Capitol rioters boasted on social media. Now, they're scrambling to scrub phones and pictures
Posted February 12, 2021 3:46 p.m. EST
Updated February 13, 2021 3:02 a.m. EST
CNN — While scores of Capitol rioters flaunted their role in the January 6 attack, a growing number of insurrectionists are accused of covering their tracks by destroying cellphones, wiping social media posts and threatening witnesses.
After the sugar high of storming the Capitol wore off, about 30 of the known rioters facing charges allegedly tried to destroy evidence or sanitize their social media profiles, according to a CNN review of FBI affidavits and court documents filed by the Justice Department.
One man is accused of stealing a police officer's body camera and another told her kids to delete photos from their phones. Other rioters allegedly threatened family members who might turn them in or lied directly to FBI agents when asked about their actions in Washington, DC.
Many of the attempted deletions do not seem to have thwarted investigators, who have been assisted in large part by the seemingly endless supply of video footage from the attack and tips from friends and associates of the rioters. Pictures and video taken by the rioters themselves are being used in court filings and by the House Democratic managers in the impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump.
The alleged attempts to interfere with the investigation could also lead to additional charges.
"If the Justice Department has made a specific factual allegation in a court filing of any type, then you can bet they have that factual assertion amply backed up," said Elie Honig, CNN legal analyst and former federal prosecutor.
The Justice Department has charged more than 215 people in connection with the riots, with some of the newly filed cases in recent days appearing to involve more complex and serious crimes than simple trespassing. However, federal prosecutors haven't filed many obstruction of justice charges against Capitol riot defendants, though that could change as the investigation moves forward.
Missing data and smashed phones
Court documents indicate that the FBI has executed search warrants on the phones of many defendants, looking for additional photos, videos and evidence. But when FBI investigators went looking for some of the phones, they came up empty.
This is what happened with Rachel Powell, who was charged with a myriad of crimes resulting from her alleged actions during the riot. When investigators were executing a search warrant at her home, prosecutors claimed they found a number of phones smashed.
Prosecutors said that another alleged rioter, Joshua Black of Alabama, wiped parts of his phone after he returned home from Washington.
"After being told by an acquaintance that he was wanted by the FBI, [Black] says that he deleted things from his phone, which had been with him at the Capitol," federal prosecutors wrote in a court filing last month, advocating that Black should remain in jail before his trial.
Alleged rioter Tam Dinh Pham, a former Houston Police officer, had images on his phone, but not where the FBI first looked.
The FBI searched Pham's phone and didn't initially find any images from his time in Washington. But then agents looked in the deleted photos folder, they discovered "pictures and videos that were readily identifiable as being of the interior of the Capitol building," according to an FBI affidavit.
Sanitizing social media
Although many rioters took to social media to tout their presence at the Capitol on January 6, some posts were removed days, in some cases hours, later as the nationwide manhunt for insurrectionists ramped up.
When FBI investigators showed Kevin Lyons a photo he took during the riot and posted to Instagram, an affidavit says that he responded, "Wow, you are pretty good. That was up for only an hour." Lyons subsequently provided the FBI with photos from his phone.
Investigators used screenshots of Anthony Mariotto's Facebook profile sent to them by a tipster because it had been, "recently deleted," according to court papers. One of the deleted photos showed a smiling Mariotto inside the Senate gallery, with the caption: "I'm in."
One defendant, Joshua Lollar, was even aided by family, according to an FBI affidavit.
"We cleaned off the post of you going into and inside the capital [sic] since they plan to prosecute everyone that was in there," Brenda Lollar, who the affidavit says appears to be his sister, wrote on his Facebook.
She repeatedly made similar comments on his profile, saying, "Please get off Facebook or delete you in the capital [sic]," and, "You need to clean off your page."
Lollar told investigators, according to the affidavit, that, "he had removed them from his Facebook page due to attention they were getting."
Threats and lies
The potential obstruction extended well beyond the digital realm, according to court papers.
When FBI agents interviewed Diana Santos-Smith, she claimed he attended former President Donald Trump's rally outside the White House on January 6 but didn't enter the Capitol. But after FBI agents showed her a video of herself inside the building and moving toward the exits, she "then stated that she lied and that she was inside the Capitol," according to an FBI affidavit.
Santos-Smith has been charged with three misdemeanors, including unlawful entry into a restricted building and disorderly conduct. She has not been charged with lying to the FBI.
Other defendants allegedly threatened people who could turn them in. Guy Reffitt of Texas was charged with witness tampering after allegedly threatening members of his own family.
Another man, Justin Stoll of Ohio, responded with violent rhetoric after social media users called him out for posting videos from the Capitol. He was charged with making threats and witness tampering.
"If you ever in your f---ing existence did something to jeopardize taking me away from my family, you will absolutely meet your maker," Stoll allegedly said in a video responding to one poster, according to court documents. "You can play that for the (prosecutors) in court, I don't care."