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Accused Capitol rioter goes on trial in theft of Pelosi office laptop

Riley June Williams. (Dauphin County Prison/AP)

A woman charged in connection with the theft of a computer from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office during the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol was alternately described in court Tuesday as a zealous election denier intent on disrupting democracy and a naive young person who excitedly boasted about crimes she did not commit because she “wanted to be somebody,” as a defense attorney put it.

Riley J. Williams, who was 22 when she, her father and two others traveled together from Harrisburg, Pa., to Washington on the day of the Capitol riot, went on trial Tuesday, charged with eight federal offenses, including aiding and abetting the theft of a laptop computer from a conference room in Pelosi’s office suite.

“Riley Williams doesn’t look dangerous,” prosecutor Michael M. Gordon told jurors in his opening statement in U.S. District Court in Washington. “She’s young. … She doesn’t look capable of violence. … She doesn’t look like a rioter. But looks can be deceiving. On January 6th, 2021, Riley June Williams was all of those things.”

Woman charged with helping to steal laptop from Pelosi’s office during Capitol riot

In addition to encouraging the laptop theft, she is accused of impeding police officers during the Capitol breach, obstructing a congressional proceeding, disorderly conduct, and entering and remaining in the Capitol illegally, among other crimes. A defense lawyer acknowledged in court that Williams joined a mob of supporters of President Donald Trump in storming the building while Congress was meeting to confirm Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election.

The laptop was stolen by an unidentified man, seen on video in the conference room, and authorities have not asserted that Williams knew who he was. However, Gordon said, she can be heard egging him on in the video, saying, “Dude, take the f---ing laptop,” and, “Dude, put on gloves.”

Williams was “obsessed with the idea that the election had been stolen” from Trump, the prosecutor said. He indicated that the government’s case will rely heavily on video recordings of Williams during the attack and numerous social media and text messages she sent afterward, bragging that she had taken part in looting Pelosi’s office. “You’ll hear it was all she could think about,” the prosecutor said.

Defense attorney Lori J. Ulrich, in her opening statement, described her client as an unremarkable person caught up in a historic event — “a girl who wanted to be somebody” and was “living in a fantasy world of sorts.” Scoffing at the list of charges against Williams, Ulrich summed up the prosecution’s strategy as, “basically, let’s throw everything at the wall and see what sticks.”

When Williams told the unidentified man to take the laptop, he was already in the process of doing so, Ulrich said. The man and his companions, she said, “don’t even acknowledge her. … They don’t even know she’s there.”

Gordon said Pelosi (D-Calif.) used the laptop for video meetings with U.S. and foreign leaders.

According to an FBI affidavit filed in court, Williams, in the days immediately after the riot, boasted of committing crimes in typo-ridden text and social media messages, telling friends: “STOLE S-T FROM NANCY POLESI,” and, “I TOOK HER GRAVEL HAMMWR TBING,” and, “I DOMT CARE I TOOK NANCY POLESIS HARD DRIVES I DON’T CARE KILL ME.”

In previewing his case in his opening statement, Gordon showed jurors numerous other, similar messages sent by Williams. But Ulrich said Williams, who meant “gavel” when she wrote “gravel,” sent the messages only after she realized that the riot had seized world attention and she became excited about her participation.

“Because now she’s a big deal,” the defense attorney told the jury. “Because she was there. And now she’s bragging to her friends that she took the laptop. But guess what: She didn’t.” Referring to prosecutors, Ulrich said: “They know she didn’t take the laptop, and they know she didn’t take the hard drive, and they’re guessing about the gavel.” Williams, the defense attorney said, was not charged with stealing anything.

Before the Capitol attack, Williams attended Trump’s incendiary rally on the Ellipse, at which he repeated his debunked claim that rampant voter fraud had led to his defeat in the 2020 election. Afterward, according to Ulrich, Williams got separated from her traveling companions and made her way to the Capitol, where she followed rioters into the building.

Although Gordon showed the jury video of Williams in the building, waving her arms and directing rioters to “go up the stairs” toward Pelosi’s office, Ulrich said her client had no knowledge of the building’s layout and did not even know she was in the Capitol. “We’re storming the White House,” Williams told friends on social media at one point, according to Ulrich.

“She was shocked herself when she found herself in Nancy Pelosi’s office,” the defense lawyer said.

After leaving the House speaker’s suite, Williams scuffled with police officers in the building’s Rotunda, trying to force her way past a security line, Gordon told the jury. But Ulrich said video evidence from the Rotunda “will not prove Riley Williams had forcible contact with the police.”

In what authorities have described as the most sprawling investigation in the Justice Department’s history, more than 880 people from across the country have been arrested in connection with the Capitol riot, the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington said. More than 270 people have been charged with assaulting or impeding law enforcement officers.

Williams’s trial, before U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson, is expected to last several days.