One week after the deadly insurrection at the US Capitol, federal law enforcement’s dragnet to arrest the violent trespassers kicked into high gear.
Nearly a dozen new known defendants were arrested or charged across the country, and the Justice Department made clear it was throwing its weight behind pursuing major cases that may amount to the most extensive counterterrorism probe since September 11, 2001.
Police officers and swimmer charged
The new arrests on Wednesday brought the total number of new federal criminal cases to at least 32 by nightfall, with hundreds more individuals still being sought or investigated.
Over the past week, investigators have tracked down some of the most notable faces from the riot. On Wednesday, a federal court made public charges against two police officers from rural Virginia who shared a photo on social media of themselves posing in front of a statue of a Revolutionary War general in the Capitol.
Swimmer Klete Keller, who won Olympic gold medals in 2004 and 2008, was identifiable on video from the riot partly because of the Team USA jacket he wore, according to federal court records made public Wednesday. He also was charged for taking part in the violent trespass.
Yet another infamous alleged rioter who had worn a “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirt on January 6, Robert Keith Packer, was arrested Wednesday in Newport News, Virginia.
Many of the recently charged drew attention to themselves by posing in photographs that circulated on the internet or were identified (or identified themselves) on social media. Some have even admitted their involvement in the melee to the FBI.
The unfolding new cases still largely target people caught in photo or videos.
Evidence suggests planning, law enforcement says
The attention is likely to pivot to cases with potentially more serious charges in the coming weeks.
Evidence uncovered so far, including weapons and tactics seen on surveillance video, suggests a level of planning that has led investigators to believe the attack was not just a protest that spiraled out of control, a federal law enforcement official said.
This has prompted more complex investigations, where public integrity and national security prosecutors have come together to approach the investigation like a sprawling terrorism probe.
The presence of corruption prosecutors and agents is in part because of their expertise in financial investigations. “We are following the money,” the official said.
By Wednesday morning, the FBI reported that it had received more than 126,000 digital tips from the public regarding the attack on the Capitol and was tracking online chatter.
Among the tips the FBI received are some that appear to show members of Congress with people who later showed up at the Capitol riot, two law enforcement officials said. This doesn’t mean members of Congress and staff are under investigation, but the FBI is checking the veracity of the claims, the officials said.
Court filings reveal scary details of threats
A few cases have made clear the level of danger around the Capitol last week. In particular, two defendants, Cleveland Meredith Jr. and Lonnie Coffman, are alleged to have brought arsenals to the city with interest in joining a so-called war.
Coffman received one of the first indictments from a grand jury related to the riot, and now faces 17 criminal counts, largely for possession of multiple weapons including ammunition, shotgun shells and various guns, including a shotgun, a rifle, three pistols and 11 Molotov cocktails without registration in Washington, DC, on January 6, according to the indictment.
He is alleged to have parked his truck filled with bombs blocks from the Capitol building before Trump’s rally, after living in the truck in DC for about a week. In court documents regarding Coffman, prosecutors revealed they found handwritten notes of an Abraham Lincoln quote about overthrowing “the men who pervert the Constitution,” phone numbers for right-wing personalities including Sen. Ted Cruz and Sean Hannity, and a list labeling a federal judge a “bad guy” and a member of Congress as a Muslim. He has pleaded not guilty and is in jail awaiting trial.
Meredith is alleged to have made threats in a text message and had with him in the city 2,500 rounds of ammunition, an assault rifle and another gun.
He arrived in Washington, DC, after the pro-Trump rally, and had allegedly gleefully texted about shooting DC Mayor Muriel Bowser and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. He wrote about “war time” against lawmakers as the congressional confirmation of Joe Biden as the President-elect neared, prosecutors say, according to court filings Wednesday.
“The defendant sent a text stating, ‘We’re gonna surround DC and slowly constrict,'” prosecutors noted, arguing for his detention. “Apparently under the impression that law enforcement was monitoring his communications, the defendant later sent a text stating, ‘I’m harmless . . . I won’t fire until ordered SIR!'”
Once Meredith was in town, he allegedly head butted and assaulted a person, the prosecutors added.
“His threats were graphic — he threatened to shoot a public official on live television, to put a bullet in her head. His threats were vulgar and misogynistic. What is more, the defendant clearly took great pleasure in envisioning violence, which he described as ‘fun’ and ‘target practice,'” they wrote in his detention memo.
DOJ wants to keep people off the streets…
At least some of the arrests already made are part of a strategy used in counterterrorism investigations — to find even a minimal charge to take a person of concern off the streets. That could help ease concern about possible attacks on the Inauguration, officials believe.
Authorities had already tried this once last week before the pro-Trump rally in Washington, when they arrested the leader of the right-wing group the Proud Boys, Henry “Enrique” Tarrio, for burning a Black Lives Matter banner.
Law enforcement then said they found on him two high-capacity firearm magazines, prompting additional charges. And this week, federal authorities in New York City arrested a man on a weapons charge after investigators pursued online postings about an armed caravan heading to the US Capitol.
But its strategy may have limits
The Justice Department may hit up against the potential limits of the law as they try to keep some people locked up — with Meredith their first challenge.
The possibility arose Wednesday when a judge pushed back on their ask to keep him detained.
Meredith’s lawyer had argued that keeping him locked up because of perceived “dangerousness” alone is not enough under the law.
“Congress restricted the government’s ability to request detention,” Meredith’s lawyer wrote in a court filing Wednesday afternoon, citing Bail Reform Act limitations that reasons defendants can be kept in jail must be because they are a flight risk, potentially obstructive or charged with crimes of violence, a drug offense, or an offense that could merit a life sentence or death.
Meredith’s lawyer argued he should be released while he awaits his trial.
Meredith has not yet been indicted, and was arrested last week on a criminal complaint alleging that he illegally possessed weapons and made the threats.
He is still detained and is set to appear before the judge, Michael Harvey in Washington, DC, again on Thursday regarding whether he should remain in detention.