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How a group of online sleuths are helping the FBI track down Jan. 6 rioters


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're approaching the first anniversary of the January 6 Capitol riot. The insurrection has led to what my guest, Ryan Reilly, calls an unprecedented probe reshaping the federal government's approach to domestic terrorism. He says the FBI has arrested over 700 people, and that represents only about a quarter of the total number of individuals who engaged in chargeable criminal conduct that day. The FBI is still looking for more than 350 members of the mob who engaged in violence, including more than 250 still wanted for assaulting law enforcement.

The FBI has gotten a lot of assistance from a loose network of amateur online sleuths known as Sedition Hunters, who have used videos taken that day, social media posts, facial recognition software and Google to identify many of the rioters, including ones who assaulted police. Reilly has kept in touch with members of this network, as well as doing some of his own investigative work, and has publicly revealed some of the rioters' identities in his articles. He's also been reporting on the trials and sentences of the rioters and what the judges have had to say. He's senior justice correspondent for HuffPost.

Ryan Reilly, welcome to FRESH AIR. In what way is the FBI's manhunt unprecedented?

RYAN REILLY: The scope of it, first of all, is just enormous. It's nothing like the FBI has ever done before. In the immediate aftermath of the attack on the Capitol, the FBI started putting out images of people who are wanted in connection with the attack. And I don't think that we had a sense in those early days of just how wide this could possibly go because it was sort of chaotic that day. We didn't really have a sense of how many people exactly entered the Capitol Building, how many people attacked officers outside.

But now, almost a year out, we're starting to get a better sense of that - of those numbers, and it's really pretty extraordinary. Some of the techniques that some of the different Sedition Hunters have used have shown that there are upwards of 2,500 people who entered the Capitol Building. And then on top of that, there's additional people who never entered the Capitol Building but attacked officers outside of it. So the total scope of this we're talking about is nearly 3,000 people. And right now we're at 700 arrests, but there's a far, really long path to go, even as these cases work their way through a system that is frankly overwhelmed already.

GROSS: In some ways, it seems like, oh, but it should be simple for the FBI to track these people down because they've been captured on video. So what are some of the obstacles the FBI faces in spite of that?

REILLY: I think that just the sheer magnitude of it is really a major challenge here. When the FBI opened up their tip line in those early days, they received 200,000 - over 200,000 tips. So they're literally dealing with hundreds of thousands of tips. And prioritizing those and sort of triaging those tips as they came in was a major challenge for the bureau. I think one of the early indications I saw of that was when, a month after a really high-profile defendant or future defendant was identified by online sleuths, and one of the sleuths had reached out to me, I told the FBI and I called through their Public Affairs Office or rather sent an email through their Public Affairs Office flagging the fact that we were reporting on this, that there is this video out there online that identified this individual who electroshocked an officer in the neck. And that was Officer Mike Fanone, who subsequently testified before Congress and we've heard a lot of in the past year.

And the person who Tased him in the neck was this individual named Danny Rodriguez, who wore a MAGA hat and was a major Trump supporter who had appeared all at these rallies in California and subsequently traveled to D.C. with a group of his friends from California and came to find himself on the front lines of that battle and Tased an officer in the neck and nearly killed an officer. And when I contacted the FBI about that, initially I got through - the Public Affairs Office, I got a call back very quickly. And then actually one of the witnesses who we had talked to, someone who knew Danny Rodriguez individually, just hours later received a call from the FBI. So it was pretty clear, I think, that they were pretty overwhelmed at that moment because the tip about Danny Rodriguez came into the FBI a month before we got on the story. So it was really just something that was sort of buried in the bureaucracy until we sort of lifted it up.

GROSS: How often have you been the conduit between the digital sleuths and the FBI?

REILLY: In a few cases, I've - we've definitely sort of played a role. There's the Danny Rodriguez case. And then with Robert Scott Palmer, that was a case - he's actually at this moment the defendant who's been sentenced the longest period of time. In the early days, he was an individual who was nicknamed Florida Flag Jacket, and that's because he was wearing an American flag jacket with Trump's name on the front and back When he approached the police line with a fire extinguisher, emptied the fire extinguisher canister into the line of officers that was under assault by a mob, then chucked the canister at the line and then retreated.

