By MICHAEL KUNZELMAN Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — A Texas militia member who is the first person to be tried for the assault on the U.S. Capitol “lit the match that started the fire” when a mob charged at police officers guarding the building, a prosecutor said Wednesday during the trial’s opening statements.
A defense lawyer told jurors that the Justice Department’s case against Guy Wesley Reffitt is based on “a lot of hype” and a “rush to judgment” against a man who is prone to bragging, exaggerating and ranting.
“He uses a lot of hyperbole, and that upsets people,” said Reffitt’s attorney, William Welch.
But prosecutors said Reffitt drove from Texas to Washington, armed with guns, because he intended to storm the Capitol and try to stop Congress from certifying President Joe Biden’s electoral victory during a joint session on Jan. 6, 2021.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Nestler said Reffitt’s own words and actions, captured on video, show how he played a leadership role in a mob’s attack against officers on the west side of the Capitol.
“The defendant was the tip of this mob’s spear,” Nestler said. He referred to the Jan. 6 riot as an attack on the “heart of democracy in our country” and the worst assault on the Capitol since the War of 1812.
A verdict in Reffitt’s trial could have an enormous impact on hundreds of other riot cases. A conviction would give prosecutors more leverage to cut plea deals with others facing the most serious charges. An acquittal could embolden other riot defendants to seek more favorable plea terms or gamble on trials of their own.
Reffitt is charged with bringing a gun onto Capitol grounds, interfering with police officers guarding the building and threatening his teenage children if they reported him to authorities.
Reffitt’s son, Jackson, then 18, is expected to testify that he recorded his father talking about the riot after returning home to Wylie, Texas, near Dallas.
Reffitt was armed with a holstered handgun, carrying zip-tie handcuffs and wearing body armor and a helmet adorned with a video camera when he and other rioters charged at police officers, while Vice President Mike Pence was presiding over the Senate, according to prosecutors.
Before they advanced, Reffitt used a megaphone to shout at police to stand down and step aside and to urge the mob to push forward and overtake officers, Nestler said.
“In the defendant’s own words, he lit the match that started the fire,” the prosecutor told jurors.
Nestler said Reffitt brought the police-style cuffs with him so that he could restrain any members of Congress that he encountered. But he wasn’t one of the hundreds of rioters who entered the building. While the mob overwhelmed police and began pouring into the Capitol, Reffitt retreated after an officer pepper sprayed him in the face, the prosecutor said.
Prosecutors’ first trial witness was Shauni Kerkhoff, who was one of the Capitol police officers who tried to repel Reffitt. She launched pepperballs that didn’t stop him from advancing.
“Every time he took a step, they took a step,” Kerkhoff said of the rioters behind Reffitt. “It was becoming a dire situation.”
Surveillance video shows Reffitt waving on the crowd behind him after another officer used pepper spray on him.
“It appeared he was leading the crowd up the stairs,” Kerkhoff said.
Inspector Monique Moore, who was in charge of the Capitol police’s command center on Jan. 6, choked up and wiped away tears when Nestler asked her to describe the mood inside the command center as the riot erupted. She recalled hearing overwhelmed officers screaming for help and knowing it was her job to get them what they needed.
“The mood was in disbelief of what we were seeing,” said Moore, whose testimony resumes on Thursday.
Reffitt is a member of the “Texas Three Percenters” and bragged about his involvement in the riot to other members of the militia-style group, according to prosecutors. The Three Percenters militia movement refers to the myth that only 3% of American colonists fought against the British in the Revolutionary War.
Prosecutors believe Reffitt took an AR-15 rifle and a Smith & Wesson pistol with him when he drove to Washington with a fellow militia member. FBI agents who searched Reffitt’s home after the riot found a handgun in a holster on a nightstand in the Reffitt’s bedroom.
Prosecutors say photos and video of Reffitt during the riot show what appears to be a silver object in a handgun holster on his right hip.
Welch has said no videos or photos show a gun in Reffitt’s possession at the Capitol.
Welch also said there is no evidence that Reffitt damaged property, used force or physically harmed anybody.
“He never tried to assault anyone. He didn’t help anybody else commit an assault,” Welch said during opening statements that were significantly shorter than the prosecutor’s 30-minute presentation.
More than 750 people have been charged with federal crimes related to the riot. Over 220 riot defendants have pleaded guilty, more than 100 have been sentenced and at least 90 others have trial dates.
The siege resulted in the deaths of five people, including a police officer. More than 100 officers were injured. Rioters caused over $1 million in damage.
Reffitt was arrested in Texas less than a week after the riot. He has been jailed in Washington with other riot defendants.
Reffitt faces five counts: obstruction of an official proceeding, being unlawfully present on Capitol grounds while armed with a firearm, transporting firearms during a civil disorder, interfering with law enforcement officers during a civil disorder, and obstructing justice.
The obstructing justice charge stems from threats that he allegedly made against his son and daughter, then 16, after returning home from Washington. Reffitt told his children to “choose a side or die” and said they would be traitors if they reported him to law enforcement, prosecutors said.
U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich, who was nominated by President Donald Trump in 2017, is presiding over the trial. She individually questioned dozens of prospective jurors on Monday and Tuesday, asking them if they could set aside their opinions about the riot and be impartial. She disqualified several who said they couldn’t.
The trial is likely to stretch into next week. Prosecutors expect to call about a dozen witnesses, including two other Capitol police officers who interacted with Reffitt and an officer who was in charge of the U.S. Capitol Police command center.
Welch has said Reffiitt worked as a rig manager and as a consultant in the petroleum industry before COVID-19 restrictions effectively shut down his business.