police officers. His testimony and apology, coupled with the committee’s chairman likening him to an "ordinary American citizen" created a unique image for the American public to digest.
The Jan. 6 committee has laid much of the blame for the attack at the feet of former President Donald Trump and his inner circle. Experts were quick to say that people like Ayres need to be held accountable for their own actions, even if they should not be shunned from society forever.
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What is the right reaction to him, or others who entered the Capitol that day?
There may not be one.
“It’s not as simple as taking a pie chart of blame and saying 56% goes to Trump and 44% goes to people who did it, or vice versa,” said Kurt Braddock, a public communication professor at American University. “They’re both responsible – Trump for inciting and them for actually carrying out the attack.”
Wherever the blame falls, experts see room to forgive rioters like Ayres, but for others and at least one officer there that day, his role in a large-scale attack on the U.S. government shouldn’t be forgotten.
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“You can’t remove his culpability or any responsibility for what they did that day even if they were targets of propaganda, and I’m sure he is a family man,” said Daniel Hodges, a Metropolitan Police Department officer who was attacked by the mob. “That’s what makes it even more threatening, actually.”
The attack was an organized, violent attempt to stop the peaceful transition of power after Donald Trump lost reelection to President Joe Biden. Officers on duty that day have described being assaulted, sprayed with chemical irritants, and verbally harassed. About 140 police officers were injured, including 114 Capitol Police.
Jennifer Cobbina-Dungy, a criminal justice professor at Michigan State University, said that while she thinks accountability is important, that does not mean facing additional consequences that last the rest of his life.
“People are deserving of a second chance, and third chance,” she said, “and people should not be known for the worst mistake they’ve done.”
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Ayres is like many supporters who bought into Trump's debunked claims the election was stolen and he suffered steep personal consequences once arrested.
He did not return messages from USA TODAY, and when his wife answered his phone, she said he was not granting interviews.
Before his arrest, Ayres lived in a 2,500-square foot home at the end of a cul-de-sac in Champion, a bedroom community of the old steel city of Warren in eastern Ohio. Married since 2020, he told the committee he likes to play games with his son. His wife posts regularly on Instagram about how much she loves her boys. He worked at a cabinet company for almost 20 years, rising to the rank of supervisor.
Throughout his life, he spent time on both sides of the Ohio and Pennsylvania border. He voted regularly, according to county voting records in both states. He voted in several general elections in Ohio's blue-collar, automotive-manufacturing, union-backed Trumbull County that Donald Trump flipped from blue to red in 2016. But that year, Ayres voted in the primary and general election in Mercer County, Pennsylvania, which Trump won over Hillary Clinton by fewer than 13,000 votes.
Timothy Lombardo, a history professor at the University of South Alabama and the author of “Blue-Collar Conservatism,” said Trump was able to mobilize blue-collar Americans with the way he spoke and the prominent placement of police officers at his rallies.
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He warned against infantilizing blue-collar workers who support Trump. He said the idea that all of Trump's supporters were simply scammed is not fair.
“It minimizes the threat that they pose as well,” Lombardo said, “because it makes it seem like it’s just a scam as opposed to – No, these people really believe this and are a lot more motivated by that belief, not by a fiction. They’re motivated by what to them is true.”
It’s not clear exactly when Ayres became an emphatic believer in the lie that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, but Ayres said in his testimony that he was deeply involved with social media, to the point he said he was practically wearing horse blinders.
“I was hanging on every word he was saying,” Ayres said. “Everything he was putting out, I was following it.”
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Ayres' social media posts in the days before attack were calls to action
In the days leading up to the "Stop the Steal" rally and the insurrection attempt, Ayres was posting on social media almost every day, sharing misinformation and urging people to stand up for what he believed was a worthy cause, according to a review of court documents.
The day after Christmas, he warned about a potential civil war. The next two days he told followers about the rally on Jan. 6, 2021. “Where will you be on January 6th?” he asked Dec. 28, 2020. “Chilling at home? HOPING this country isn’t going to hell in a hand basket? Or are you willing to fight for the American Dream! Again!?!?”
The post about vandalism at Pelosi’s house came New Year’s Day. “The governors, senators, representatives, etc….Really don’t have a clue what is coming!!” he wrote. Then, two days later: “Chief Justice John Roberts, Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, etc....all have committed TREASON against a sitting U.S. president!!! All are now put on notice by 'We The People!"'
On Jan. 5, 2021, the day he drove from Ohio to Washington, D.C., Ayres shared a picture of someone holding a sign that said, “YOUR OBEDIENCE OS PROLONGING THIS NIGHTMARE.” Later that day, he posted a picture with friends in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
Ayres testified to the Jan. 6 committee that he didn’t originally intend to enter the Capitol. He was trying to go to the "Stop the Steal" rally to see Trump's speech.
“The president got everybody riled up and told everybody to head on down,” he said. “So we basically was just following what he said.” When he was walking over, Ayres said he kept hearing there was going to be some “big reveal.”
By 2:30 p.m., Ayres was with a crowd outside the Senate side of the Capitol, court documents say. He went in about 20 minutes later and “joined with others in chanting and parading inside the Capitol.”
He said he left the area when Trump tweeted a video telling the rioters to go home.
“We literally left right after that come out,” Ayres said. “You know, to me, if he would have done that earlier in the day, 1:30 — I, you know, we, wouldn’t be in this. Maybe we wouldn’t be in this bad of a situation or something.”
Danya Perry, a former federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York, said Ayres provided important testimony that bolstered the Jan. 6 committee's argument that Trump had the power to stop the insurrection.
“It’s sort of intuitive and we’ve heard from other witnesses this cult-like influence on his supporters,” but Ayres’ testimony came directly from someone who was “very much in his thrall," Perry said.
