Since Election Day ended Tuesday with several key states undecided, demonstrators have gathered outside vote-counting sites in cities including Detroit, Atlanta and Phoenix, in some cases shouting and demanding access while questioning the legitimacy of the vote counting process.
Many of the demonstrators have expressed conspiracy theories alleging widespread fraud aimed at lifting Joe Biden over President Trump. The president and his allies have amplified those claims, which come as the vote tallying has steadily seen Biden surpass Trump or take the lead in pivotal states. Conservatives and others on social media have urged people to demonstrate and called for a wave of “Stop the Steal” protests to continue at state capitols on Saturday.
As of Friday night, with about 95 percent of the votes in Pennsylvania tallied, Biden’s lead over Trump was almost 21,000 votes. Philadelphia and its suburbs have drawn particular attention because they lean toward Biden and have votes left to count, drawing right-wing demonstrators who have at times implored officials to stop the count.
Philadelphia police said they located the armed men near the convention center late Thursday after being tipped off about people with guns traveling there in a silver Hummer with Virginia license plates. Police found the Hummer and then two bike patrol officers spotted the two men, both of whom were arrested for having guns they were not allowed to carry in the city, the department said. A woman apparently traveling with them was not arrested, officials said.
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner identified the two men as 42-year-old Joshua Macias and 61-year-old Antonio LaMotta, both of Chesapeake, Va. Krasner said they were both charged with having a concealed firearm without a license, a third-degree felony, and carrying a firearm on public streets or public property, a first-degree misdemeanor.
During a news briefing before the men were charged, Krasner sought to tamp down speculation about the incident, saying that “at this time, we do not have indications that the story is bigger than these two individuals.”
Krasner said officials were taking the situation “very seriously,” but added that it “may turn out to be nothing more than two people deciding to come to Philadelphia at a particular time for a somewhat unknown purpose.” Krasner also said officials had no information suggesting “any of them are known members of an extremist group."
Photos of the Hummer captured what appeared to be a hat inside bearing an insignia for QAnon, a far-right conspiracy theory, as well as a decal on its rear window bearing an abbreviation of that group’s rallying cry, “Where we go one, we go all."
In a statement announcing the charges Friday, Krasner said police had been told the armed people were coming to Philadelphia, “possibly for a reason related to the ongoing canvas of votes.” He also said the investigation is ongoing and that more charges could follow.
Danielle Outlaw, the Philadelphia police commissioner, said LaMotta was seen carrying a 9mm pistol visible in a hip holster, while Macias had a handgun concealed under his jacket. Outlaw said that Macias had a Virginia concealed carry permit. After the men gave police consent to search their Hummer, an AR-15-style rifle was recovered inside it, she said. In total, Krasner said about 160 rounds of ammunition were found.
People who know the men arrested in Philadelphia defended them Friday, suggesting they drove there to look at the scene and did not mean any harm. Macias was a co-founder of the group Vets for Trump but left it several months ago to spend more time with his family, Vlad Lemets, the group’s chairman and executive director, said in an interview. Macias remained friendly with Lemets and others within the group, speaking to Lemets by phone Friday.
Macias and LaMotta went to Philadelphia intending to do surveillance and see what was going on, Lemets said. The woman in the car who was not arrested was Macias’s mother, he said. The men brought their guns because that is how they travel, Lemets said, adding that the pair believed they could legally carry their weapons and did not realize they would be violating local laws.
“There was no intention of violence, no intention of confrontation,” Lemets said. “These were two military guys doing what we do. … These guys did absolutely nothing wrong. … All they wanted to do was scope out terrain.”
It was unclear Friday night if the two men had retained lawyers, and the public defender’s office in Philadelphia did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.
Armed demonstrators have appeared at the vote-counting demonstrations in Phoenix, but laws regarding who can openly carry guns vary from state to state. In Pennsylvania, people are allowed to openly carry guns without permits in every county except Philadelphia. Pennsylvania also recognizes concealed-carry licenses issued by many other states, but Virginia is not among them, according to the attorney general’s office.
