“There are a lot of people who are understandably very concerned about Mr. Epps. … Mr. Epps has not been charged with anything. No one’s explained why a person videoed urging people to go to the Capitol, a person whose conduct was so suspect the crowd believed he was a fed, would magically disappear from the list of the people the FBI was looking at.”
— Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), remarks at a Senate hearing, Jan. 11
“Exactly how many of those present at the Capitol complex on January 6 were FBI confidential informants, agents or otherwise, working directly or indirectly with an agency of the United States government. People want to hear this. How about the one guy, ‘Go in, go in, get in there, everybody,’ Epps. ‘Get in there, go, go.’ Nothing happens to him. What happened with him? Nothing happened.”
— Former president Donald Trump, at a rally in Arizona, Jan. 15
The story of Ray Epps is a depressing chronicle of our times. Epps is a Trump supporter from Arizona who joined the crowd at the Capitol on Jan. 6 — and now is at the center of a baseless conspiracy theory promoted by lawmakers and the former president. In recent weeks, his lawyer tells The Fact Checker, he and his wife have received death threats. “He’s very upset,” said John W. Blischak, a Phoenix attorney.
This conspiracy theory follows a familiar path. Self-proclaimed Internet sleuths, seeking to prove the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol was the work of federal agents, latch onto “clues.” Partisan players weave the clues into misleading narratives. Then Fox News hosts such as Tucker Carlson elevate these claims, over and over. That catches the attention of lawmakers eager to win favor with the Trump base. Idle speculation becomes embraced as established fact.
Few of these actors feel compelled to do the basics of journalism and ask questions to try to explain what appears to be a mystery. Epps’s attorney is remarkably easy to reach — he immediately picks up the phone. Experts on FBI procedure can be found as well. So let’s dive into this. (Video producer Adriana Usero located and assembled the clips below.)
Who is Ray Epps?
James Ray Epps Sr., 60, and his wife, Robyn, run a business that hosts weddings and corporate events at a five-acre farm in Queen Creek, Ariz., near Phoenix, that features a rustic barn and “child-friendly goats.” They had originally bought the farm to raise beef but switched to events after 2016, when “the bottom fell out of the American grass-fed beef market” because of foreign competition, according to the business website.
Epps has been photographed wearing a Marines cap, and a Marines spokeswoman said a service record exists for him.
In 2011, Epps was listed as president of the Arizona chapter of the Oath Keepers. The Oath Keepers, founded in 2009, is described by the Anti-Defamation League as “a large but loosely organized collection of anti-government extremists who are part of the broader anti-government ‘Patriot’ movement.” Epps was the primary media contact for the group, granting interviews at the time.
In that same year, he appears in a photo with Stewart Rhodes, the national group’s founder and leader, when Rhodes spoke at a dinner hosted by the chapter.
Rhodes was recently indicted on charges of seditious conspiracy related to Jan. 6. The Arizona chapter was believed to be the largest Oath Keepers organization, but a dissident faction in Arizona has since broken off relations with the national group and partially rebranded itself as the Yavapai County Preparedness Team.
Epps does not appear to have any recent association with the Oath Keepers. The digital trail runs cold after 2012 and James Arroyo, the head of the Yavapai chapter, said he had never heard of Epps until the Jan. 6 event. “He was only state chapter president approximately a year and a half, according to my source within the organization who did know of him,” Arroyo told The Fact Checker. “We do not know why he left that position, but we can assume he left the organization somewhere in 2011 or 2012, since very few members we have ever met or even know who he is.”
Epps on Jan. 5 and Jan. 6
A few days after the Jan. 6 insurrection, Anne Ryman of the Arizona Republic identified Epps as appearing in a Jan. 5 video that had circulated widely on Twitter. “In fact, tomorrow, I don’t even want to say it because I will probably be arrested. Tomorrow, we need to go into the Capitol,” Epps says in the video, wearing a red Trump cap.
When Ryman read Epps the transcript of his comments, he replied: “The only thing that meant is we would go in the doors like everyone else. It was totally, totally wrong the way they went in.”
“Other video taken the next day shows a man who resembles Epps outside the U.S. Capitol, wearing desert camouflage and an identical red Trump hat,” Ryman wrote. “One video shows people in the crowd smashing police barricades and pushing past officers. The man resembling Epps stands among them, but does not appear to shove the barricades.”
Ryman noted that an image of Epps appeared to be listed on an FBI website seeking the public’s help in identifying people who may have entered the Capitol but that Epps declined to comment on whether he was the man in the photo.
The issue of Epps’s involvement was dormant for months until a right-wing Twitter user (since suspended) on June 17 began a Twitter thread: “On Jan 5th, the night before the infamous Jan 6th Capital [sic] event, this Fed was caught on camera encouraging the crowd to raid the capital the next day. The crowd yells NO! We can’t do that and he insists that everyone raids the capital. Who is Ray Epps?”
The tweet referred to a video that showed Epps surrounded by a much younger crowd. Epps declares, “Tomorrow, we need to go into the Capitol! Into the Capitol!”