Hours later, as it turned out, as some sleuths figured out, he was actually on a livestream and was speaking to someone who was livestreaming from the scene that evening and gave his name to the camera. So the real power of the crowd and being able to connect all these little dots really shone through in that case, because that was an instance where there is this individual piece of evidence that identified this and this person, but it was only because we had all of these sleuths sort of scouring all of this information online and finding that livestream video and then realizing that's the same person who attacked officers earlier in the day and was able to connect that information, that that's how that - that's how that case came about.

So in that instance, we actually contacted the FBI, but we also contacted the defendant, myself and my colleague of mine, Jesselyn Cook, worked on that story. And she actually called up the defendant and the future defendant in that case, Robert Scott Palmer, got him to admit he was at the Capitol. And then he actually hung up the phone when he was asked about the fire extinguisher. But that's not before he told her that the Biden administration was trying to, quote, "vilify the patriots who took part in the attack that day."

GROSS: So a lot of information about who the Capitol rioters were and who assaulted police, a lot of information is coming from this network of amateur online digital sleuths loosely going under the name Sedition Hunters. Tell us more about that network and how it was formed.

REILLY: A lot of this kicked off actually around this image, this very sort of grabbing image that was snapped from above the tunnel, the tunnel on the side of the - on the west side of the Capitol. At the top of the stairs where Joe Biden would be inaugurated, there is this tunnel - actually, one of the judges referred to it as the Lady Gaga tunnel because that's where Lady Gaga came out of before she gave her performance at the inauguration. But it's this - it's the centerpiece of any inauguration. There's this tunnel right there at the door, and that's where this battle took place, this really brutal battle. Some of the most violent scenes at the Capitol took place at that tunnel as the mob of thousands of people were trying to get through those doors and into the Capitol Building.

And there is this photo snapped from above that shows an officer face down, being dragged down the stairs by a group of people. It's just this really grabbing image that, you know, it's very difficult to look away from. And thankfully, that officer survived. But it was - this just - this really image that really disturbed people. So what happened off of that initial image is that some people got together on Twitter and came up with nicknames for all of the people in that photo, all the people who are involved in violence in that photo. One of them who was seen flipping off the cops at the moment that officer was being dragged down the stairs was nicknamed Fingerman, for example.

There is another person who was wearing a Caterpillar construction company sweatshirt who was named CatSweat. But what was really interesting about CatSweat was that he had his face covered for a lot of this. He had sunglasses on, so you couldn't really get a full image of his face. But months later, as they processed all of these videos, sleuths came across a video of him at Trump's speech. And when he was at Trump's speech, his sunglasses weren't on. They were in his shirt. So you got a full face shot of him. And what happened, when they ran that through facial recognition, was that a lot of images started popping up, including images of him as a bodybuilder and including images of him on the cover of romance novels. He was a cover model for a lot of romance novels. He was a very fit dude, obviously a bodybuilder. And that was his sort of side gig. In addition to being a construction worker, he was doing a lot of this modeling for romance novels.

And that's how they - that's how they found him, because of that facial recognition hit, and then were able to subsequently confirm his identity. Because facial recognition isn't - you know, isn't always 100% accurate, what they were able to do is confirm his identity by looking at his Instagram page and finding the individual items of clothing that he was wearing that day. So he was wearing, you know, a hat. And then, oh, here's a photo of him from a year and a half ago wearing that same hat. There's a video of him actually at the gym punching a punching bag, and he was wearing that same Caterpillar sweatshirt that he was wearing the day that he attacked officers at the Capitol.

GROSS: So tell us more about how these amateur detectives online are using facial recognition software.

REILLY: Yeah. You know, facial recognition is a component of this. But it's sort of - the way that they've thought about it is that it's a good lead to follow. So you have to confirm it through other methods. You have to find other verifiable facts that then make sure that that is this person. Often, with a lot of these cases, January 6 cases, that has been relatively easy because sometimes they'll be some sort of indication that they were there. By the point that sleuths have found some of these individuals, some of them have been - sort of scoured their social media and made sure that there's nothing referencing January 6. But often, they haven't. They might have some post about how they're going there. They might have images from that day, even if they don't show them engaged in some sort of unlawful activity. But anything that can essentially place someone in D.C. that day or any other verifiable fact, whether it be - or just either verifiable component of their look. Sometimes that's a mole on one part of their face or a freckle on one part of their face that they can really zoom in and confirm. It depends upon how high-quality these images are.

