Prosecutors paint alleged Texas militia member as a leader of Jan. 6 riot at U.S. Capitol

WASHINGTON — Federal prosecutors on Wednesday kicked off the first jury trial stemming from the Jan. 6, 2021, riot by portraying the defendant, Guy Wesley Reffitt, as a lead instigator of the “worst assault on the Capitol since the War of 1812.”

“The defendant was the tip of this mob’s spear,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Nestler told jurors. “He lit the match that started the fire.”

An artist’s sketch depicts Guy Wesley Reffitt and his lawyer, William Welch, sitting in court.
An artist’s sketch of Guy Wesley Reffitt, left, and lawyer William Welch in federal court in Washington on Monday. (Dana Verkouteren via AP) (AP)

Reffitt, an alleged member of a Texas chapter of the antigovernment Three Percenters militia, is charged with bringing a firearm onto the grounds of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, interfering with police officers protecting the building from rioters, and later threatening his own children if they reported him to the authorities.

In opening statements Wednesday, Nestler previewed how prosecutors plan to use Reffitt’s own words against him — including text messages he allegedly sent and statements he made before, during and after Jan. 6, 2021. They prove, Nestler said, that Reffitt “wanted to stop Congress from doing its job” of certifying that Joe Biden had defeated then-President Donald Trump in the 2020 election and positioned himself at the front of the angry mob that ultimately breached the Capitol.

“I’m going into that f***ing building and I’m dragging them the f*** out,” Nestler quoted Reffitt as having said in a text message sent to other militia members. In another, according to Nestler, Reffitt allegedly told associates, “I want to see Nancy Pelosi’s head hit every single stair on the way out. Mitch McConnell, too.”

This artist’s sketch shows the courtroom during jury selection for Guy Wesley Reffitt’s trial.
An artist’s sketch shows Judge Dabney Friedrich looking out from the bench during jury selection for Guy Wesley Reffitt’s trial in federal court in Washington on Monday. (Dana Verkouteren via AP) (AP)

Reffitt’s defense attorney, William Welch, followed the prosecution’s roughly 30-minute opening remarks with a conspicuously brief rebuttal that clocked in at around three minutes. Welch emphasized that his client “did not go in the Capitol” and claimed that Reffitt “was not armed” and that he “never assaulted anyone.” If Reffitt is guilty of anything, Welch argued, it is hyperbole.

“Guy does brag. He exaggerates and he rants,” Welch told the jury. “The trial is a rush to judgment and it’s based on bragging.”

Reffitt is charged with four counts relating to his activities on Jan. 6: obstructing an official proceeding, interfering with law enforcement during a civil disorder, transporting firearms to Washington, D.C., for a civil disorder and being unlawfully present on Capitol grounds while armed with a firearm. He faces a fifth charge of obstruction of justice based on threats he allegedly made to his teenage son and daughter upon returning to his Texas home from Washington, telling them to “choose a side or die” and that they would be traitors if they reported him to law enforcement, according to prosecutors. He has pleaded not guilty to all five charges.

Guy Wesley Reffitt rinses his eyes outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
A still photo taken from video shows Guy Wesley Reffitt rinsing his eyes outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Department of Justice)

Reffitt is the first Jan. 6 defendant to have his case heard by a jury. The outcome of the trial could determine whether hundreds of other people charged for their roles in what transpired that day will seek to enter into plea deals with the government.

Since his arrest in late January of last year, Reffitt has been in custody at the Washington, D.C., jail. He sat in the courtroom Wednesday wearing a dark sport coat, blue shirt, jeans and boots, his hair pulled back in a short ponytail. He showed little reaction during either of the opening statements, taking notes as Nestler laid out the prosecution’s case against him, and occasionally donned tortoiseshell glasses to review papers during the proceedings.

Reffitt lowered his mask when Nestler asked the government’s first witness, former U.S. Capitol Police Officer Shauni Kerkhoff, to point him out in court. Kerkhoff testified that she recognized Reffitt as the man she’d interacted with on the Upper West Terrace of the Capitol on Jan. 6.

“It appeared he was leading the crowd up the steps,” Kerkhoff said as she narrated video footage from outside the Capitol, identifying Reffitt wearing a blue coat and black tactical helmet and wielding a megaphone at the front of an “angry and violent” mob. “Every time he took a step, they took a step,” she said.

Rioters clash with police at the front of the Capitol building.
Rioters trying to enter the Capitol through the front doors clash with police on Jan. 6, 2021. (Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images) (Pacific Press/LightRocket via Ge)

Concerned that the rioters would breach the Capitol and “get to members of Congress” meeting inside, Kerkhoff, who has since left the Capitol Police, said she repeatedly commanded Reffitt to stop before firing nonlethal projectiles at him. She estimated that she launched 40 to 50 pepper balls at Reffitt, aiming at his chest, shins and thighs.

“They didn’t seem to take effect,” she said, observing that Reffitt “appeared to be padded up,” either with extra layers of clothing or tactical gear. Prosecutors say he was wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying police-style flex cuffs, in addition to the pistol holstered at his hip. In a radio transmission played for the jury, Kerkhoff made what she described as a “panicked” call for backup, prompting two other officers to fire other nonlethal weapons at Reffitt until he was finally forced to retreat after being hit in the face with pepper spray.

At that point, Nestler said, “his work was done,” arguing that while Reffitt may not have been among those who eventually forced their way inside the Capitol, he cleared the way for those behind him to do so.

During cross-examination, Welch repeatedly asked Kerkhoff whether she’d seen Reffitt among the hundreds of other rioters who entered the Capitol that day. She said she had not.

Protesters push against a metal barricade with Capitol Police on the other side.
Protesters clash with Capitol Police on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images) (Los Angeles Times via Getty Imag)

The opening statements and initial witness testimony heard Wednesday followed two full days of jury selection, which highlighted the challenges involved in prosecuting Jan. 6 cases in the nation’s capital. Not only had all of the potential jurors seen at least some news coverage of the attack, but many of them revealed direct or indirect ties to the federal government or law enforcement, both of which were targets of the rioters’ fury.

“Obviously no one can come into this courtroom with a completely blank slate about Jan. 6 because it was reported so widely, but we don’t want jurors who have formed an opinion of what happened that day,” Judge Dabney Friedrich told prospective jurors on Monday. Friedrich said jurors did not have to “guarantee impartiality,” but said the main question for her would be whether a juror’s views are so strong “that he or she cannot impartially judge guilt or innocence” in this case.

Ultimately, the attorneys for both the prosecution and defense were able to agree on 16 jurors, nine male and seven female, including four alternates.

Nestler will continue his presentation Thursday morning with direct questioning of the government’s second witness, Inspector Monique Moore, who was in charge of the Capitol Police’s command center on Jan. 6. In addition to Moore, Kerkhoff and two other Capitol Police officers who interacted with Reffitt on Jan. 6, the government’s list of highly anticipated witnesses includes an alleged fellow member of the Texas Three Percenters, who drove with Reffitt to and from Washington in the days before and after Jan. 6, and Reffitt’s own teenage children.