The 43-year-old husband and father didn’t believe that he actually would, but he knew even just saying so fell short of the Christian witness he wanted to bring to the world. His pastor at Franklin Crossroads Baptist Church in Cecilia, Ky., advised him to leave Facebook. He considered it. Instead, the rage that had begun online led him to Washington, D.C., not long after the new year.
According to the FBI, Sparks was the first to enter the Capitol through a smashed window near the Ohio Clock Corridor. Wearing jeans, a light black jacket and eyeglasses, he crawled over broken glass to overturn a presidential election. In his booking photo from Kentucky’s Oldham County Detention Center taken 13 days later, he is wearing a T-shirt that reads “Armor of God” and cites a Bible verse, Ephesians 6:11: “Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.”
The attack on the Capitol was for many involved a Christian insurrection, urged along by passages of scripture and culminating with prayers intoned in the occupied Senate. But as Sparks’s story shows, his faith played a more complicated role in his journey to Jan. 6. While his social media posts make clear he connected the election and his religious beliefs, his church community had also been a force cautioning him against letting online resentment take over his life. That tension — religious rhetoric as a goad to extremism on the one hand; community accountability as a safeguard against it on the other — highlights the complex influence some churches have had through the past tumultuous months, and may yet in the future.
‘I’m not showing the love of Christ’
This account of one alleged rioter’s path to the Jan. 6 insurrection is based on his extensive Facebook posts, court documents, and the recollections and social media messages of several people who know him. Reached by phone this week, Sparks, who was released after his Jan. 19 arrest, declined to comment on anything related to his presence at the Capitol.
He has been charged with nine counts of knowingly entering or remaining in any restricted building or grounds without lawful authority, violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds, and obstructing law enforcement. Each violation carries fines and anywhere from a maximum of one to five years in prison.
Not long after he was charged, he took his Facebook page down. Until then, his increasingly agitated comments, preserved in screenshots before the account went dark, mapped the mental landscape of someone falling ever more deeply down rabbit holes of groundless claims.
His occupation at the time of his arrest is unclear. One relative said he has been working at an auto parts company. He once owned a small construction firm, but state corporation records indicate it is no longer active. Early in 2020, his Facebook page showed evidence of simpler, family-focused times — a profile picture of his twin toddlers sitting on a parked ATV; a banner photo of a fresh-caught fish wriggling on a line; his wife tagging him on a home for sale — but in his posts later in the year, misinformation about the election was punctuated only by misinformation about covid-19. For the former, he urged friends and family to “Get rid of all news channels and go to NEWS MAX”; for the latter, he copied and pasted a mainstay of evangelical fears of one-world government known as Agenda 21, blaming the United Nations for this “this whole ‘RONa’ bull crap.”
However, facets of his social media persona also present a reflective man struggling with fears of what he was becoming, in particular a 17-minute video he shared with his “church family.”
Speaking directly into the camera in July, Sparks acknowledged that his attitude online had become extreme. With an air both abashed for things he had said and hopeful that he had put those things behind him, he recounted multiple attempts at community intervention and vowed to resist forces that ultimately would overwhelm him.
“As you know I consider myself a devout Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ, and that’s my passion, has been for many years now,” he said. “As of late, with everything that’s been going on, boy it’s been a rough time for me, honestly. And I’ve been fighting really hard with anger. And seeing everything that’s been going on — whew, it is just … it’s eatin’ my lunch.”
Much of his message was devoted to the importance of going to church, relying on others to keep one on the straight and narrow. He spoke often of gratitude and love for people in his life who had helped him through a hard time. But he could not let go of the notion of a world under siege.
The problem, as he saw it, began with Black Lives Matter, which he regarded as “an absolute racist … horrible … non-Christian organization.” The protests in dozens of cities following the death of George Floyd in police custody had driven him over the edge.
“I’m a patriot. I love the United States of America. I love our freedom,” he said in the video. “This is the greatest country in the entire world. And that being said, we are under attack. There’s — It’s good versus evil now.”
But it wasn’t just the fact of what was happening. It was also the way seeing it felt impossible to escape. “It’s really got me, and it has had me, very angry,” he said in the video. “Because if you watch, Facebook is where they’re feeding this anger and hatred. … They’ll find out what you are for or against and they’re gonna feed anger, that’s what they’re doing.”
That wasn’t the reason for the video, though.
“I want to apologize,” he continued. “I have definitely not been showing godly things on there. You know, I’ve even said as far as I would shoot that person in the head, I would shoot this person in the head. Whether I would or not doesn’t matter; I don’t need to get on there and spread this because I’m not showing the love of Christ.”
Getting angrier and angrier
Social media in Sparks’s description is often a tormentor, an active force that may do some good but mostly means you harm. Facebook became for him the site of an ongoing clash with himself, a constant reminder that as a believer he was locked in a spiritual war with forces posing threats to his family and his country. Seeing “everything that’s been going on” mediated through a screen he could not put down, he began to talk about forming a “patriot group,” gathering men together to offer protection in case “something does happen.”
