Jun 17, 2022

The Ray Epps story.

Ray Epps (red hat) on the front lines of the Jan. 6 riots. Screenshot: Just Another Channel / Rumble
Ray Epps (red hat) on the front lines of the Jan. 6 riots. Screenshot: Just Another Channel / Rumble

Did an FBI informant help lead rioters on January 6?

From the very first hours after the January 6 riots, there were allegations that things may not have been as they seemed.

On social media, supporters of former President Donald Trump alleged that Antifa — the loose collection of far-left anti-fascists — was in the crowd. Some suggested Black Lives Matter protesters were egging on Trump supporters. Others suggested the crowd was simply made up of extremists with no real political affiliation — people there just to wreak havoc.

But as the days went on, another theory percolated, one that has had much more staying power. This theory suggests that, while plenty of the people who stormed the Capitol were real, legitimate Trump supporters, they were led by federal agents — informants for the FBI or even undercover agents. While on the surface, such an allegation may seem fanciful and outlandish, FBI instigation and entrapment has historical precedent, which has helped breathe surprising staying power into this theory.

The result is that many Americans believe the violence on January 6 was closer to a fed-orchestrated event than an organic uprising against the government. Some have taken to calling January 6th a "fed-surrection," a play on the description of the day as an insurrection. Those theories are far-reaching. On his popular Fox News show, Tucker Carlson has repeatedly insisted that the January 6 rioters were led by FBI instigators. In Congress, Sen. Ted Cruz has tried — and failed — to get answers out of the FBI during hearings about their involvement on Jan. 6.

And key to nearly all of these theories is one man: Ray Epps.

"If anyone organized on January 6, it was Ray Epps," Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeted just this week. Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) showed clips of Epps to Attorney General Merrick Garland during a hearing, asking if federal agents stoked the rioters. Garland, as many officials in his position do, declined to comment.

So who is Ray Epps? What role did he actually play on January 6? Is he an FBI informant or just another Trump supporter who showed up at the Capitol that day? And why has his name become such a story?

In this edition, I'll tell you what we know about Epps' background, the purported evidence we have supporting the notion that he is an FBI informant, the counter-narrative, and what I think.

Ray Epps (red hat) on the front lines of the Jan. 6 riots. Screenshot: Just Another Channel / Rumble
Ray Epps (red hat) on the front lines of the Jan. 6 riots. Screenshot: Just Another Channel / Rumble

Ray Epps.

While there has been a lot of disagreement about Ray Epps’ role in January 6, there isn't much disagreement about who he is.

Here is the basic profile:

Epps is a 60-year-old former Marine who runs a wedding and event venue in Queen Creek, Arizona, called Knotty Barn. He is a longtime Trump supporter who has ties to the Oath Keepers, a far-right anti-government militia that was formed shortly after President Obama was elected. In 2008, Epps was listed as the president of the Arizona chapter of the Oath Keepers. When he was first placed on the FBI most-wanted list, just two days after January 6, internet sleuths quickly dug up his profile and found that he was an avid hunter, boater, and a proud veteran.

And here is the theory of his involvement:

Among believers of the "fed-surrection" theory, Ray Epps played a key role in January 6 by instigating protesters the night before to go inside the Capitol, and then by encouraging the very first breaches of the barricades surrounding the Capitol on January 6. Since footage of Epps' presence in D.C. and around the Capitol building is widely available online, believers in this theory have questioned why the FBI hasn't taken action to arrest him. Skeptics of this theory suggest Epps, like hundreds of others who have since been indicted, was just one of many longtime and loyal Trump supporters who believed the election was stolen and arrived in D.C. on January 6 with hopes of preventing the ceremonial certification of Biden's victory.

The evidence.

By far the most influential news reporting on this story has been done by Darren Beattie at Revolver News. I invited Beattie on my podcast a while back but never heard from him (we'll talk about him a bit more later). Still, he's written several lengthy articles about Epps that seem to have driven most of the discourse around the notion that he is an FBI informant. In fact, Fox News and many of the Republican congressmen claiming Epps is working for the feds have leaned heavily on Beattie’s articles as confirmation of this charge.

I should say from the start that a lot of Beattie's work has been useful in identifying and tracking Epps' movements throughout the day’s events. However, after reading everything he has published about this story, I've also noticed his tendency to make some (rather large) leaps of motivated reasoning, like linking Epps to other rioters simply because the two appeared within a few yards of each other multiple times throughout the day. His reports, while providing a swathe of useful information other news outlets have ignored,  should be read with a good deal of skepticism.

