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Analysis: Does Ray Epps’ guilty plea prove he is not a fed?


September 21, 2023


Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

One of the more notorious figures in the January 6 saga entered a guilty plea Wednesday to a single misdemeanor count of disorderly conduct on that most notorious of days.

Ray Epps has probably been the subject of more conspiracy theories and conjecture about his possible role as a federal operative at the Capitol on January 6, 2021, than anyone else. In television appearances and in testimony before the January 6 committee, Epps has repeatedly denied that he was working for the government that day, and there is no definitive evidence that he was.

Although the media in their coverage of Epps’ guilty plea repeatedly highlighted how he has been at the “center of right-wing conspiracy theories about January 6,” it’s fair to say the government itself has done the most to make Epps the center of attention and the subject of so many questions.

What was Epps doing at the Capitol that day? Why did he tell protesters, “We must go into the Capitol”?

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The government fanned conspiratorial flames precisely because of prosecutors’ seeming indifference to Epps’ actions — actions that were caught on video and shared widely across the internet and on social media. The Justice Department has indicted hundreds of people on multiple charges, most commonly “entering or remaining in a restricted area,” “disorderly or disruptive conduct in a restricted area,” “disorderly conduct in the Capitol Building,” and “parading, demonstrating, or picketing in the Capitol Building.”

Yet Epps managed to go two and a half years without charge or arrest. Unlike many January 6 defendants who were subjected to pre-dawn raids by heavily armed FBI agents and hauled before federal magistrates in chains, Epps was allowed to appear in court on Wednesday with his attorney of his own volition.

In the federal charging document, prosecutors noted that Epps made “at least five attempts” to de-escalate tensions between protesters and Capitol police. Some of that appears on video. Jacob Chansley, the “QAnon Shaman,” also appeared on video speaking calmly with police and attempting to pacify protesters inside the Capitol Building. But those exculpatory scenes were only made public after Chansley was convicted in 2021 of obstructing an official proceeding and sentenced to nearly three and a half years in prison. (Chansley was released in May, not long after the video footage appeared of him apparently being escorted around the Capitol by police.)

Add to that, the mainstream media and Nancy Pelosi’s House Select Committee on January 6 somehow managed to turn an indisputable J6 provocateur into a “victim” of right-wing conspiracy theories and ultimately a sympathetic figure. Every story about Epps this week pointed out how he and his wife sold their property and business in Arizona and “fled” to Colorado, where they now live in a trailer in a remote part of the Rocky Mountains.

News of Epps’ indictment and plea deal appeared to please his allies in the press, who seemed to revel in the fact that the right wing had been denied a talking point.

On X (formerly Twitter), NBC News correspondent Ryan J. Reilly posted: “Ray Epps not a fed, say feds, by charging Ray Epps with federal crime.” He added: “Surely reason and logic will work now, and those who spread this harebrained conspiracy theory will hang their heads in shame!”

Former U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), who sabotaged his political career by joining with Pelosi’s J6 persecution pack on the January 6 committee, posted: “Well this is awkward for the crazies…. Ray Epps, subject of Tucker Carlson’s Jan. 6 conspiracy theories, charged by DOJ.”

Press puffery

Epps had been an object of suspicion even before the events of January 6. At a rally in Washington, D.C., the night before, Epps urged a crowd to enter the Capitol the next day. He was met with chants of “Fed! Fed! Fed! Fed!” The suspicions festered after January 6, when Epps was quickly identified online but never arrested.

Before long, the press began to take interest in Epps. Soon, a sympathetic portrait emerged of the man.

Alan Feuer of the New York Times published a profile of Epps on July 22, 2022. Feuer was the first to portray Epps, a self-styled two-time Trump voter and former Oath Keeper, as a hapless victim of yet another vast right-wing conspiracy.

