Capitol Rioters Face the Consequences of Their Selfie Sabotage
Joe Biggs and his fellow Proud Boys left an incriminating social media trail for federal investigators before and during the Capitol attack on Jan. 6.,
WASHINGTON — On Jan. 6, Joe Biggs, a former Army staff sergeant turned Proud Boys lieutenant, led the far-right group to the Capitol from the Washington Monument, charged over the wreckage of police barricades, pulled down another barrier, faced off with the police and then filmed himself.
“We’ve just taken the Capitol!” Mr. Biggs shouted to the world.
All that was laid out in court documents, but it was also in plain view. Mr. Biggs, indicted last month on charges that included conspiracy and destruction of government property, potentially faces decades in prison for his role in the Capitol riot.
He has himself to blame. Like other Proud Boys, he helped document the prosecution’s case.
“Wanting to show how smart they are, they’ve basically outlined the charges against them,” said Grant Fredericks, a forensic video analyst in Seattle who examined the online evidence against Mr. Biggs and Proud Boys facing similar charges.
The Justice Department predicted last month that the Capitol attack investigation and prosecution would be one of the largest in American history. In Mr. Biggs’s case, prosecutors are relying heavily on private communications obtained through search warrants.
But the government is also reviewing records from 1,600 electronic devices and more than 210,000 tips, “of which a substantial portion include video, photo and social media,” the Justice Department said. Many of the tips came from independent and amateur investigators combing through gigabytes of material from social media.
On one Facebook page, a man posted a selfie with the caption, “I just wanted to incriminate myself a little lol.”
Mr. Biggs might have been equally aware of his behavior at the time. One clip from inside the Capitol features him belatedly donning a mask, apparently to obscure his identity, only to pull it down and exclaim, “This is awesome!”
The Proud Boys, a self-described “Western chauvinist” group, has a history of violent street clashes with left-wing antifascist protesters but not a lot of legal acumen.
“There’s a lot of bravado, but not a lot of forward thinking,” said Mr. Fredericks, who was not involved in the investigation. He compared Mr. Biggs and his group with “people who get face tattoos,” another activity that might have seemed like a good idea at the time.
By now, the footage from the Capitol has become familiar. Rioters filmed themselves and one another fighting with law enforcement, destroying property, looting offices and smashing news media equipment. One of them, Eduardo Nicolas Alvear Gonzalez, stored photographs and video of himself inside the Capitol in a folder on his laptop with the misspelled title “Captiol Storming,” according to court documents.
Mr. Gonzalez’s extensive collection included a video of himself in the Capitol Rotunda, yelling “Time to smoke weed in here!” Then he made good on his entreaty: “Here it is, me blazing up at the Capitol. Mary Jane.”
Mr. Biggs, a podcaster and self-described former reporter for Alex Jones’s Infowars, appears to have realized the mistake of those ways: He surrendered to the authorities after he “learned of a video showing him inside the Capitol,” his lawyer, John Daniel Hull, said in a court filing. Mr. Hull declined to comment. Mr. Biggs did not respond to a request for an interview.
As the cases against the rioters inch forward, some judges propose banning them from social media. One defendant’s lawyer argued for it: “If it weren’t for social media, she wouldn’t even be a defendant,” Charles Peruto, a lawyer for Gina Bisignano, an aesthetician in Beverly Hills who was filmed at the Capitol riot, told The Los Angeles Times.
Prosecutors cited Mr. Biggs’s social media posts from before Jan. 6 in a motion last week to revoke his pretrial release and jail him. In one post, two days after the presidential election, Mr. Biggs wrote that it was time for “war,” using an expletive.
The government says Mr. Biggs’s pre-riot posts “show a discernible trend: declaring the election results to be fraudulent; encouraging others to ‘fight’ to overcome the alleged fraud; and encouraging his followers to assist him in fighting the alleged fraud, including by donating funds and equipment to their effort.”
