WASHINGTON (CN) — An Arizona man who had been at the center of a debunked conservative conspiracy theory claiming undercover government agents initiated the violence during the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge Wednesday for participating in the riot.
Ray Epps, a former Marine and onetime leader of the Arizona chapter of the far-right Oath Keepers militia group, was charged with one count for disorderly conduct in a restricted area on Tuesday.
The charge carries a maximum sentence of one year in prison.
Chief U.S. District Judge James Boasberg, a Barack Obama appointee, scheduled a sentencing hearing for Dec. 20. The sentencing guidelines for Epps’s misdemeanor charge calls for a sentence between zero and six months, although Epps is likely to get credit for entering the guilty plea.
Epps, who sold his home in Mesa, Arizona, and left the state in the wake of threats from conservative conspiracy theorists who blamed him for initiating the violence — including one threat to “sleep with one eye open” — will attend virtually from the recreational vehicle he and his wife currently live in.
Footage from Jan. 6 showed the 62-year-old dressed in camouflage and wearing a red Trump 2020 hat in a crowd of rioters near the Peace Circle — between the Capitol and the National Mall — where the crowd broke the first police line and began marching up the Capitol steps.
He was not a part of the Oath Keepers during Jan. 6, having left a few years prior after the extremist militia group had become “too radical” for him, according to a January 2022 interview he gave before the Jan. 6 House Committee.
According to the statement of offense, Epps made at least five attempts to deescalate conflicts between rioters and officers and prevent rioters from attacking police along their defensive line at the West Plaza.
On Jan. 5, Epps spoke to a crowd of protesters gathered on Black Lives Matter Plaza just outside the White House, urging them to direct their anger at Congress rather than at counterprotesters from antifa and the Black Lives Matter movement.
"Tomorrow — I don't even like to say it because I'll be arrested — we need to go in the Capitol," Epps said.
He further emphasized his point the next day, saying "as soon as President Trump is finished speaking, we are going to the Capitol ... that is where our true problems lie."
Edward Ungavrsky, Epps’s defense attorney, made sure his client’s current legal district was not revealed during Wednesday’s proceedings over concerns of further threats. Ungavrsky also requested that Boasberg make a rare pretrial exception and allow his client to keep a firearm prior to his sentencing.
Boasberg kept the restriction in place pending the defense filing a motion for him to consider.
Justice Department attorney Michael Gordon made a point to emphasize that Epps was not a government agent “before, during or after Jan. 6.”
Following Jan. 6, conspiracy theories began circulating among conservatives that Epps was an undercover government agent responsible for instigating violence that could be blamed on Trump supporters.
Many of these claims were made by former Fox News host Tucker Carlson, which led Epps to file a defamation lawsuit in July 2023 against the network, seeking to hold the company liable for broadcasting Carlson's false claims. Epps says Carlson adopted the theory to avoid blaming former President Donald Trump for the riot.
“In the aftermath of the events of Jan. 6th, Fox News searched for a scapegoat to blame other than Donald Trump or the Republican Party,” Epps claims in the suit. “Eventually, they turned on one of their own.
Carlson is not named as a defendant in the suit, as Epps claims that Fox should be held liable for broadcasting the since-fired host’s “defamatory falsehoods.”
The suit is currently pending in federal court in Delaware.
Epps’s charging and plea agreement were brought up during Attorney General Merrick Garland’s appearance before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, when Representative Thomas Massie, a Kentucky Republican, called it a “wonderful coincidence” that the Justice Department had finally charged Epps two years after their Jan. 6 investigation began and just a day before Garland’s appearance.
“You got the guy on video. He’s saying go into the Capitol. He’s directing people to the Capitol before the speech ends. He’s at the site of the first breach. You’ve got all the goods on him in 10 videos, and it’s an indictment for a misdemeanor,” Massie said. “The public isn’t buying it.”
Garland said in a heated exchange with the representative that the FBI had explained Epps was not an employee or informant of the intelligence agency.
Epps joins the approximately 1,146 people who have been charged by the Justice Department in the 32 months since the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Approximately 657 people have opted to plead guilty to their charges, about 459 of whom have pleaded to misdemeanors.Follow @Ryan_Knappy
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