WASHINGTON (CN) — An off-duty police officer from Virginia who “declared that the next American civil war may have started” after storming the Capitol was confronted with his own words during opening arguments in the government’s case against him Tuesday.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Liz Aloi told jurors that Thomas Robertson used a walking stick to block law enforcement officers while he attempted to get inside the Capitol where he took a “victory lap” and a selfie.
“He entered the restricted area of the Capitol, blocked police outside … and tried to disrupt Congress’ certification of the election,” Aloi said. “And then, he destroyed evidence.”
She said Robertson breached the building with fellow off-duty officer Jacob Fracker, who took a plea deal and agreed to cooperate with the government. Fracker admitted that, by the time he and Robertson entered the building during the riot, they had already agreed to attempt to delay Congress’ certification of the 2020 presidential election and assisted each other in doing so.
Fracker also reportedly told prosecutors that Robertson destroyed both of their cellphones after the riot.
“They asked for my phone but I’m not a retard,” Robertson allegedly said in a message to a friend, adding that his phone “took a lake swim” and “later had a tragic boating accident.”
The off-duty police duo were fired by the Rocky Mount Police Department as of Jan. 10 and arrested a few days later.
“At the very same time that they were being booked by law enforcement, the defendant offered to give Mr. Fracker money,” Aloi said.
Giving limited details, the prosecutor said Robertson ended up paying Fracker at least $30,000, the details of which will be further explored for jurors in the coming days.
Defense attorney Camille Wagner, who referred to her client as “TJ” in opening statements, said video and photo evidence paint a different picture of Robertson’s actions.
“All TJ did was enter, retrieve, depart,” Wagner said. “You’re going to see him walk around trying to find Fracker, retrieving him and leaving.”
Robertson entered the Capitol at 2:16 p.m. and was in line to leave by 2:31 p.m., she said.
Once Robertson retrieved Fracker, he wanted to leave as soon as possible but Fracker wanted to take a photo, she said.
“It was meant for Mr. Fracker’s buddies, to let them know he was okay,” she said, adding that Robertson is pointing to Fracker in the photo to show that he retrieved him.
Robertson was “like a father” to Fracker, and yet Fracker he is cooperating with the government, she said.
Wagner also told jurors that Robertson did not possess a dangerous weapon, only the walking stick he uses due to injuries sustained while deployed to Iraq in 2011.
The government tried to poke holes in those arguments, however, by calling U.S. Capitol Police Captain Ronald Ortega as its first witness.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Risa Berkower showed videos and photos of a man with a stick inside the Capitol during the riot.
She did not ask Ortega to identify the man, but instead asked him to confirm time stamps on the evidence in an apparent attempt to show that the man entered the building within four minutes after the first rioter broke in.
On cross-examination, defense attorney Mark Rollins asked Ortega if he saw Robertson at the Capitol on the day of the riot.
“I don’t know anything about your client, sir, about the time he came or left,” Ortega responded.
Rollins then asked if there was anything that would have alerted the people who were at the back of the mob to stop trying to break into the Capitol.
Ortega said there were multiple perimeters and several officers that would have told them to stop.
During the redirect, Berkower played a video of what appears to be the same man with the stick outside the Capitol in the moments before it was breached.
Asked to describe what the man was doing in the video, Ortega said he was striking an individual wearing a white coat.
The government’s second witness, the former town manager of Rocky Mountain, further hampered the defense’s walking stick argument.
“Have you known the defendant to use a walking stick or a cane?” Berkower asked Clifton James Ervin.
“No ma’am,” Ervin replied.
Fracker is expected to be called to the witness stand this week, and his testimony may further undermine Robertson's claims he was inside the Capitol peacefully on Jan. 6 while a joint session of Congress was underway to certify then-President Donald Trump's failure to secure a second term.
Robertson has pleaded not guilty to six charges: obstruction of an official proceeding and aiding and abetting; civil disorder and aiding and abetting; entering and remaining in a restricted building or grounds; disorderly and disruptive conduct in a restricted building or grounds; disorderly conduct in a Capitol building and obstruction of an official proceeding related to tampering with evidence.
More than 775 people have been charged so far in connection with the riot, and at least 200 have pleaded guilty to mostly misdemeanor charges that carry a maximum sentence of six months’ imprisonment.
Robertson is the third Capitol riot defendant to go to trial, following the convictions of Guy Reffitt on all charges and of Couy Griffin on all but one — Griffin was acquitted of disorderly conduct.
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