His participation in this looming spiritual war came with a price. In the video, he notes that the population of his friend list seemed to have dropped by half.
One who cut social media ties with Sparks was a relation by marriage, Gregg Seibert, who for a time had engaged with him by fact-checking his posts but eventually had enough. “He was obviously following a lot of radical right-wing websites,” Seibert said. “Most of his posts were memes and stuff he found there. He was besieged by that. He was inundated. He was consumed by it, that’s for sure.”
As Seibert recalls, it was not just Black Lives Matter that had upset Sparks. It was also the coronavirus shutdowns, which in Kentucky, as in most of the country, had closed churches and pushed worship services online. “That was a line in the sand for him,” Seibert said.
Yet even while Sparks’s concern for the pandemic’s constraints on the freedom of worship intensified, members of his own church began to call him out. According to Sparks, the woman who worked as the church’s office manager contacted him to let him know his online comments had gone too far. Feeling “angry and burdened,” he talked with his pastor, Mitch Whidden, and heard advice he knew he should take.
“We talked, and me and him agreed, I need to get off Facebook, get away from all this stuff,” Sparks said in the July video. “But I just couldn’t let go of it, I was like, I feel like I need to see this stuff, I feel like I need to be informed.”
A few weeks later, another pastor, Jeffrey Johnson, delivered a sermon that seemed aimed directly at him, reinforcing all his concerns. The subject was Daniel in the Lions’ Den, and Johnson put the story in terms that resonated with a man who had recently talked about shooting people online. “When Daniel’s very life was threatened, he prayed.” Johnson said in a video of the sermon posted on the church’s Facebook page. “Daniel didn’t draw a Glock 19.”
Messages left at the church and emails sent to Whidden, Johnson and the office manager were not returned.
“I’m sure many of us in here like myself would do just about anything to protect our families from physical harm,” the pastor continued. “I’m sure many of us have purchased firearms and spent money and time at the range practicing with them. I’m sure we spend hundreds, maybe even thousands of dollars on ammunition. … But guys I gotta ask a question: Are we as ready, are we as invested, are we as equipped to defend our families from spiritual threats as we are physical ones? … People tell me: ‘Well, I don’t have time to pray or read my Bible or memorize scripture,’ ” he preached. “But guys, we sure do have time to get on Facebook and trash talk.”
“He preached a hit on me,” Sparks said of the sermon in his Facebook video, so moved that he swore he’d do better, refocusing his life on reading scripture and other spiritual pursuits.
“I’ve noticed that my phone has been in my hand more than my Bible,” Sparks confessed. “My phone — I’ve been locked in on my Facebook watching all this stuff play out, and I get angrier and angrier.”
At the end of the video, he promised to make a change.
“I’m not going to let my anger overtake me anymore. I’m going to get in the word of God like I should be doing anyway, and get back to the me that smiles more,” he said. “Because I got wrapped up. I got wrapped up in Facebook.”
This was a danger everyone faced, he argued. “Trust me, they know, they watch your posts. Whatever you’re for, they’re gonna send you something that you’re against,” he said. “They’re just feeding this hatred. It’s just unbelievable. They’re turning people on each other.”
‘This is our America’
As the summer of 2020 gave way to the fall, however, the ire in his posts turned from Black Lives Matter protests and pandemic shutdowns to the election, and then to the results, which he refused to accept.
“Biden,” he wrote on Nov. 8, is “an empty word politician that will never be president. They have promoted destruction for 4 years now tearing cities apart, supporting blm, antifa. Bogus impeachment on made up garbage, using covid as a political tool. Your dealing with strait evil who only think of the present and who don’t acknowledge eternity.”
On Dec. 3, he praised President Donald Trump: “God has put you where you are. Stay strong and do great things for the American people in the next 4 years as president.”
On Dec. 16, he posted: “We’re getting ready to live through something of biblical purportions be prayed up and be ready to defend your country and your family and the United States of America.”
When Trump made a Facebook post of his own on Dec. 30 that read “JANUARY SIXTH, SEE YOU IN DC!” Sparks shared it to his page, along with the comment “I’ll be there.”
According to court records, not only was he there, but he was part of what would become one of the day’s most notorious incidents: when a gang of rioters chased U.S. Capitol Police Officer Eugene Goodman up a flight of stairs.
“This is our America!” Sparks shouted during the confrontation, captured in videos. “This is our America!”
On Jan. 7, several acquaintances saw Sparks in pictures from the assault and contacted the FBI, according to charging documents. Along with screenshots of video from the siege, they sent his most recent Facebook posts, which he claimed would be his last.
“To all my family and friends I love you deeply,” he wrote. “I love this country deeply. Many many brave men and women gave there very lives for OUR FREEDOM. That being said I would give my life to defend them and our country. I will never ever give up on the American people because we are a strong and resilient people. I have however give up on democracy and I believe we have lost it for quite some time.”
On Wednesday, Sparks appeared before U.S. District Judge Timothy J. Kelly in D.C. for his arraignment. He pleaded not guilty to all counts.
Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.