The day after the attack, Ayres appeared in a YouTube video with Perna and a woman who went only by her first name. The trio said the insurrection was staged, that Antifa had led the way for the crowd, that some of the cops were provoking the crowd, and that more fallout was coming.
Heidi Beirich, the co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, said Ayres is a good example of how powerful Trump and his words can be, and what those words can lead people to do.
“He also serves as a warning to other people who have been swept up in this movement, and I think that that’s important,” Beirich said.
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A plea deal and a lost co-defendant
A federal grand jury indicted Ayres and Perna with four crimes with maximum possible sentences that could have put them in prison for decades.
Through a private attorney, Perna fought the charges for almost a year before pleading guilty without a plea agreement. His sentencing would have taken place in April. But in February, while awaiting that hearing, Perna died by suicide, local news outlets reported.
“His community (which he loved), his country, and the justice system killed his spirit and his zest for life,” Perna’s family wrote in his obituary. “Matt was an amazing man! In his 37 years, he experienced more than most people do their entire lives.”
The obituary described the cause of death as “a broken heart” and said that Perna was only seeking to "peacefully stand up for his beliefs” that day. The Department of Justice identified Perna as a QAnon follower in court documents. Right-wing websites have picked up Perna's story and presented him as a victim of injustice.
Two of Perna’s family members declined to comment for this story.
Perna’s aunt, Geri Perna, appeared outside the Capitol in March with Reps. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, and Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., and criticized the Justice Department, saying she did not want his name to be forgotten, and identifying herself as the author of his obituary.
“Matt had become a shell of his former self,” she said. “Worry, anxiety, stress had worn him down. He suffered from constant nightmares and began throwing up blood. He was no longer comfortable leaving his home. One setback after another took its toll on him, and he just wanted it to be over.”
It's unclear how Perna and Ayers, who both lived near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, knew one another. His co-defendant's death was not raised at the Jan. 6 hearing.
In June, with the help of his federal public defender, Ayres reached a plea agreement with the government to plead guilty to one of the four original charges: disorderly and disruptive conduct in a restricted building or grounds.
“Thank God a lot of them did get dismissed because I was just holding my phone,” he testified. “But at the same time, I was there.”
Court documents say he could receive up to six months in jail and a fine of $2,000 to $20,000 when he is sentenced in September.
Ayres came face-to-face with officers
Cobbina-Dungy said she supports restorative justice, a type of accountability that brings offenders and the people they harmed together to figure out what needs to happen to ensure that the victims’ needs are met.
Ayres did come face-to-face with those affected by the riot when he testified. When he finished, he apologized to police officers in the hearing room.
“I didn’t expect it nor did I warrant it, so it is what it is,” said Sgt. Aquilino Gonell of the Capitol Police, who has been forced to retire due to injuries he received that day. “I’m not holding any grudges. I’m trying to live with my life, get back to my normal routine, learn from how to cope and live with my new disabilities.”
Hodges, the Metropolitan Police Department officer who was attacked at the same entrance that Gonell was protecting, said he asked Ayres if he was sorry. When Ayres said he was, Hodges said he responded, “I hope so.”
“That’s about all I can do right now,” Hodges said.
He said he has to believe that people can change.
Braddock, the communications professor, said it’s important to understand the physical and psychological harms that were done to the officers.
“They’re the ones who get to decide what their own healing journey is, and when and if they choose to forgive, that’s completely up to them,” he said, “and I think they’re completely justified if they never choose to.”
During the hearing, Ayres described himself as “Nothing but a family man and a working man.” He spoke about working for the cabinet company, going camping and playing games with his son.
“Just what any ordinary American citizen, family man, would do," responded Jan. 6 committee Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss.
"I think it’s a little bit too simplistic to just say, 'He’s a family man,'" said Susan Corke, the director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's intelligence project. "What are the family values?"
‘It changed my life’
Despite getting the majority of the charges dropped, Ayres told the Jan. 6 committee that he lost his job. In May, he sold his 3-bedroom, 2 1/2-bathroom house, according to land records and started a new flooring and remodeling company, records show.
“It changed my life, you know, and not for the good,” he said.
Cobbina-Dungy said Ayres should not face what she called “collateral consequences” that society places on those who have committed a crime – such as being rejected from jobs based solely on his record. "A disproportionate number of Black and brown people continue to struggle even after they’ve done their time, even after they’ve been released back into the community," she said.
“The collateral consequences in general need to be removed for everyone who has had contact with the criminal justice system, but no special treatment should be given to Stephen just because he’s a white man who people can relate to,” she said.
A USA TODAY analysis in June of more than 800 arrests in the Jan. 6 cases found that 86% of rioters were male, and most were white.
Many cannot afford their own legal representation. A.J. Kramer, the top federal public defender for the District of Columbia, said his office is handling the cases of around 100 people for their involvement on Jan. 6, 2021.
Beirich said she has known people who were involved in white supremacy groups but left. After finishing any criminal sentence, if they show remorse, make amends and work to better themselves, she said they should be accepted back into society.
Even though Ayres testified that, during the attack on Jan. 6, 2021, he perceived the Proud Boys as helpful to the rioters’ cause, neither he, the Jan. 6 committee, nor prosecutors said he was a member of the “Western chauvinist” group or any other extremist group.
“In those cases, the forgiveness should come a little quicker, if they have admitted their culpability and the person has done their time,” Beirich said. “And especially if someone makes a public apology like this person did. I don’t think we punish them forever and ever.”
Contributing: Dylan Wells and Dinah Pulver
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Jan 6 rioter Ayres gave apologetic testimony. Is it enough to forgive?