Fundamentally, his work fleshes out the three main arguments for the case against Epps:

1) What we know about the FBI's history and their presence on Jan. 6.

2) The incriminating video footage of Epps.

3) The fact that he still hasn't been charged or arrested for any crimes.

Each of these three pieces has a smattering of other important details, but they are the pillars the Epps story rests on.

1) The FBI: We know that the FBI leverages informants, which is well-documented in the Revolver News stories. But, if a website that has been accused of hosting conspiracy theories and calls itself a home "for conservatives, populists, moderates, and patriotic liberals" throws you a red flag, let's start with this foundational piece of evidence from a source you may trust a little more: There were FBI informants in the crowd on January 6, according to The New York Times. That reporting, which came some months after Revolver News's initial reporting, starts like this:

As scores of Proud Boys made their way, chanting and shouting, toward the Capitol on Jan. 6, one member of the far-right group was busy texting a real-time account of the march. The recipient was his F.B.I. handler. In the middle of an unfolding melee that shook a pillar of American democracy — the peaceful transfer of power — the bureau had an informant in the crowd, providing an inside glimpse of the action, according to confidential records obtained by The New York Times. In the informant’s version of events, the Proud Boys, famous for their street fights, were largely following a pro-Trump mob consumed by a herd mentality rather than carrying out any type of preplanned attack.

Several things from that New York Times report are key to the theory about Ray Epps:

  • The FBI had an informant in a midwest chapter of the Proud Boys and were tracking him leading up to Jan. 6.
  • The informant stated repeatedly that the Proud Boys had no plans to cause violence or breach the Capitol.
  • When the informant arrived at the first barrier to the Capitol with members of Proud Boys chapters from across the country, it had already been breached.

Now, neither The Times nor Revolver News is saying this informant was Ray Epps, but the story implies that the FBI had warnings about the Proud Boys, had at least one informant in their midst, and that the Proud Boys did not lead the initial breach of the Capitol.

In some ways, the presence of informants shouldn't be surprising. We know, for instance, that months before Jan. 6, members of the FBI had helped plan the kidnapping of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. The government failed to prosecute its case against the alleged domestic terrorists, almost certainly because the FBI itself played such a huge role in organizing the planned kidnapping. They weren't charged with entrapment, but if you read the details of the case it’s tough to think of a better word to describe what happened.

We also have numerous examples all throughout American history of the FBI infiltrating groups — from civil rights activists to white nationalists — and then helping egg on criminal activity in order to land prosecutions. This is not new.

So, key to the Ray Epps story is this foundation: The FBI has a well-documented history of using informants to egg on criminal activity; and they had at least one informant in the D.C. crowd on Jan. 6.

2) The video footage. The next piece of evidence is the deluge of video footage featuring Epps. This is where Revolver News' reporting has been so influential. They compiled highlight reels of Epps collected from the thousands of videos posted on social media. The footage spans from the night of January 5 to the riots of January 6. In many of the videos, Epps is encouraging rioters to go "in" to the Capitol. In one of the most viewed, Epps implores protesters on the night of January 5: "We need to go into the Capitol! Into the Capitol!"

"What? No," someone can be heard saying off camera. "Peacefully," Epps emphasizes, before the crowd starts chanting "Fed! Fed! Fed!" at him, apparently already suspicious of some of the people among their ranks.

In other videos, Epps says “I don’t even like to say it because I’ll be arrested. I’ll say it. We need to go into the Capitol.” In still others, Epps again tells protesters, “We need to go inside the Capitol”— insisting that anything besides that objective is a "distraction."

Epps was also part of the initial "breach" of the outer Capitol premises. This has been a major focus of the Revolver News account, but is a fact that isn't really disputed elsewhere. Once protesters arrive at the first barricades surrounding the Capitol complex, Epps can be seen speaking quietly in one person's ear before that man pushes through a barricade. That barricade was one of the first documented breaches of the Capitol, and the area that opened up became a thoroughfare for protesters who would leave Trump's speech, walk down Pennsylvania Avenue, and soon become rioters. While Epps himself doesn't participate in pushing through, he follows the crowd once they overwhelm the police.

Later, as the crowd gets closer to the actual Capitol building, Epps is again featured prominently in videos online. In these, he can be seen walking up and down the front lines between police and protesters and at times taking a posture of leadership, insisting people not hurt any of the officers.

All of this footage of Epps makes him one of the most visible people from the day of January 6. Across multiple videos from the night before, he is seen instructing people to go into the Capitol. Then, on the actual day, he is on the front lines of the first group to enter the Capitol complex by pushing past (and trampling over) police. In several videos, Epps can be seen giving people explicit instructions on which way to go to get to the Capitol and what to do once they get inside (like leaving behind a flagpole).