But it's played a major role on this side of it in the - with the amateur sort of investigators. And it's also played a role for the FBI. But I would say that, based on the cases that we've seen come forward so far, we've definitely seen more cases on the amateur side where that's given them a lead than we have from the FBI. In some of the more violent cases, the FBI has acknowledged using facial recognition technology, but they also use another way to confirm it. There is an individual who is attacking cops very early on in the day and breaching one of these initial sort of bike barricades that was set up around the Capitol. He actually pushed forward and pushed down a female Capitol Police officer who struck her head on the step behind her and suffered a concussion. And he was identified through facial recognition technology. But what the FBI actually did there was send in two undercover FBI special agents to the convenience store where he worked and just sort of talked him up and eventually got him to talk about being there on January 6 and acknowledging his presence there.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Ryan Reilly, and he's the senior justice correspondent for HuffPost. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with Ryan Reilly, senior justice correspondent for HuffPost. He's been reporting on the loose network of amateur online sleuths who have been tracking down the identities of insurrectionists who breached the Capitol and assaulted police on January 6. He's also done his own investigative work tracking down rioters. He's publicly revealed the identities of some of them. He's also been reporting on the trials and sentences of the insurrectionists and the opinions of the judges.

So there are some interesting stories about how people became online digital detectives looking for the identities of people who breached the Capitol and assaulted officers on January 6. Tell us a story of one of them. In particular, I'm going to ask you about somebody who goes by the name Amy for the purposes of your article 'cause she wants to remain anonymous. And she was not a professional at this by any means. How did she start doing this?

REILLY: Yeah. So actually, Amy was home sick with COVID last January during the Capitol attack and was watching this unfold and was obviously very disturbed by what she saw unfolding on her television screen and online. So she jumped in to this community and spent a lot of time logging information and being part of that group that was being able to sort of compile this information into a digestible and usable format. And Amy really zoomed in on the individual we later learned was Robert Scott Palmer because it was just such an identifiable jacket he was wearing. It was that American flag jacket with Trump on the front and back, and he really just stood out from the crowd. And it also just was a sort of brutal attack on officers who were under assault from this mob. He was spraying, you know, them with a fire extinguisher and blinding them to the objects that were being thrown at them and then chucked it at the police line.

So she spent a lot of time hunting him down and then was sort of waiting around for the FBI to do something about it and was watching his Facebook page as he was back at home. And he was continuing to post all of these memes and make all these posts about the Biden administration. And he was just sort of going about his life online and didn't seem to have any indication that he was going to be hunted down. I think that's how a lot of people felt that day. Subsequently and in the months afterwards, they might realize that, yeah, I'm not away from this scot-free yet. But there were a lot of people who just thought that they were going to get away with it that day. And frankly, I think some of the officers thought that they were - that the individuals who assaulted them were going to get away. You know, I talked to Mike Fanone last month, and he was saying that he thought that that was it. He thought that the people who got away had escaped. And he is really, really sort of blown away by sort of the way that this digital manhunt has unfolded and people have been identified through all of these various factors and the online footprint that they left after the Capitol attack.

GROSS: Well, I could see why they might have thought they'd get away with it because no one was arrested. I mean, everybody who breached the Capitol - they committed a crime, but they were allowed to just walk out and go home or go wherever. And I - my understanding is that's because the police just wanted them out of there before things got worse and that the idea of getting them out seemed to take priority over the idea of arresting them. Just, like, get them out of there, straighten things out in the Capitol, protect the people who are there, protect the building itself. Do I have that right?

REILLY: Yeah, that's right. There were really only a handful of arrests that day, and it really is just, I mean, sheer manpower. There were individuals who were actually placed into custody and then released because the police were so overwhelmed. So they had people in handcuffs who they identified that day, and then they had to sort of release them on the side because they didn't have the manpower to process them. And then subsequently, some of those individuals were arrested months down the line.