With the Times setting the tone for coverage, the rest of the media followed in due course. Inexplicably, Epps became the sole January 6 protester — an “election denier,” no less — to receive what appeared to be a free pass from the Department of Justice, the FBI, the January 6 committee, and a bevy of left-wing “sedition hunters” on social media.

I met Feuer for the first time in 2022 while having lunch with a couple of defense attorneys during the first Oath Keepers trial in Washington, D.C.

“You guys have to forget this Ray Epps thing,” Feuer told the table. “Didn’t happen! Look, I’m the guy who flew out to the mountains and met with Epps and his wife. I’m telling you, he isn’t a fed, and he’s totally believable.”

Feuer and I developed a friendly rapport over the course of that trial. Some weeks after the trial ended, he phoned me, specifically to answer questions about Epps. He gave me permission to write about our conversation, saying emphatically, “Please do!”

The Times reporter told me that Epps was a “big oaf” who, if not for his really good wife, “probably couldn’t put his pants on each morning without her assistance.” How could a guy like that be a fed?

I reminded Feuer that Epps had told him he went to D.C. ahead of January 6 for two reasons: first, to support President Trump, and second, to accompany his son and his son’s friend. And that’s where my questions began.

First, if Epps was such an ardent Trump supporter, flying all the way from Arizona to attend the rally, then why didn’t Epps attend Trump’s speech at the Ellipse? Instead, Epps was on the front line of the first barricade breach and assault on U.S. Capitol Police officers on the Capitol’s west side, at 12:52 p.m. The breach occurred over a mile away from where the president was speaking, and Trump didn’t leave the stage until 1:16 p.m.

More pointedly, I asked Feuer if he was familiar with the newly released Capitol closed-circuit TV video, discovered by researcher Gary McBride, which showed Epps was not only at the exact point of the initial barricade breach but was also at the “tip of the spear” of the second police line breach minutes later. This was the breach of a semi-permanent black metal fence erected for the upcoming Biden inaugural event on January 20.

That black metal fencing has since taken on more significance as the breach, destruction, and hands-on “shaking” of that fence were specifically cited by federal prosecutors and Judge Timothy Kelly in applying “terrorism enhancements” to the Proud Boys who were sentenced to decades behind bars two weeks ago.

There’s more.

Later in the afternoon on January 6, after the complete collapse of the west front police line and their subsequent retreat into the Capitol building, McBride found Epps among the vast and compacted crowd just before a red flare went off near Epps’ location. Seconds later, Epps can be seen being escorted through the crowd by eight other men, single file, with four in front of him and four behind.

If Epps was only in D.C. with his son and his son’s friend, then who were these eight men who escorted him out of the teeming throng of protesters?

More selective prosecution

Investigative journalist Julie Kelly, among others, noted that while hundreds of other January 6 defendants have been charged with trespassing, parading, entering restricted grounds, even obstruction of an official proceeding (a felony), Epps only faced a single misdemeanor count.

“This lame single charge tells us everything we need to know about Ray Epps,” Kelly posted.

In the recent Stephen Horn trial, prosecutors obsessed over the fact that Horn had videoed a “Closed Area” sign lying on the ground as he approached the Capitol. Epps spent quite a bit of time in front of those same “Closed Area” signs at the first barricade breach, before they were torn down. He most certainly knew he was entering a “restricted area.”

Finally, while on the west front battle line, Epps can be seen on video assisting in passing a large, metal-framed Trump sign into the police line. Other rioters have faced felony charges merely for putting their hands on that sign, as prosecutors have argued it was used as a battering ram against police officers.

Charles Bradford Smith, 24, was sentenced to 41 months in prison for doing exactly what Epps can be seen doing. According to the Justice Department, Smith impeded “ingress and egress in a restricted building or grounds with a deadly or dangerous weapon”—an offense Epps also apparently committed yet managed to avoid arrest and prosecution for it.

Neither Alan Feuer nor other journalists appear interested in these questions or their possible answers. Instead, they taunt and laugh at the “crazies” who still have questions about Epps. Don’t expect those questions to go away.