3) He hasn't been charged. The glue that holds all of these pieces together is the way the FBI has handled Epps' case. Fundamentally, everyone who wonders about his involvement asks this question: Why hasn't he been charged?

By January 8, just two days after the Capitol riots, Epps was on the FBI's most wanted list. They offered a cash reward to identify him, and internet sleuths — at the time, mostly leftists and "insurrection hunters" — quickly did so. Months later, Revolver News published the first of several stories questioning the role Epps played, and on June 30 The New York Times published an exhaustive piece about January 6 that named and identified Epps.

Instead of quickly prosecuting the man they had offered a cash reward to identify, though, the FBI did something odd: It quietly purged Epps from the most-wanted list with no explanation. You can still find his listing using the Internet Archive Wayback Machine, but he no longer shows up anywhere else on the FBI website.

Since then, there hasn't been any explanation for this. The House committee investigating January 6 has said it interviewed Epps in November of 2021, and that he denied reports of urging anyone into the Capitol on instructions from federal law enforcement. The committee essentially absolved Epps of any wrongdoing, concluding that he wasn't charged by the FBI because he didn't commit any property damage or assault any police officers.

For many, though, that explanation has been unconvincing. At least 865 people have now been charged in the riots. Some of those charges are as simple as "Entering and remaining in a restricted building or grounds; disorderly and disruptive conduct in a restricted building or grounds; disorderly conduct in a Capitol building; parading, demonstrating, or picketing in a Capitol building." Epps was — at the very least — caught on video encouraging people to enter the Capitol the day before and instructing people where to find the Capitol building on the day of the riots.

In January, Sen. Ted Cruz asked senior FBI official Jill Sanborn several questions about the FBI's involvement, specifically in Jan. 6 — whether any agents actively participated in Jan. 6 or if any confidential informants were there. She, like Garland, repeatedly demurred, saying that she couldn't discuss the agency's methods or sources or that she had “no knowledge” of FBI agents encouraging violence. This isn't an unusual answer, but it's also not a satisfying one.

In sum, this is the argument for Epps being a federal agent: We know the FBI had at least one informant present in D.C. on January 6. We know Epps was in Washington D.C. encouraging people to enter the Capitol. We know that he was, for months, on the FBI's most-wanted list before being inexplicably removed. And we know he has never been charged for a crime committed on that day.

Evidence against.

The biggest hole in the Ray Epps theory is the lack of a smoking gun. In fact, if you step back and look at a lot of the most compelling arguments that he may be working for the FBI, it is all much closer to conjecture than hard evidence.

Despite so much information from the January 6 committee and FBI making its way to the press, we don't have any leaks from the FBI that he was an informant, any documentation of his work with the FBI, or any correspondence between him and the FBI. We have no video, text, or photo evidence of him interacting with any law enforcement officers. But we do have evidence that directly undercuts some of the narratives that have formed out there.

For instance, one of the most critical parts of the Epps theory is that he encouraged the initial breach of the Capitol, which then allowed so many Trump supporters to push through and storm the building. But since the start, Epps has insisted that he was doing the opposite: encouraging people to avoid conflicts with the police who were just doing their job. In fact, Revolver News published video footage of Epps doing that very thing after the Capitol had been breached, but they framed it as proof that he was working with the Feds (and didn't want to see any law enforcement officers hurt).

The New York Times published a piece in May that touched on the moment where Epps whispered in the ear of a January 6 rioter before the man, identified as Pennsylvania resident Ryan Samsel, first breached the barricade. According to the piece, when Epps saw his name on the most-wanted list on January 8, he contacted the FBI and told them that he was trying to calm Samsel down. The Times sources three people who heard recordings of the Epps call. Then, in January of 2022, Samsel was interviewed by the FBI and told a similar story: A man he didn't know had come up to him and tried to calm him down at the barricades, suggesting he relax.

“He came up to me and he said, ‘Dude’ — his entire words were, ‘Relax, the cops are doing their job,’” Mr. Samsel said.

This language tracks exactly with what Epps has said in other video clips online, where he is repeatedly seen telling people that the police are just doing their jobs and are not the enemy. And if you watch the video closely, as I did, their exchange does look a lot more like one intended to de-escalate than to rile someone up. Epps puts a hand on Samsel’s shoulder and shakes his head as he speaks, as if telling him "It's not worth it," before the man joins the crowd in breaking through the gate. Even more, there are tapes of both Samsel and Epps, whose calls were recorded separately and nearly a year apart but were later released to investigators. They tell an almost identical and benign story.