There is actually someone that day - it was a young man who also used a fire extinguisher on officers and had sort of sprayed the police line. He subsequently was caught by an officer, and the - and they actually have him identifying himself by name on body camera, but because they didn't have the manpower to arrest him, they had to let him go. Months later, the FBI put out a video looking for this individual. They didn't realize that they had him on body camera, identifying himself. So then behind the scenes, finally, when someone processed that video, they recognized, oh, this guy actually was taken into custody briefly and identified himself and were able to identify him that way. But that sort of shows how overwhelming and sort of bureaucratic this investigation got just by - it was just overwhelming both police that day and the FBI in the immediate aftermath of the attack.

GROSS: Now, let me get back to Robert Scott Palmer. Palmer is the guy who sprayed police with a fire extinguisher and then threw the empty canister at them. He was sentenced to 63 months, the longest sentence so far. What did the judge have to say at the sentencing?

REILLY: Yeah, you know, Robert Scott Palmer sort of expressed this idea that he was sorry for what he did. He actually wrote a letter to the judge and said that he realized now that he had been tricked by Trump. He actually referred to the Trump administration as tyrannical. He said that he thought that he was fighting tyranny but realized that they were actually the tyrannical ones trying to hold on to power. And it's tough, I think, for a lot of these judges to decide what's legitimate and what's not, because obviously he's facing down a significant sentence. Saying these things to the judge and saying he's seen the error of his ways and that he was mistaken is obviously going to benefit him and give him a shorter sentence.

So I think judges are very aware of the fact that they might be being fed stuff that's just basically to try to get a shorter sentence. And it's tough to sort of decide whether or not someone is expressing legitimate remorse or whether they're just sort of saying what they think the judge wants to hear, especially in the lower level cases. I think that's been true because, you know, in the lower level cases, basically being sorry has a very big effect on your sentence, and expressing that really impacts it. Judges have a lot of discretion in those lower level cases.

In Robert Scott Palmer's case, there was sort of a mandatory minimum, in effect. There is a sentencing guidelines that would say how long he would have to be sentenced to. And once the judge decided that this sentencing guideline applied, while she wasn't completely bound to it, it gave a really firm sense of what the sentence was going to be. So Robert Scott Palmer ultimately got at the very low end of that sentencing guideline, but it's still a significant period in jail and is the longest - in prison, rather - and is the longest sentence that we've seen in the Capitol attack to this point, of more than five years.

GROSS: What was he convicted of?

REILLY: He was convicted of assaulting an officer, a federal officer, with a deadly weapon. That canister was considered a deadly weapon. So we had seen another case where there was an assault on an officer. That was actually an individual who was the brother of a Secret Service agent. He was from New Jersey and owned a gym in New Jersey and then came down to the Capitol, where he attacked an officer, actually - punched an officer in the helmet. And he got 41 months in prison.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Ryan Reilly, senior justice correspondent for HuffPost. We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with Ryan Reilly, senior justice correspondent for HuffPost. He's been reporting on the loose network of amateur online sleuths who have been tracking down the identities of insurrectionists who breached the Capitol and assaulted police officers on January 6. He's also done his own investigative work tracking down rioters. He's publicly revealed the identities of some of them. He's also been reporting on the trials and sentences of the insurrectionists and the rulings of judges.

How has the FBI been using tech companies, including phone companies, social media companies - has the FBI asked them to cooperate in the FBI investigation?

REILLY: Yeah. So the FBI has issued a number of subpoenas to tech companies and phone companies that have been very useful in this investigation. Essentially, what they've done is they've drawn this sort of geofence around the Capitol Building so that anyone who entered the Capitol Building and was on a cellphone or had their Gmail application open, for instance, that's been a very beneficial search warrant that was issued has now - is now on a government list.

GROSS: What is a geofence?

REILLY: So a geofence is essentially a digital guide that's basically encircling the Capitol, but just specifically the very limits of the Capitol Building. So they'll be able to distinguish between someone who actually went inside and someone who actually stayed outside of the Capitol Building. I think that it's only really available in this instance that they're able to get that specific because the Capitol Building is a pretty dense building. It's a, you know, a building made mostly of marble. So there's a lot of actually cellphone towers within the building and that actually they've been able to pin down very specifically where people are within the Capitol Building and say this is where this person was, this is where that person was. They've actually been able to identify them pretty closely.

