WASHINGTON — Federal prosecutors in Arizona on Friday withdrew dramatic allegations they'd filed in court the night before that some of the pro-Trump insurrectionists who stormed the US Capitol last week planned to "capture and assassinate elected officials."
The government had shared its latest assessment of the danger of the Jan. 6 attack in arguing to keep Jacob Chansley, the shirtless man seen wearing horns as he broke into the Senate chamber, in custody while his case is pending. The Arizona man is a believer of the QAnon mass delusion and is well known in those circles as the "QAnon shaman." Prosecutors wrote that Chansley was "an active participant in — and has made himself the most prominent symbol of — a violent insurrection that attempted to overthrow the United States Government."
At a press briefing on Friday afternoon, however, acting US Attorney Michael Sherwin of the District of Columbia threw cold water on the Arizona prosecutors' brief in Chansley's case. Sherwin's office is leading the prosecution of the Capitol riot cases, and said that they didn't have "direct evidence of kill-capture teams." At a court hearing later in the day in Chansley's case, Assistant US Attorney Todd Allison told the judge that they were striking the "capture and assassinate" line from their brief because they didn't want to mislead the court by getting into a discussion at this stage about the strength of the evidence supporting their claim.
However, Allison said, the statement "may very well be appropriate at a trial of Mr. Chansley and may very well characterize the evidence and his intent that day." The government left the rest of its brief intact and pressed its argument that Chansley was a flight risk and posed a danger to the community if released.
The retraction ultimately did not hurt the government's case. US Magistrate Judge Deborah Fine ordered Chansley held in custody while his case goes forward, saying that "his actions and words demonstrate he’s willing to participate in the violent disruption of the work of our government" and that she had "no confidence he will follow my court orders." She agreed with prosecutors that Chansley was a flight risk and posed a danger to the community, noting that Chansley had expressed a desire to go back to Washington and could cut off a GPS monitoring device if she tried to impose that as a condition of release.
"He intended his actions to stop the process of peaceful transition of power," Fine said. She continued later in announcing her decision: "He will take the law into his own hands and will not respect the United States' law. If he's willing to do that in the Capitol building during these important events, I find that I have no confidence, really, that Mr. Chansley would follow any order or condition I would set if he disagreed."
Chansley tried to speak at the end of the hearing, but Fine stopped him, saying that his lawyer should address the court and that it wasn't advisable for a defendant to do it himself. Chansley's lawyer said he would speak with his client, and the hearing ended.
According to the government's memo, after Chansley and others breached the Capitol and the Senate chamber, Chansley — who was carrying what prosecutors described as a spear with an American flag tied below the blade — left a note on the Senate dais that stated, "it's only a matter of time, justice is coming." Vice President Mike Pence had been standing at that dais shortly before the attack, presiding over Congress's final certification of the election results and President-elect Joe Biden's win over President Donald Trump. Chansley allegedly told investigators that the note wasn't meant as a threat, but prosecutors told the court that they "strongly" disagreed.
"Chansley acted on conspiracy theories he has repeatedly espoused in becoming one of the highest-profile members of a group that attacked a Congressional proceeding, and nothing suggests he has learned from that experience so as to avoid it if on pre-trial release. The nature and circumstances of his offense are grave, and cannot be mitigated by conditions of release," prosecutors wrote.
The government also said that Chansley had expressed interest in going back to Washington for Biden's inauguration on Jan. 20. Prosecutors argued that Chansley was a flight risk, in part because he'd become so "strongly associated" with his costume that he was "virtually unidentifiable" when he didn't wear it.
“I’ll still go, you better believe it. For sure I’d want to be there, as a protester, as a protester, fuckin’ a," Chansley allegedly told the FBI after his arrest.
Chansley, also known as Jake Angeli, was taken into custody on Jan. 9. He's charged with knowingly entering or remaining in any restricted building or grounds without lawful authority, and with violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds. A federal magistrate judge is scheduled to hear arguments on whether to keep Chansley behind bars on Friday afternoon.
Chansley is one of more than 40 people whose arrests on federal charges in connection with the Capitol insurrection are public to date; the US attorney's office in Washington, DC, which is leading the federal prosecution effort, is expected to announce many more cases in the coming days.
Some judges have agreed to release defendants charged in connection with last week's violence while their cases are pending, but others have not. On Thursday, a federal magistrate judge in Texas agreed to release a retired Air Force officer who was photographed carrying zip-tie handcuffs into the Capitol; prosecutors had argued to keep him in custody, saying there was evidence he planned to "kidnap, restrain, perhaps try, perhaps execute members of the U.S. government," according to an Associated Press report.
Other defendants granted temporary release so far include a man photographed carrying Pelosi’s lectern (her office said it never left the building), a newly elected member of the West Virginia House of Delegates who was recorded on video as he entered the Capitol shouting “We’re in, we’re in!” and a man who allegedly repeatedly punched a US Capitol Police officer. Judges are imposing travel restrictions on people they’ve allowed to go free for now.
On Friday, a federal judge in Arkansas ruled that Richard Barnett, a man who was photographed sitting in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office and allegedly brought a stun gun with him into the Capitol, could be released pending trial. The judge heard several hours of testimony from an FBI special agent involved in the investigation as well as friends and family of Barnett. Prosecutors asked to delay the judge's order so that they could challenge it, and later in the evening the chief judge of the federal district court in Washington, DC, ordered Barnett kept in custody and transferred to DC pending a review of his detention.
Although many defendants are making their first federal court appearances wherever they were arrested, all of the cases brought by the US attorney's office are ultimately being handled in the DC federal district court. A DC federal magistrate judge yesterday sided with the government in denying release to a man charged with threatening to kill House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in text messages and bringing multiple firearms and ammunition to Washington; the man had planned to participate in the Capitol assault but arrived too late because of trouble with his truck, according to prosecutors.
Prosecutors argued that Chansley's statements to the FBI and the media shows that the "insurrection is still in progress and he intends to continue participating." They connected Chansley's case to the FBI's warnings that more armed protests were being planned across the country and warned that as "domestic violent extremists" were banned from popular social media platforms, they might go back to using "more secure" channels to communicate, making it harder for the government to track them.
Chansley's "status as a symbol of the insurrection, his actions inside the
Capitol building, and his demonstrated disregard of orders while inside with the goal of disrupting official Congressional proceedings, demonstrate the danger his release would pose," the government wrote.
Updated with information about Richard Barnett's detention hearing.
This story was updated after prosecutors told a judge that, for now, they are striking their argument that Capitol insurrectionists planned to “capture and assassinate elected officials.” The story was also updated with information about Chansley's detention.