There's also more to the Samsel story. Not only did Samsel and Epps tell identical stories of Epps trying to de-escalate the situation, but Samsel's lawyers actually tried to peg Epps as an FBI informant. In January, Samsel's lawyers had already sought out information from the government on Epps, knowing that if he were working with the FBI, it would be good for their client. And they weren't alone: Six months ago, “Lawyers for Mr. Samsel and others charged with storming the barricade with him have asked the government for information about Mr. Epps; another defendant has asked a federal judge for permission to subpoena testimony from Mr. Epps,” according to The Times.

But so far, none of their cases have been dropped or dismissed, and no damning evidence of Epps has yet come out. In May, a slate of new information was released as part of a discovery disclosure to defense lawyers representing people charged with crimes on January 6. Included in that information were the recorded calls of Epps and Samsel saying that Epps had tried to calm him down. Not included was any information about Epps working for the government. If Epps were an informant, we'd almost certainly know it by now.

Another simple explanation for Epps' non-arrest is that he didn't commit any obvious crime. Despite so many hours of footage featuring him, he is never seen pushing over any fences, scuffling with any police, or entering the actual Capitol building. Simply put: There is no footage of Epps committing any of the kinds of crimes that the FBI and Department of Justice have been prosecuting.

The other question concerns why the FBI removed Epps from its most-wanted list with no comment, and the suspicious timing that it happened right after news reports about him surfaced. There aren't a lot of very satisfying answers to that question, and I concede it leaves me suspicious. You’d think, given the attention this story has gotten, the FBI would simply quell the suspicions by releasing a statement on Epps’s case. But there is one point worth making: A lot of people have been removed from that list without comment and without being arrested. You can use the same Wayback Machine to find Epps and also see that dozens of people who were initially on the list have since been dropped without being charged.

Some have argued that if the FBI were using Epps as an undercover agent, they never would have put him on the most-wanted list in the first place. This, too, is an interesting point to consider. Though it's worth noting that it's not a general rule. The FBI has put several top informants, including famous crime bosses like Whitey Bulger, atop its most-wanted list while simultaneously using them as informants.

Further undercutting this story are all the things Beattie and Carlson have actually gotten wrong about January 6.

For instance, in the lengthy write-ups done by Revolver News on Epps, the focus wasn't just on his story. It was on an alleged network of FBI informants who were never charged for crimes committed on that day — all of whom were easily identifiable. The case Revolver News made was that Epps, along with a few other people, were "instigators" and had not yet been charged.

But since Revolver News published those allegations last year, several of the other people featured in their story have been arrested and charged. In October 2021, for instance, Revolver News linked Epps to Stewart Rhodes, a leader of the Oath Keepers who had not yet been charged despite, like Epps, being featured prominently in social media videos on January 6. Revolver News hyped its own reporting, which it said was "exploring the extraordinary degree of federal protection afforded to founder and leader of the Oath Keepers militia, a man named Stewart Rhodes.” Beattie claims the Revolver News piece on Rhodes and Epps “likely triggered the FBI’s freakout” that led them to removing Epps from its most-wanted list.

But in January of 2022, Rhodes was arrested on seditious conspiracy charges, some of the most serious charges leveled in this case. So the FBI wasn't protecting him, it was building its case. And Rhodes is now in more hot water than just about anyone else from January 6.

The same is true of "MaroonPB," another character featured prominently in Revolver News's reporting. They hype an interaction between Epps and MaroonPB (named for his outfit), saying "we see Epps give explicit instructions" to him before one of the first breaches of the Capitol. They say MaroonPB and Epps both repeatedly say things like "it's about the Constitution," and that each of them is ex-military, and that ex-military often serve as FBI informants. They even go so far as to say MaroonPB was younger than Epps and clearly "subordinate" to him, and finally conclude: "It is inconceivable — one might say verging on genuinely impossible — that the FBI does not know who MaroonPB is." MaroonPB is the Ray Epps "mini-me," the report says, implying his lack of arrest is proof that he, too, is an FBI informant.

And Revolver News is right. It is easy to find MaroonPB. In fact, it took me about 10 minutes of reverse image searching the photos Revolver News used of him to find out his name is Ryan Loehrke, and he is from Gainesville, Florida. And, like Rhodes, he too has now been arrested and charged with obstruction of law enforcement, unlawful entry, violent entry, and disorderly conduct.