GROSS: So my understanding from what you're saying is that the FBI is only asking for information from tech companies of people who clearly breached that geofence. In other words, people who clearly entered the Capitol and by doing so committed a crime. Have the tech companies been cooperating with the FBI so far?

REILLY: Yeah, the tech companies have. They've been providing information. You know, Google provided a lot of information through whoever had their Gmail application open within the Capitol - that building that day. Facebook, anyone who livestreamed within the Capitol, they also turned over a list. Facebook has been one of the most beneficial things for investigators here. It's often where a lot of people posted evidence of their own crimes on, so just those geofence information as well was beneficial here, too.

GROSS: So is this use of tech companies setting any precedents that are likely to be applied in the future?

REILLY: I think that this investigation could have broader implications going forward, just in terms of normalizing the use of facial recognition, for example. I think that because of its success rate in this investigation, there might be more broader acceptance of it. And that could be troubling because if you don't have these failsafes set up, if you don't have extra methods of confirming someone's identity, that could become really dangerous and we could see some bad identifications made based off of that.

But yeah, I mean, in terms of the public support for this investigation, I think that that is something that is going to happen going forward. They're going to realize that you can seize the power of the crowd in a lot of ways in these massive investigations to help put the pieces together. In many ways, I think that, you know, these, quote-unquote, "amateurs" are a step ahead of the FBI, despite the FBI's sort of reputation in media and in Hollywood as sort of being this ultimate crime fighting bureau. They're a very advanced bureau, but in many ways, they're a little bit behind the times.

One thing that really sticks out at me is just how difficult of a time that they've had collecting some of this information that is readily available online. And the way that they've organized this through email and just the way that they've had to organize this behind the scenes at the FBI has shown some sort of creaks showing up in the process here. We've seen a little bit of the aging bureaucracy that is the FBI show up in this investigation.

GROSS: One of the digital sleuths who you spoke to is a woman who's going by the name Claire (ph) - again, she wants to remain anonymous. She used the dating app Bumble to track someone down. What was - tell us about what distinguishes Bumble as a dating app and how she used it to try to search for insurrectionists.

REILLY: Yeah. So Bumble, what makes Bumble unique about - as a dating app - and this is something that I have to know from my single friends because I haven't ever been on any of these dating apps - but Bumble essentially allows the woman to make the first move and make the decision. So the woman has to make - send the first message in any exchange. So what she did is actually hop onto Bumble. Claire - well, first of all, Claire was sitting at home. She lived near a hotel where a lot of Trump supporters were staying on January 6 and was watching what was unfolding on TV and then was watching all of these people flow back and go to their hotel and was sitting there, like, thinking she wanted to contribute in some way, saw that the FBI was looking for some folks, so decided that she was going to help out.

So what Claire did was she logged on to Bumble. She changed out her profile images because she previously had an image of her wearing a pink pussy hat at the Women's March. And obviously, that wasn't going to fly if she was trying to connect with people who supported Trump. So she took that photo away, sort of put up a more generic photo of her doing what she described as a recreational activity. I think it was snapped at a brewery or something. And she changed her political preferences to conservative. And then she just sort of got to swiping. She ended up matching with about a dozen men and started conversations with them. At least three of them, she got to admit, were on the property of the Capitol that day. And one of them that she zoomed in on actually and had this ongoing discussion with admitted that he was on the front lines, had been pepper sprayed and exchanged a bunch of images with her.

But as it turned out, after she sent that information into the FBI, the FBI was able to match that up with someone they were looking for who assaulted officers not only with pepper spray, but in fact with a metal whip. And he lived in Texas. And they were able to match up that information. And basically, Claire was able to use the information she found on Bumble, which was, I believe, you know, a first name and maybe a last initial and a town to search around Facebook, find his real identity, just as she had done with potential suitors before. It was a skill that she sort of picked up on these dating apps that she was able to apply in this case to the insurrection.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you again. If you're just joining us, my guest is Ryan Reilly, senior justice correspondent for HuffPost. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Ryan Reilly, senior justice correspondent for HuffPost. He's been reporting on the loose network of amateur online sleuths who have been tracking down the identities of insurrectionists who breached the Capitol and assaulted police on January 6. He's also been reporting on the trials and sentences of the insurrectionists and the rulings of the judges.

