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More than a month after the insurrection at the Capitol, the circumstances surrounding the death of a U.S. Capitol Police officer who responded to the Jan. 6 attack are something of a mystery.
Despite quickly becoming the subject of a federal investigation, the death of Brian Sicknick, a 42-year-old Capitol Police officer, has not led to any arrests, nor have autopsy results or other findings from the medical examiner been released. In fact, investigators have yet to provide the public with any official updates on the status of their probe since it was first announced, leaving journalists to rely on incomplete bits of information provided by anonymous law enforcement sources.
One thing is certain: The details of what happened to Sicknick on Jan. 6 have been marred by confusion since before his death was even officially confirmed.
An early report of Sicknick’s death came from Gus Papathanasiou, chairman of the Capitol Police force’s union, who originally told local CBS affiliate WUSA9 on Jan. 7 that the officer had died earlier that day. Papathanasiou retracted his statement hours later after a spokesperson for the Capitol Police said media reports about the death were “not accurate.”
Later that evening, Papathanasiou acknowledged that there had been “some misinformation” about Sicknick’s condition in an interview with CNN, which also initially reported that the officer had died, citing three sources.
“He had a stroke,” Papathanasiou told CNN at the time. “I think he's on life support.”
Not long after that, the Capitol Police issued a brief press release on the death. “At approximately 9:30 p.m. this evening (January 7, 2021), United States Capitol Police Officer Brian D. Sicknick passed away due to injuries sustained while on-duty,” the statement read.
According to the statement, Sicknick, who joined the Capitol Police force in 2008 and most recently served in its First Responder Unit, “was responding to the riots on Wednesday, January 6, 2021, at the U.S. Capitol and was injured while physically engaging with protesters.”
The statement offered no further details about Sicknick’s injuries, only that he’d collapsed after returning to his division office and “was taken to a local hospital where he succumbed to his injuries.”
To date, this is the only information the Capitol Police have released about Sicknick’s death. A spokesperson for the force did not respond to a request for comment for this story, nor did Papathanasiou, the union chair.
Representatives for the FBI, DOJ and D.C. Metro Police also declined to comment.
The day after Sicknick’s death was confirmed, attempts by news outlets to paint a fuller picture of what, exactly, happened to him during the riot at the Capitol only resulted in further confusion.
In the early hours of Jan. 8, the New York Times published what would be the first of many versions of a story titled “Capitol Police Officer Dies From Injuries in Pro-Trump Rampage.”
Though the article initially relied mostly on the few details provided in the Capitol Police’s press release, it was updated shortly after publication to include a startling new detail: “At some point in the chaos — with the mob rampaging through the halls of Congress while lawmakers were forced to hide under their desks — [Sicknick] was struck with a fire extinguisher, according to two law enforcement officials.”
A somewhat expanded version of the fire extinguisher anecdote also appeared in another article published by the Times that same day, which delved more into Sicknick’s backstory. Headlined “He Dreamed of Being a Police Officer, Then Was Killed by a Pro-Trump Mob,” the article stated that “pro-Trump rioters” had “overpowered Mr. Sicknick, 42, and struck him in the head with a fire extinguisher, according to two law enforcement officials. With a bloody gash in his head, Mr. Sicknick was rushed to the hospital and placed on life support. He died on Thursday evening.”
A separate Jan. 8 report from the Associated Press similarly cited two unnamed law enforcement officials who said that Sicknick “was hit in the head with a fire extinguisher during a struggle.”
But while other news outlets soon began picking up the anonymously sourced fire extinguisher narrative, no one seemed to be able to verify it on the record, including members of Sicknick’s family.
In fact, in an interview with ProPublica (also published on Jan. 8), his family outlined a rather different version of events that, perhaps more than anything, highlighted how little was actually known at that point.
According to his brother Ken, the family had received a reassuring update from the officer the night of Jan. 6, hours after the Capitol was attacked. “He texted me [Wednesday] night and said, ‘I got pepper-sprayed twice,’ and he was in good shape,” Ken Sicknick told ProPublica.
The next day, the family was reportedly notified that Sicknick had suffered a blood clot and a stroke, and was on a ventilator in the hospital. “Apparently he collapsed in the Capitol and they resuscitated him using CPR,” his brother said.
As the family drove from their home in New Jersey to Washington on Thursday, Jan. 7, news began to spread among law enforcement and on social media that Sicknick had died — though as far as his family had been told, the officer was still alive, albeit in critical condition. Family members said they first learned about his possible passing from reporters who began calling while they were still en route to Washington.
By the time they arrived at the hospital, Sicknick was dead. In a statement, the family requested that the press and public not politicize his death. “Many details regarding Wednesday's events and the direct causes of Brian's injuries remain unknown,” they wrote.
This point was reaffirmed in ABC News’s coverage of the federal investigation, which launched almost immediately. “According to sources familiar with the matter, authorities believe Sicknick's death was driven by a medical condition,” ABC reported at the time. While authorities were reportedly “also investigating reports that he was attacked with a fire extinguisher or another item at the Capitol,” ABC noted, “So far, reports of an attack haven't been confirmed.”