Someone yells: “What? No!”
Epps responds: “Peacefully!”
In response, far-right social media personality Tim “Baked Alaska” Gionet — who had been interviewing Epps for a live stream — starts to lead the crowd in a chant of “Fed! Fed! Fed!”
Epps emphasizes, “Peacefully!”
Gionet has been charged with illegally entering a restricted building and violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds. He was found guilty last year of misdemeanor assault for pepper-spraying a security guard at an Arizona bar and sentenced to 30 days in jail. Gionet, who addressed the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, has also been charged with defacing a Hanukkah display at the Virginia Capitol.
On Oct. 21, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) picked up the thread and combined a bunch of videos featuring Epps, which he aired at a congressional hearing. Among the clips is one of Epps on Jan. 6, standing at the corner of 15th Street and Constitution Avenue and wearing Marine desert camo, signaling to people as they walked past: “As soon as our president is done speaking, we are going to the Capitol, where our problems are. It’s that direction. Please spread the word.”
Massie confronted Attorney General Merrick Garland and asked whether federal agents agitated the crowd to attack the Capitol. Garland responded that he couldn’t comment on an ongoing investigation.
(Every lawmaker knows this will be the answer they receive. So it’s catnip for those who want to suggest something nefarious is going on since they know that, under the rules of this Washington game, no matter what they allege, a Justice Department official is not going to contradict them as long as the investigation is not complete.)
A conspiracy theory takes hold
Four days after Massie aired the video, the right-wing website Revolver published a long article on Epps (a “Fed-Protected Provocateur”) by Darren Beattie, a former Trump speechwriter who had been fired because it was learned he had appeared at a conference with a white supremacist. He followed up with another lengthy article on Dec. 18, which claimed to expose a “massive web of unindicted operators.”
The articles are filled with innuendo, leaps of logic and suspicion to create an impression of a massive federal conspiracy at the heart of the Jan. 6 attack. Beattie suggests that Epps led a “breach team” that set a “booby trap” for unwitting Trump supporters. “If Ray Epps is a Fed, the ‘Insurrection’ becomes the ‘Fedsurrection’ in one fell swoop,” Beattie declared in the second article.
The Beattie articles were gobbled up in the pro-Trump echo chamber like cotton candy.
But the first article hung largely on two elements. First, that Rhodes had not been indicted and was thus “FBI-protected.” (He’s now indicted.) Second, that the Epps photo on the FBI website, photograph #16, had mysteriously disappeared. Beattie suggested a “panicked” FBI suddenly realized one of its operatives was in the public eye.
Blischak, Epps’s lawyer, scoffed at the notion that Epps is working for the FBI, either as an agent or informant. He said Epps was interviewed by the FBI a couple of months after Jan. 6. “I can tell you with confidence he is not an FBI informant,” he said. He confirmed Epps also spoke in November to the select congressional committee investigating the attack. The committee has issued a statement saying Epps denied acting at the directions of any federal agency.
The FBI, of course, declined to comment. But Mary McCord, a former acting assistant attorney general for national security, said the answer for why his photo was removed is simple. “The FBI no longer needs help identifying him,” she said. “It also seems from his attorney that he has been cooperative, so the FBI isn’t looking for him and has a way to reach him through counsel.” (Blischak told Politico that Epps reached out to the FBI on Jan. 8.)
Blischak said he had asked Epps why he spoke of going toward the Capitol. “He admitted making that statement but he anticipated that it would have been peaceful,” he said. “He’s a straight-up guy. He made it clear he did not condone any type of violence.”
The Washington Examiner has noted that a woman, Raechel Genco, seen in a video standing next to Epps, has been charged with a count of trespassing on restricted Capitol grounds. Genco’s boyfriend, Ryan Samsel, took part in a breach of a police barrier, just shortly after Epps is observed whispering to him. When the barrier fell, one video shows Epps jogging past it toward the Capitol.
The charging documents include a still image of Genco on the steps of the Capitol building, well inside the restricted area. Epps, in one video, can be seen in the same area, telling another participant, “We’re holding ground — we’re not trying to get people hurt.” But Epps has not faced similar charges.
Blischak said he was unaware that Epps was in a restricted area. As for Epps whispering to Samsel, “probably — and this is my surmise — he is trying to tell people to calm down,” he said.
The Pinocchio Test
There is no evidence that Epps is a federal agent or informant. The available video evidence shows he was part of the crowd at the Capitol on Jan. 6 — a place where the day before he had said he would go — but no videos have emerged showing that he committed or urged acts of violence. He does not appear to have entered the Capitol building itself.
He has been interviewed by the FBI and his attorney says he has been cooperative. So there is no mystery why his photo is no longer on the FBI’s website asking for his identification. Epps may yet be charged. But in an event of this magnitude — hundreds of criminal cases — investigators must make choices all the time about whether a prosecution is worth the effort.
The innuendo and speculation about Epps is worthy of Four Pinocchios.
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