By MICHAEL KUNZELMAN Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — The first person to be tried in the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol was a Texas militia member who advocated for physically removing and replacing “corrupt” members of Congress as he drove to Washington, D.C., a former group member testified Friday.
Rocky Hardie, a key government witness at the trial of Guy Wesley Reffitt, said he didn’t believe Reffitt would act on his talk of dragging lawmakers out of the Capitol and replacing them with people who would “follow the Constitution.”
“I considered it hyperbole,” Hardie testified during the third day of Reffitt’s trial — the first among hundreds of cases stemming from the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.
Reffitt, 49, of Wylie, Texas, is charged with bringing a gun onto Capitol grounds and interfering with police officers guarding the building. He also is charged with obstructing justice for allegedly threatening his children if they reported him to law enforcement after the riot.
Hardie, who was Reffitt’s passenger on their car ride to Washington, said he was “pretty impressed” when Reffitt recounted what he did after they became separated on their way to the Capitol.
“I felt like he had more courage than I did,” Hardie said.
Hardie said he met Reffitt through their membership in the “Texas Three Percenters.” The Three Percenters militia movement refers to the myth that only 3% of American colonists fought against the British in the Revolutionary War.
During the trial’s opening statements on Wednesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Nestler told jurors that Reffitt drove to Washington because he intended to storm the Capitol and try to stop Congress from certifying President Joe Biden’s electoral victory. Reffitt “lit the match that started the fire” when a mob charged at police officers guarding the building and was “the tip of this mob’s spear,” Nestler said.
Defense attorney William Welch disputed that Reffitt had a gun at the Capitol and said there is no evidence that Reffitt damaged property, used force or physically harmed anybody.
During Friday’s testimony, prosecutors zoomed in on a video image of Reffitt at the Capitol. FBI Special Agent Laird Hightower said the image shows “a silvery metallic linear object” in a holster protruding from under Reffitt’s jacket as he leaned forward.
Hardie testified that he and Reffitt both had holstered pistols strapped to their bodies when they attended then-President Donald Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally and then headed to the Capitol. They both left rifles locked up in a car parked at a hotel, Hardie said.
Hardie said Reffitt also gave him two pairs of zip-tie cuffs before they left their hotel room that day.
“What are those for?” Hardie recalled asking.
“In case we need to detain anybody,” Reffitt replied, according to Hardie.
Prosecutors say Reffitt played a leadership role when he and other rioters charged at police officers on the west side of the Capitol, but he isn’t accused of entering the building. He retreated after an officer pepper-sprayed him in the face, according to prosecutors.
Hardie said he didn’t join the hundreds of rioters who entered the building, but he conceded that he brought a gun into a restricted area.
He has an immunity agreement that prevents prosecutors from using his testimony against him, but the deal doesn’t insulate him from being charged with a crime for his actions on Jan. 6.
During Welch’s cross-examination, Hardie agreed that Reffitt is prone to bragging, using hyperbole and embellishment.
Hardie, who lives near Austin, Texas, said he met Reffitt in person for the first time before the 2020 presidential election, discussing politics at a park.
“We talked about how the country is pretty much going down the tubes,” Hardie said. They both viewed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as “evil incarnate” and believed the election had been stolen from Trump, Hardie testified.
“We did ask ourselves how far do you let things go before you take action to protect your country,” Hardie said.
Hardie said he went to Washington to “stand and be counted” and hoped the crowd’s presence would deter Congress from certifying the Electoral College vote count. He said he brought a handgun with him to the rally because he wanted to protect himself or others if “antifa” counter-protesters attacked them.
“I didn’t think we or anybody was going to get close to the Capitol,” he said. “I thought that was impossible.”
Earlier Friday, jurors saw surveillance video of Secret Service agents escorting Vice President Mike Pence out of an office at the Capitol after rioters stormed the building. Pence was presiding over the Senate when the riot erupted.
On Thursday, Reffitt’s son, Jackson, testified that he secretly recorded his father proudly describing his role in the riot and gave the audio file to an FBI agent after his father threatened him and his sister.
Prosecutors expect to rest their case Monday after calling four more witnesses, including two Capitol police officers and Reffitt’s daughter, Peyton.
It appears Reffitt won’t be testifying. Welch told U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich on Friday that he doesn’t plan to call any defense witnesses.
Reffitt’s trial could have a significant impact on other Capitol 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.
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.