Nonetheless, the disputed fire extinguisher narrative continued to be repeated by politicians and cable news personalities, many of whom often pointed to the disturbing anecdote as an example of the brutal violence carried out by those who stormed the Capitol.
Early on, some on the right-wing fringes began pointing to the reporting discrepancies to poke holes in the portrayal of Sicknick as a victim of the pro-Trump mob. A Jan. 14 post on the conservative site National File made the unverified claim that Sicknick’s death was caused by a “pre-existing medical condition,” and accused the mainstream media of trying to “pin the officer’s death on supposedly violent pro-Trump protesters” in order to “forge resentment against Trump and conservative activists in the eyes of Middle America, using the fallen officer as a cause celebre.” The same article was republished on Infowars, the popular conspiracy website.
It wasn’t until earlier this month, however, that the Sicknick “truther” movement really started to pick up steam, after CNN published a report containing new information that seemed to directly undermine the fire extinguisher claim.
Like other reports about the case, the CNN story cited unnamed law enforcement officials, who explained that while there is plenty of photo and video evidence of Sicknick engaging with rioters in the Capitol on Jan. 6, that footage has yet to reveal a distinct moment in which the officer was fatally injured, making it difficult for investigators to build a federal case.
Buried several paragraphs into the CNN story was a significant revision in the narrative around Sicknick's death: “According to one law enforcement official, medical examiners did not find signs that the officer sustained any blunt force trauma, so investigators believe that early reports that he was fatally struck by a fire extinguisher are not true.”
According to this unnamed source, authorities were reportedly considering the possibility that “Sicknick became ill after interacting with a chemical irritant like pepper spray or bear spray that was deployed in the crowd,” but that so far, investigators had not been able to verify that theory with video evidence either.
Despite also being attributed to an anonymous official, this new revelation was quickly touted as proof that, in the words of one Breitbart Politics post, “everything the establishment media report eventually ends up being exposed as a big fat lie.”
Revolver, a right-wing news aggregator that bills itself as “the new Drudge,” went even further, publishing an “exclusive” on Feb. 9, the first day of former President Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial, under the headline “MAGA Blood Libel: Why Are They Hiding The Medical Report?”
Based entirely on the reporting of CNN, ProPublica and others, the Revolver post posited that all the confusion surrounding what happened to Sicknick — from the premature reports of his death to the conflicting accounts of his injuries and the general lack of publicly available information about the investigation — amounts to a vast conspiracy by the mainstream media, Democrats and “the Feds” to frame Trump and his supporters for Sicknick’s death.
“MAGA is being blood libeled with a felony murder charge in the court of public opinion and at Donald Trump’s impeachment, while potentially exculpatory evidence is silenced or sealed,” wrote the article's apparent author, Darren Beattie, a former Trump speechwriter who was fired from the White House in 2018 for previously speaking at a conference attended by well-known white nationalists.
The article pointed out that the trial memorandum outlining the House impeachment managers’ case against Trump included the disputed claim, attributed to the New York Times, that the “insurrectionists killed a Capitol Police officer by striking him in the head with a fire extinguisher.”
The Revolver piece included a series of far-out extrapolations on the opaqueness of the Sicknick investigation, even going so far as to suggest that the officer’s body may have been cremated without his family’s approval to prevent any additional forensic analysis from being conducted.
Ken Sicknick could not be reached for comment.
In an email to Yahoo News, a spokesperson for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in D.C. said the standard timeframe for determining the cause and manner of death is “within 90 days; however, for cases that are more complex it could be longer. Therefore, when this information is available and the decedent’s next of kin has been notified, I will provide you with the cause and manner of death.”
The spokesperson did not respond to specific questions about whether Sicknick’s family had authorized his cremation, or if all necessary forensic analyses had been completed before that.
The day after the Revolver post was published, Beattie was invited to discuss the “bombshell” blog post on Steve Bannon’s podcast "War Room: Pandemic," where he declared it “the most important story Revolver’s ever run.” That night, Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who has previously devoted airtime to other Beattie conspiracy theories, gave a shout-out to Revolver’s “exhaustive and fascinating new analysis” in the opening monologue of his show.
“Whatever happened to Brian Sicknick was tragic, obviously, but it was also very different from what they have told us,” Carlson said, charging that the disputed account of Sicknick being fatally bludgeoned with a fire extinguisher “forms the basis of the myth that Democrats have constructed around Jan. 6.”
Last week, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., shared the conspiratorial Revolver post with his more than 955,000 Twitter followers, and during an appearance on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show over the weekend demanded to know “precisely what happened to cause the death of Officer Brian Sicknick.”
The New York Times, for its part, started backing away from the original fire extinguisher narrative as early as Feb. 11, and has since added an italicized update to earlier stories about Sicknick’s death. “New information has emerged regarding the death of the Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick that questions the initial cause of his death provided by officials close to the Capitol Police,” the update says.
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