Federal Prosecutors Opened Their Case In The First Jan. 6 Trial By Painting A Texas Man As A Mob Leader

Prosecutors contend Guy Reffitt was a “leader” in the assault on the Capitol, even if he never went inside the building.

WASHINGTON — As Guy Reffitt made his way up a set of stairs outside the US Capitol on Jan. 6, not turning back as Capitol Police officers deployed pepperballs, projectiles, and chemical spray, he served as “the tip of the mob’s spear,” a prosecutor told jurors on Wednesday.

With the jury finalized the night before, Assistant US Attorney Jeffrey Nestler began the third day of Reffitt’s trial — the first in the Justice Department’s Jan. 6 prosecution effort — with the government’s opening presentation. Nestler told jurors that although the Wylie, Texas, man wasn’t accused of going inside the building, Reffitt showed the crowd around him a path forward and created the opportunity for them to overwhelm police, all while he was carrying a holstered pistol on his hip. Reffitt became, in his own words, the “match” that lit the fire, the prosecutor said.

“This mob was determined to physically prevent Congress from meeting inside the Capitol building that afternoon,” Nestler said. “A mob needs leaders.” Reffitt, he said, stepped up to “fulfill that role.”

Nestler did not spend time on the broader political context surrounding the insurrection or the full extent of the violence that took place. There was no mention of former president Donald Trump by name. The prosecutor spoke generally about the attack on the Capitol and the fact that Reffitt was one of many people who came to DC because they were “upset” about the election.

Nestler did quote at length from a recording captured by a camera attached to a helmet that Reffitt wore throughout the day on Jan. 6; he apologized to the jury for the language he was about to use. Reffitt started the day at the Ellipse by the White House before moving to the Capitol. The statements included:

“We’re taking the Capitol before the day is over, ripping them out by their hair, every fucking one of them.”

“I just want to see Pelosi’s head hitting every fucking stair on the way out and Mitch McConnell too.”

“I’m packing heat and I’m going to get more heat and I am going to that fucking building and I am dragging them the fuck out.”

The jury received an introduction to Reffitt’s reported affiliation with a local militia, the Texas Three Percenters. Nestler said Reffitt had tried to recruit other members to go with him to DC, telling them that “the fuel is set” and “we will strike the match.” One man who did end up joining him is set to testify against Reffitt and received immunity to do so, Nestler said.

The government’s theory of the case, as laid out to the jury, was that Reffitt left an assembled rifle in the car and took a handgun with him, also carrying plastic flexible handcuffs in case he encountered members of Congress and needed to restrain them. Nestler said that the jury would hear about a Zoom meetup where Reffitt talked to militia members about his experience in Washington, bragging about being the “first person” to “light the match” and talking about how he was carrying his pistol — the prosecutor said that at one point Reffitt told the group, “They are lucky we didn’t shoot them.”

Reffitt, Nestler told the jury, had told his family about his plans to go to DC for "something big." His then-18-year-old son submitted a tip to the FBI about his father in December 2020. After Reffitt returned to Texas, Nestler told the jury that Reffitt grew worried about being watched, and warned his son and his then-16-year-old daughter that if they turned him in they’d be traitors, and that “traitors get shot.” The son recorded his father talking about Jan. 6, and the jury would hear that, Nestler said. Reffitt’s alleged discussions with his children are the subject of one of the charges he faces for obstructing the investigation.

Reffitt’s lawyer, William Welch III, delivered a brief opening statement to the jury. He began by focusing on the lack of evidence that Reffitt had assaulted anyone, saying his client also never tried to disarm officers and did not “threaten harm.” He disputed that Reffitt was armed at the time. Welch acknowledged Reffitt was told to move back and was hit by the various projectiles, but said his time on the steps ended up being brief.

Welch said Reffitt was a person who bragged and exaggerated, and who used “a lot of hyperbole” that made other people upset.

“Pain compliance”

In the afternoon, the jury heard from the government’s first witness, former US Capitol Police officer Shauni Kerkhoff, who was one of the handful of officers who tried to stop the crowd from moving up a set of stairs on the west side of the Capitol. Kerkhoff said she was part of the “less than lethal” team of the Capitol Police’s Civil Disturbance Unit, and served as a “grenadier,” which meant she handled projectile launchers. On Jan. 6., she said she was carrying a pepperball launcher.

Kerkhoff said that as the riot unfolded, she was on the east side of the Capitol and was called to the west side; she said she and other officers tried to go through the building but it was locked down, which meant they had run around outside. By the time Kerkhoff arrived on the west side, the crowd had breached a security perimeter that police set up using metal bike racks and appeared “violent,” she said.

The officers were outnumbered and she was concerned, she said. Asked by Nestler to elaborate, she replied: “We were the only thing standing between thousands of these people and the Congress.”

The jury saw videos of Kerkhoff and other officers’ encounters with a man in a blue jacket and a helmet that the government identified as Reffitt. In Capitol surveillance footage that started at around 1:47 p.m., according to a timestamp, the man is seen at the front of the crowd on the steps; the video didn’t have sound, which is generally the case for Capitol surveillance videos.

In the footage, the man is seen slowly progressing up the stairway, taking a step forward and then pausing. He’s standing on the railing. Kerkhoff said she gave him verbal warnings to stop, and when he didn’t, she deployed an estimated 40-50 pepperballs, aiming for his chest, shins, and thighs, which didn’t seem to have an effect. In the video, the man is seen pointing at the officers and gesturing to the crowd; he is holding a megaphone.

When the pepperballs didn’t work, another officer used a different “less than lethal” weapon that launched projectiles designed to cause more “pain compliance,” Kerkhoff explained, but that also did not stop the man. In the video, an officer deploys a canister of chemical spray, and the man pauses, putting his hand up and his head down. He takes at least one more step up before pausing again and rubbing his face. He makes a sweeping motion with his arm toward the crowd; Kerkhoff says he was waving to the mob to go past him. An officer then uses an even larger canister of chemical spray, and members of the crowd appear to pull down a large tarp on one side of the stairs as a cover.

Nestler played audio of radio dispatches from Capitol Police officers, including Kerkhoff. Asked to describe her voice at the time, Kerkhoff said she was “panicked.” She is heard asking for backup, saying, “They’re coming up the stairs. They’re coming up the stairs on the west side.” Another male voice is heard yelling, “We need every single unit on the upper west terrace right now.”

Videos with later timestamps appeared to show Reffitt sitting on the railing as other members of the mob removed the tarp that covered scaffolding on one side of the stairs and moved through the scaffolding to get to the top of the stairs and push past police. Nestler played a video that Kerkhoff said showed Reffitt taking off his helmet, and, sometime later, moving up the steps with the crowd, pausing at one point to wash out his eyes. In an even later video, the man is seen walking down the stairs away from the Capitol.

The second witness the jury heard from on Wednesday was US Capitol Police Inspector Monique Moore, a 24-year veteran of the force who was in the command center on Jan. 6. Nestler played a compilation of surveillance camera footage showing how the mob breached different areas of the Capitol throughout the afternoon and had Moore narrate.

Early in her testimony, Moore started crying and had to pause to compose herself when Nestler asked her about the mood in the command center. She said she and others were in “disbelief” and that it was hard to hear officers “screaming for help” knowing it was her job to make sure they had the resources to get out.