So the stories of how some of the digital detectives found insurrectionists are so interesting. I want to get to another story about how a digital detective found someone who had breached the Capitol. And the person who breached the Capitol in this case is Brent Bozell IV, who goes by the name Zeeker. He is the son of Brent Bozell III, who's a prominent right-wing activist who founded several organizations opposing what he calls liberal media bias, including NewsBusters and the Media Research Center. So the son, Brent Bozell IV - aka Zeeker - was charged with three federal offenses. What were those offenses?

REILLY: He was charged with some offenses - more serious offenses because he entered the well of the Senate. They've sort of escalated any charges against people who actually entered that chamber, that Senate chamber, and shut down things there. So if you only entered the Capitol building, you might only be looking at misdemeanors. But if you actually entered into the Senate chamber and went onto the floor of the Senate, then you're looking at some higher, more felony, more serious charges.

GROSS: So how did a digital detective track him down? What were his identifying characteristics on videos?

REILLY: Yeah. So Zeeker Bozell was wearing this sweatshirt with his children's school on it. So basically, someone was able to use that information, go onto Facebook and go through every person who had liked any post on that school's page. It was a relatively small school. So she was able to go through pretty thoroughly, and eventually found someone had liked a photo on there. And they were named Zeeker Bozell. Their image was just, I believe, of them with a - was just an image of a snowman. So it wasn't anything immediately identifying. But then she was subsequently able to find images of him that were tagged by other people. So then she was able to match that person with the person who was on the floor of the Senate there.

So it was pretty impressive Facebook sleuthing work. She actually joked with me that, you know, some people have other hobbies like, you know, crocheting. But her thing was looking up people on Facebook. And that's something that she had done for a lot of her friends when they were in the dating world. She would basically research and find out what she could about them on Facebook.

GROSS: Before Zeeker was arrested, his father, Brent Bozell III, denounced the rioters on Fox. And he said, I am heartsick about that element that has been so destructive and has done so much damage to a very noble cause. But the damage they have done to conservatives like me is profound. At that point, I presume he didn't know that his son was one of those rioters that he had denounced. Did he make any statements after his son's arrest?

REILLY: Not that I know of. I think it's something that they've just sort of ignored. But I think that that is certainly something that's going to come up down the line in his son's case, in Zeeker Bozell's case, because this wasn't someone who was really politically naive, you know? A lot of people who were in the Senate have basically told judges that they didn't even know where they were. Some actually thought that they were at the White House when they were at the Capitol. There's this really famous video of this individual who is a QAnon believer putting his hand on the Capitol building and saying, here we are at the White House.

So there were people who were very naive, didn't know what they were doing, didn't really know anything about how the system of government works, obviously couldn't even distinguish the legislative branch from the executive branch. But Zeeker Bozell isn't in that category. This is someone who's grown up immersed in politics. He knew exactly what he was doing that day. And yet, there he is, smashing in a window at the Capitol and going onto the floor of the Senate and trying to disrupt this process. So it really is this sort of unique case of - and that's going to be something that I don't think is going to benefit him down the line, just how much, you know, knowledge he should have had about how all this works and what exactly he was doing.

GROSS: I think, the most distinctive-looking person who really, like, stood out from the crowd on January 6 was Jacob Chansley - aka the QAnon Shaman. And he's stood trial. What's his status now?

REILLY: Yeah. So he actually was sentenced. He got, I believe, 41 months in federal prison. And, I think, in comparison to some of the other cases, he's probably got the most - the harshest penalty for someone who did not engage in any violence that day. He did bring in a spear to the Capitol that day, which would be considered a deadly weapon. He did enter into the Senate chamber. And he did leave a note for Mike Pence that was somewhat threatening. But in terms of actual physical violence, he didn't engage in what some other defendants have. But I think that, you know, just because of how prominent the QAnon Shaman was and the fact that he was sort of this poster boy or this - you know, this image of the insurrection and the attack, I think that that certainly played a role here, because he tried to make himself out to be the sort of mascot of this stop the steal movement. And he was sort of trying to ride that wave and benefit from it. So I think that that obviously backfired for him when it came time for sentencing.