Mr. Biggs announced the Proud Boys’ plans to come to Washington on Jan. 6 on the social network Parler on Dec. 29. “We will be blending in as one of you. You won’t see us,” he posted, adding, “Jan 6th is gonna be epic.”
Mr. Biggs’s activities that day were chronicled at length by himself and others. His walk from the Washington Monument was filmed by Eddie Block, a Proud Boy on a motorized scooter who rolled behind and identified Mr. Biggs and others in his commentary. Mr. Biggs appeared repeatedly in photographs and recorded himself ascending the Capitol steps.
It was a long, circuitous road that brought him to that point. Mr. Biggs, 37, also known as Rambo, was a D.J. in Florida, “running around popping Ecstasy in the nightclubs all the time dancing” before joining the military in 2007, he has said in his broadcasts. He was deployed to Iraq for a year, and then to Afghanistan. He made his news media debut after leaving active service in 2012.
In 2008, Michael Hastings, a reporter embedded with Mr. Biggs’s unit in Afghanistan, encouraged him to pursue an on-camera news media role upon his return to the United States, Mr. Biggs has said. Before Mr. Hastings died in a car crash in 2013, he wrote a profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal for Rolling Stone that ended the general’s military career.
Mr. Biggs’s break came after he fueled conspiracy theories around Mr. Hastings’s death. Mr. Jones invited him onto Infowars, the far-right, conspiracy-mongering radio and online show.
Mr. Biggs joined Infowars in 2014, traveling to racial justice demonstrations in Ferguson, Mo., the next year and to the occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon by armed far-right extremists in 2016. Accompanying Mr. Jones to the 2016 Republican National Convention, Mr. Biggs got into a fracas with Communist protesters, including one who burned an American flag.
He and another Infowars associate claimed they had been burned trying to put out the fire. In a profanity-laced video titled “Joe ‘Rambo’ Biggs: Commie Crushing Crusader!” Mr. Biggs said he had “jumped over” the “cops,” ripped the protester’s shirt off and gave him a “pounding.”
Yet the police charged the protester, Gregory “Joey” Johnson, with misdemeanor assault.
When Mr. Johnson’s lawyers saw the videos with Mr. Biggs’s claims, they demanded that the assault charges against Mr. Johnson be dropped, which they were. Mr. Johnson sued the city of Cleveland and its police, saying that they had violated his First Amendment rights. He received a $225,000 settlement.
Mr. Biggs left Infowars in late 2016. He bounced around, at one point selling profane T-shirts online, then broadcast for a pro-Trump online channel called Right Side Broadcasting Network. He met Proud Boys leaders through his Infowars contacts, including Roger J. Stone Jr., the Trump adviser and Infowars regular. Mr. Biggs helped lead Proud Boys rallies in Portland, Ore., in 2019 and 2020.
He recorded a long-winded interview with a Proud Boy known as Bobby Pickles that posted three days before the Capitol attack.
“Dude, when I was deployed, I didn’t care about politics because I don’t have time for that. But now that I’m out and I’ve done my time there, now I can focus 100 percent on this,” Mr. Biggs said, denouncing social media, especially Facebook: “I mean, the fact that we’ve been brainwashed into putting all of our information on the internet and just to allow that to be out there?”
He also complained that he was unable to get a job because of his social media history.
Mr. Biggs’s lawyers are citing his online activity in trying to keep him out of jail. “Biggs regularly satisfied F.B.I. personnel with his answers” when agents asked him “what Biggs meant by something politically or culturally provocative he had said on the air or on social media concerning a national issue, political parties, the Proud Boys, antifa or other groups,” his lawyer wrote in a court motion opposing the government’s filing to revoke his pretrial release.
“On Jan. 6, this defendant did not ‘storm’ anything,” the filing says. “Except for ‘This is awesome,’ there is no record he said anything once inside that building.”
Alan Feuer contributed reporting from New York.