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Gunman in FBI attack was Navy veteran who once handled classified info

Clinton County employees sit in their vehicles blocking the road that leads to the scene where an armed man was shot and killed by police after trying to breach the FBI's Cincinnati field office on Aug. 11 in Wilmington, Ohio. (Jay Laprete/AP)

The Navy veteran who tried to breach the FBI’s Cincinnati field office Thursday once handled highly classified material years ago while posted on an attack submarine, but had been on the bureau’s radar for months for possible extremist behavior, authorities said Friday.

Ricky Shiffer, 42, was fatally shot by police Thursday after leading officers on a chase that led to a six-hour standoff on a rural road, the Ohio State Highway Patrol said — an incident that rang alarm bells as threats of violence against the FBI from far-right factions have increased in recent days online.

Federal authorities said they had been trying to determine whether he had participated in the Jan. 6, 2021, breach of the U.S. Capitol after he posted on Twitter that “I was there” in reply to a photograph showing rioters scaling the building’s walls, a law enforcement official said.

The FBI also was looking into whether Shiffer appeared in a Facebook video of a pro-Trump rally on the evening of Jan. 5, 2021, on Black Lives Matter Plaza near the White House, the official said.

In a written statement, the FBI said it previously received information about Shiffer but that it “did not contain a specific and credible threat.” The agency added that multiple field offices had tried to locate and interview Shiffer but were unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, authorities are continuing to investigate a potential motive for the shooting in addition to Shiffer’s possible ties to extremist groups, a law enforcement official familiar with the investigation said. Shiffer’s name is used on several social media platforms by an individual who spoke about being at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and urging a “call to arms” after the FBI executed a search warrant at former president Donald Trump’s Florida estate on Monday.

On Truth Social, a site started by Trump, an account with Shiffer’s name published a post after the FBI search at Mar-a-Lago telling others to “get whatever you need to be ready for combat.” On Thursday at 9:30 a.m., he wrote another post that seemed to indicate he was writing after attempting to enter the FBI building.

“Well, I thought I had a way through bullet proof glass, and I didn’t,” he wrote. “If you don’t hear from me, it is true I tried attacking the F.B.I., and it’ll mean either I was taken off the internet, the F.B.I. got me, or they sent the regular cops.”

FBI attacker was prolific contributor to Trump’s Truth Social website

Shiffer was an Iraq War veteran who had served in the Navy aboard the USS Columbia, where he oversaw electronic equipment associated with weapons like missiles and torpedoes, in a role that required one of the highest security classifications in the U.S. government, a spokesman said Friday.

He enlisted in the Navy in June 1998, just after he graduated from a Pennsylvania high school, authorities said. He underwent 10 months of training as a fire-control technician before being assigned to the Columbia, where his duties included monitoring weapon systems and sifting through data to help launch attacks.

“I was on submarines 5 years and on the Army National Guard 3 years. You may call me FT2 Shiffer or Spec. Shiffer (or the joke could be FT2 Sh*thead, or something,” a Truth Social account utilizing Shiffer’s name posted earlier this year.

Authorities declined to comment on whether Shiffer was connected to the Truth Social account, as well as a similar Twitter profile, but both featured his name, photo and general location, and were active before the shooting.

Submarines are inherently sensitive assignments, and Shiffer’s job was particularly so. Sailors in Shiffer’s position must be eligible for Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information clearance, said Cullen James, a Navy personnel spokesperson. The deep clearance is reserved for some of the most secretive assignments related to national security in the U.S. government.

The Navy record did not list any individual awards for Shiffer. He left the service in 2003 as a noncommissioned officer.

Shiffer enlisted as an infantryman in 2008 with the Florida Army National Guard, said Catalina Carrasco, a spokesperson for the National Guard Bureau. He served on a year-long combat deployment in Iraq in 2010 and left the service soon after returning home. He was honorably discharged in 2011.

Since that time, Shiffer had moved around a lot, according to public records, until relocating to Columbus, Ohio, where he worked as a commercial electrician. In Tampa, he lived in several run-down apartment buildings, all within proximity to the city’s James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital.

The Shiffer accounts on social media lament the state of America and that the 2020 presidential election had been stolen, a driving force among right-wing conspiracists since Trump incited a mob to storm the Capitol on Jan. 6. He appeared despondent that the system could not change to his satisfaction, and that violence seemed to be the only option.

“No, there won’t be a red wave, just like there wasn’t in 2020, no one has stopped election rigging, ” one post said. “I do not expect to save America,” another post said. “I do expect to die trying.”

Experts in extremism and domestic terrorism have warned that violent rhetoric from Republican lawmakers, pro-Trump media figures and anti-government agitators could fuel attacks like the attempted breach of the FBI field office.

“We are likely to see continued acts of violence and attacks,” Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a New York University professor who studies authoritarianism and political violence, told The Washington Post.

“There is a vast right-wing media and messaging universe, from Fox News to Breitbart to former president Trump to sitting GOP lawmakers like Marjorie Taylor Greene,” Ben-Ghiat said, “that traffics in conspiracy theories and seeks to keep people in a state of agitation and fear sufficient to lead some people to make recourse to violence.”

Shiffer was the oldest of four siblings who grew up on a farm in Perry County, Pa., near the Susquehanna River. His father was a farmer and diesel mechanic and his mother an insurance company employee, said a family member who did not want to give his name due to the sensitivity of the matter.

The relative remembered Shiffer as a “very intelligent but quiet person.”

“He had quite a memory on him,” the family member said. “It was full of facts and information when he would talk about something. He knew a lot about farm equipment.”

The Shiffers had a small family farm with just a few animals — pigs and a cow — that they would occasionally butcher and offer as meat to family members. Shiffer left the farm shortly after he graduated from high school to enlist in the Navy, the family member said. He graduated from West Perry High School in 1998, the school confirmed.

“He was quiet, maybe a little awkward, but you could tell he was a very smart kid. He had some brainpower,” the family member said.

Authorities said that around 9:15 a.m. Thursday, Shiffer attempted to breach the visitor screening facility at the field office, located on the outskirts of Cincinnati, authorities said. An alarm sounded and armed agents responded, leading Shiffer to flee to his car and onto Interstate 71.

Roughly 20 minutes later, a state trooper located Shiffer’s car at a rest area about 20 miles north, but when officers tried to pull him over, he fled and fired a “suspected gun shot,” the highway patrol said in its statement Friday morning. He continued north before stopping on a rural road in Chester Township, about 45 miles north of Cincinnati.

He stepped out of the car at about 9:53 a.m. and engaged police in a shootout before taking cover behind the car, launching a standoff that would last until officers shot him around 3:42 p.m., police said. After negotiations failed, police attempted to utilize “less lethal tactics” to arrest Shiffer, but he “raised a firearm” and officers shot him, they said.

In a statement Thursday evening, the FBI’s Cincinnati field office called the incident an “agent-involved shooting.” State police said they are investigating the incident alongside the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation and the FBI.

“The FBI takes all shooting incidents involving our agents or task force members seriously,” the statement said. “In accordance with FBI policy, the shooting incident is under investigation by the FBI’s Inspection Division.

At the three-story apartment building in Columbus, Ohio, where Shiffer last lived, residents returned home Thursday night to find officers had closed off their block. Friday, many learned why. Several said they didn’t recognize Shiffer’s name or face.

“It’s scary that he was there,” neighbor Erin Bitzer said.

Alice Crites, Drew Harwell, Spencer S. Hsu and Razzan Nakhlawi in Washington, Grant Segall in Columbus, Ohio and Jared Leone in Tampa contributed to this report.