GROSS: So with the QAnon Shaman, his defense argued that he had serious mental health problems. Did the judge take that into account? And I wonder if any of the other prominent people in the assault on the Capitol had mental health problems, too?

REILLY: Yeah. I mean, mental health problems are definitely an ongoing issue here, which is really, I think, what is so scary about these conspiracy theories about the stolen election floating out there, because some people can't make that distinction and can't recognize that this is somewhat of a ploy. They actually believe that the election was stolen. And because they actually believe that the election was stolen, they are taking what they think as - they see as justifiable action. It doesn't make sense for a lot of these people that they're just being lied to or being used as pawns in this game. They think that they are being told the truth. They think that Trump is telling them that the election is stolen. The election is obviously stolen. And what do you do when an election is stolen? They're taking the action that they see as justified. So it makes sense sort of in their head, which is why this idea that the election was stolen is so inherently troublesome and so inherently dangerous.

As I spoke to people, you know, over a year ago now ahead of - or in the aftermath of the 2020 were sort of telling me at that point this is what's going to make this dangerous. But yeah, mental health issues are going to be an ongoing issue in these cases going forward. And there's going to be this sort of breakdown between the way that individuals presented themselves on January 6 as sort of these really macho tough guys who are taking on the power and this was 1776 2.0 and they were ready to fight with how they're presenting themselves in court and how they're presenting themselves when it comes time for sentencing and sort of talking about all the hardships that they've gone through and how they aren't that smart, often, they're talking about and how they didn't understand and how they were fooled and tricked and, you know, just went along with the crowd and were, you know, sort of present themselves as lemmings who just went along with everything. So there's this huge discrepancy between the way that they acted that day and the way that they're presenting themselves when it comes time for the consequences.

GROSS: So one of the men who breached the Capitol was in tears when he was questioned by the FBI, and one of the things he was worried about was that his mother would find out.

REILLY: Yeah. So Danny Rodriguez, who was the individual who drove that stun gun into Officer Mike Fanone's neck on January 6, he was arrested back in March. And we've now seen the videotape of his confession to the FBI. And he talks about being worried that his mother was going to find out what he did. If you just sort of contrast the messages that we saw Danny Rodriguez send to his group and the messages that he, you know, yelled that day and the expressions that he had that day on January 6 to then him sort of breaking down kind of pathetically during his FBI interview, it's just this huge contrast. There's this huge break.

He, you know, really - he called himself so stupid and said that they were so stupid to believe that they were going to be able to take over the Capitol and sort of take over the government and that Trump was going to stay president. He, you know, he comes across, you know, as thinking of himself as pretty pathetic and calls himself a bunch of names, a bunch of disparaging names during that interview. So it really is this just - this breakdown of what they presented that day versus what happened when sort of the chickens came home to roost.

GROSS: How did you decide that you were going to really focus on the insurrectionists, identifying them, following their cases in the courts?

REILLY: Yeah, you know, I mean, as soon as this happened, I realized that it was going to take over my beat. And as soon as this FBI investigation popped up, I was pursuing that. I don't think in those early days I even recognized the extent of this and just how overwhelming of an investigation it was going to be. When you talk about the total scope of assaults that happened that day and when you talked about the ability of online sleuths to identify these people, there wasn't necessarily this sense in the early days that this many people would be able to be identified. A lot of the early cases that we saw were sort of the really easy layup sort of easy cases that were built off of social media posts.

What we've seen subsequently is those tougher cases, the cases that take more work, take more investigation, take more resources to be able to actually bring about, it's going to be a longer path for these tougher ones. And there's still hundreds of these cases to come. We're nowhere near the end of this because, even based off of what sleuths alone have identified, there's a long, long, long way to go. There are a bunch of cases that are sitting out there right now that are just waiting for the FBI's final stamp to move forward. And that comes at a time when already the court system is pretty overwhelmed. So it's going to be a busy two, three, four years for the federal courtroom in D.C.

GROSS: Ryan Reilly, thank you so much for talking with us. And I wish you Happy Holidays and a healthy 2022.

REILLY: Thanks so much.

GROSS: Ryan Reilly is senior justice correspondent for HuffPost. After we take a short break, Justin Chang will review the new film "The Tragedy of Macbeth," starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand. This is FRESH AIR.

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Terry Gross
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