So, two of the three people Revolver News most prominently featured as potential FBI informants have now been arrested, failing to meet the very standard Beattie created as proof that they were informants in the first place. And both of them are distinct from Epps in that there is video footage of them either committing violence, entering the Capitol building, clashing with police or pushing over barricades. So it’s no mystery why they have been arrested and Epps hasn't.

It also raises other possible explanations: Maybe Epps isn't yet off the hook? Or, maybe Epps was questioned, told the FBI what he knew, and led them to bigger fish? Rather than being an informant, he may have just been someone who skated by without being charged because he didn't actually commit any violent crimes or property destruction.

Finally, it's worth calling out Carlson's version of the Ray Epps story, which also has major flaws. On his show, Carlson has repeatedly alleged that "unindicted co-conspirators" is actually a buzzword for someone who is an undercover FBI agent, even though it is against the law for the FBI to name someone as an unindicted co-conspirator if they are in fact working for the bureau.

Worse, one of the people Carlson had previously alleged was a "co-conspirator," which he told his audience was code for "FBI informant," later appeared on his show to complain about being prosecuted by the FBI. But Carlson never mentions that the guest was once someone he implied was an FBI informant and never corrected the record either. So, much like Revolver News, one of the people he framed as an FBI informant was then charged and re-purposed by Carlson as a victim of the FBI's broad prosecutorial powers.

My take.

The Ray Epps story is a skillfully crafted narrative, and one that I find quite tantalizing.

Naturally, I am skeptical and suspicious of the government. Even moreso of the FBI and CIA, agencies whose jobs often rely on deceiving reporters and the public. So the story of Ray Epps drew me in and certainly did not strike me as implausible. And, given that we know the FBI had at least one informant in the crowd on January 6, I'm certainly interested in hearing more about what the agency's role was in the day's events and how much they knew of the plans before the riots began.

But based on all the available evidence, it's hard for me to come to the conclusion Epps is some kind of undercover FBI agent — or is even tied to the bureau at all.

Not only do we lack evidence that Epps was an FBI agitator, we have pretty strong evidence — via court records, interviews with January 6 defendants and video footage — that Epps was just another longtime Trump supporter with well-established ties to militia groups who spent much of his time on January 6 insisting people stay non-violent and avoid any direct clashes with police. We have more evidence, via his and Samsel's testimony, that he tried to stop the initial breach of the Capitol than we have evidence that he led it.

Worse yet, many similar theories about Epps' purported co-conspirators have simply fallen apart. Revolver News and Fox News both pegged numerous other people as potential FBI informants based on the fact they hadn't been charged, only for those people to then be charged with very serious crimes. It should be noted, too, that James Beattie, the writer behind the Revolver News stories, is not an impartial observer. In fact, he had worked in the Trump White House before being forced out after it was revealed he had made a public appearance with an avowed white nationalist.

From my vantage point, the most accurate description of how January 6 went down is this: A large, unruly gathering of Trump supporters arrived on January 6 to protest what they believed was a stolen election. Hundreds of people in this group, which consisted of thousands of demonstrators, turned into a more violent mob that marched to the Capitol and worked itself into such a fervor it eventually began clashing with police and then stormed the building itself.

We still don't know the full picture of the FBI's involvement and the January 6 committee has so far seemed uninterested in those details. We are learning more every day about the way groups like the Proud Boys or the Oath Keepers orchestrated events on this day, but it seems most plausible that the FBI knew about the possibility of riots on January 6 and were trying to be informed about what was happening. It seems less likely to me that the agency, had it really known the extent of how things were going to go, would put the lives of Capitol Police and federal officials in jeopardy by instigating the mob toward the Capitol with agitators. We know those movements nearly turned into violence against members of Congress and the vice president. I’m not saying it’s totally out of the question, but there would need to be substantial evidence we don’t yet have to back such a radical story up.

So, while the Ray Epps theory has reached the halls of Congress and is still prominently featured online and on cable TV (and, of course, has drawn the interest of many Tangle readers, which is why we're covering it today), I'd proceed with serious caution. Unlike allegations of election fraud that I have covered, the story of Ray Epps isn't as easily deconstructed because so much of the evidence relies on what the FBI isn't doing or what hasn't happened — but that is also what makes the theory so flimsy.

If you ask me, the simple answer — that Epps' actions did not rise to the criminal level, that he may be charged down the road, or that he simply cooperated and got leniency — seems much more likely to me than the idea that he was an FBI plant who led a mob into the Capitol. If any more evidence ever comes to light, we'll be sure to address it.

But based on what we have so far, I find it extremely difficult to buy the Ray Epps-led "fed-surrection" narrative.

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