NASHVILLE, Tenn. (CN) — A federal magistrate said Friday that Eric Munchel did not present an “obvious and clear danger” to the community after he allegedly entered the U.S. Senate chamber during the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol carrying a Taser and dressed in tactical gear.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeffery Frensley said 30-year-old Munchel “chose to be a part of this mob” that disrupted Congress’ certification of President Joe Biden’s win of the White House but it is not clear whether he intended to do harm.
There is “evidence on both sides of that coin,” Frensley said after he viewed video footage from that day.
As Munchel allegedly traveled over a banister in the U.S. Senate chamber, a Getty photographer took his picture. It is one of the most memorable images to be taken in the Capitol that day and it earned Munchel the nickname “zip-tie guy.”
The photo, used in the affidavit an FBI special agent made to support Munchel’s arrest, shows Munchel wearing a tactical vest, a holster, gloves and, covering his face, a dark gaiter. In his left hand: a handful of flex cuffs.
After a detention hearing conducted remotely via video conference in the U.S. District Court for Middle Tennessee, Frensley said there was enough probable cause to refer Munchel’s case to a grand jury. Though the judge disagreed with prosecutors who argued to keep Munchel detained until the case is resolved, he stayed his order until Monday morning so they could appeal.
Munchel is one of the 135 people federally charged so far for actions surrounding the Capitol insurrection, according to an analysis by the George Washington University Program on Extremism.
Law enforcement arrested Munchel days later in Nashville and charged him with entering a restricted building, disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds, civil disorders and conspiracy.
If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
A memorandum signed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Ben Schrader arguing for Munchel’s detention ahead of a trial said Munchel left weapons in a backpack before heading into the Capitol, compared himself to those who fought in the American Revolution to a reporter for The Sunday Times, shouted about treason and rule of law, and recorded the events with a red iPhone he mounted to his tactical vest.
It was inside where he acquired his fistful of flex cuffs.
“At one point, MUNCHEL spots plastic handcuffs on a table inside a hallway in the Capitol,” Schrader’s memorandum states. “MUNCHEL exclaims, ‘Zipties. I need to get me some of them motherfuckers,’ and grabs several white plastic handcuffs from on top of a cabinet (but leaves many others).”
When the FBI searched Munchel’s residence, it discovered four or five plastic handcuffs.
During the hearing, Munchel’s public defender Caryll Alpert lamented it was unfortunate the photo of Munchel in the Senate chamber has become an image that epitomized the events of the day.
Alpert said for much of the 10 to 15 minutes Munchel traveled about the inside of the Capitol, he was following closely to his mother, holding onto a strap on the back of the vest she wore. When he was climbing over the railing, his mother was in front of him, Alpert said.
And while inside, Alpert said, Munchel told other people there not to vandalize and he asked his mother what they were doing in the building. Furthermore, there was no evidence presented at the hearing that he was affiliated with any militia or hate group or that he engaged in any violence or vandalism.
Handing down his ruling, with conditions imposed on Munchel, Frensley said, “From an emotional standpoint, Mr. Schrader’s arguments have a lot of appeal.”
The videos of the Capitol insurrection were hard to watch, the judge said.
But the key question before him was whether Munchel was a danger to the community. The questions about danger at the Capitol and the American system of government were questions for another day, Frensley said.
Munchel did not know he was going to come across the plastic cuffs, for instance, the judge said.
There was, Frensley said, “no evidence to me that he was engaged in advanced planning for these activities.”