A ballot counter in Philadelphia who was heading home after the two men were arrested Thursday said a frightening number of police officers had materialized outside the convention center. “I just took off,” said the poll worker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity fearing harassment.
News of the arrests did not set off widespread alarm among those gathered Friday near the convention center. Not long after, about 20 Trump supporters stood nearby — apart from a much larger crowd celebrating Trump’s potential defeat. The pro-Trump group carried signs demanding that every “legal” vote be counted, and some insisted they were there denouncing what they believe is fraud going on inside.
Jay Stone, 70, a Trump supporter, said he does not endorse armed protests and said his focus was on the vote-counting process, which local and state officials in Pennsylvania have defended as legitimate.
“Voter fraud that is so detestable,” said Stone, who lives a few blocks away and sat on his bicycle holding a large American flag. “You cannot even believe what is going on right in this building, they are stealing a presidential election with fraudulent mail-in ballots."
It was unclear why LaMotta and Macias were doing surveillance on the area, but LaMotta has worked in security and has been an ardent supporter of the Trump campaign and of other GOP candidates in Virginia.
According to family members, former co-workers and online biographies, LaMotta had worked in security and maintenance and taught martial arts. Between 2015 and 2019, he worked as a facilities maintenance technician for the city of Chesapeake, a police spokesman said.
Garrett Astarita, a former New Jersey councilman, said his dialysis company hired LaMotta as a bodyguard after Hurricane Sandy so they could refuel equipment and carts for doctors and nurses in “some not so good areas” devastated by the storm.
“I only knew him for two weeks,” he said. “To me he was a great bodyguard; he kept us safe in some harrowing circumstances."
In the evenings, LaMotta would play Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel songs on his guitar in the lobby of their hotel to entertain the displaced families staying there, Astarita said.
Anita LaMotta, his 83-year-old mother, described her son as “not a troublemaker, he's a good man."
“Maybe he just wanted to help if there was a riot or something,” she said, noting that they are distant relatives of Jake LaMotta, the boxer whose story was the focus of the movie “Raging Bull.”
She said her son works nights as a security guard, sleeps during the day and, like her, is a devout Republican.
“He loved Republicans. He loved Trump very much,” she said. “He didn’t want Trump to lose.”
Virginia state Sen. Amanda Chase (R-Chesterfield), who was seen in a photograph posing with LaMotta, said in an interview Friday that he appeared at the state capitol in February when she announced her bid for governor. Chase said he was not associated with her campaign and, at one point, asked to provide security for her, but her team turned him down.
“The head of my security team vets people that desire to be security on our team and he didn’t check out,” said Chase, who has traveled with private security since last year because of alleged threats. “We’ve never paid him any money."
She said LaMotta and Macias came to the campaign kickoff as members of the Vets for Trump group. Chase said she also saw LaMotta and Macias at a large pro-gun rally at the state capitol in January, when he also appeared with Vets for Trump, a different group from the similarly named Veterans for Trump.
Chase, who said she has since distanced herself from Vets for Trump, said that she planned to attend a rally Saturday outside the Virginia Elections Department in Richmond billed as a “Stop the Steal” event.
“I believe in other states, that they are trying to steal the election,” she said, declining to elaborate.
At demonstrations Friday, pro-Trump groups rallied and echoed the president's unfounded allegations of voter fraud. In Phoenix, hundreds of Trump supporters rallied outside the Maricopa County election center. Jacob Raner, a 36-year-old from Goodyear, Ariz., said he came to a demonstration for the first time Friday because “just watching the election results, they don’t seem to be fair.”
In Philadelphia, Ken Patkin, a retired air conditioner repair technician, carried a sign reading “No Transparency No Trust” as he joined the pro-Trump group outside the convention center.
“I’m very concerned about democracy,” he said. “I don’t know if they’re hiding something or not, but the American people have to have confidence that they can trust the vote process.”
Weiner, Timberg and Berman reported from Washington. Teo Armus, Abigail Haushlohner, Missy Ryan, Julie Tate and Matt Zapotosky in Washington; Robert Klemko in Philadelphia; Hannah Knowles in Phoenix; and Laura Vozzella in Richmond contributed to this report.