Why the FBI is still searching for hundreds of Capitol rioters

September 14, 2023  –A series of high-profile trials against ringleaders of the Capitol riot culminated last week in the sentencing of former Proud Boy leader Enrique Tarrio to 22 years in prison. More than 1,100 people have been already charged, but the investigation into the riot is far from over, writes the BBC’s Mike Wendling.

On 6 January 2021, Evan Neumann was near the front of the crowd that stormed into the US Capitol.

Wearing a red Maga hat and a gas mask, he assaulted at least four police officers, punching them and bashing them with parts of a metal barricade.

According to a criminal complaint, he swore at officers, called them “murderers” and shouted: “I’m willing to die, are you?”

Mr Neumann, 51, was eventually indicted on 14 counts related to the riot, but before he could be arrested, he had fled the US.

He later appeared on camera in Belarus, where he had just been granted political asylum. “I am very very grateful,” he told Belta, the Belarussian state-owned news agency, “and it is bittersweet, like eating cranberries.” He has denied the charges against him.

  • Ex-Proud Boys leader sentenced to 22 years in jail
  • US Capitol riot suspect gets asylum in Belarus

Mr Neumann still holds a place on the bureau’s list of most-wanted riot suspects, alongside another six people whose whereabouts are unknown.

They include a brother and sister from Florida, Jonathan Daniel Pollock, 24, and Olivia Michele Pollock, 32, along with their friend, 27-year-old Joseph Daniel Hutchinson III. Mr Pollock was not at home when authorities came knocking in June 2021, while Ms Pollock and Mr Hutchinson were arrested but managed to remove their GPS ankle monitors before their scheduled trial earlier this year.

The FBI's most-wanted suspects in connection with the Capitol riot. Olivia Michele Pollock, Jonathan Daniel Pollock, Evan NeumannImage source, FBI
Image caption,

The FBI’s most-wanted suspects in connection with the Capitol riot. Left to right: Olivia Michele Pollock, Jonathan Daniel Pollock, Evan Neumann

Christopher John Worrell, 52 is a member of the Proud Boys from Florida who was convicted of spraying police with pepper spray, but absconded before his sentencing hearing last month.

Adam Villarreal, 39, is accused of pushing through police lines with a riot shield, and Paul Belosic, 49, an aspiring actor, was near the front of the crowd and allegedly vandalised a congressional office. The FBI says Mr Belosic also goes by the name Jeff Thomas Redding, and has ties to Mexico and Southern Europe.

Those are just the most serious cases – and ones in which the FBI have positively identified the suspects. The large number of rioters and the volume of electronic evidence collected from that day has complicated the investigation, which is the largest in US history.

The FBI says it has still not identified a further 312 Capitol rioters, including 15 who were pictured on camera assaulting police officers or members of the media.

Photos of Jennifer Inzunza Vargas GellerImage source, FBI
Image caption,

Photos of Jennifer Inzunza Vargas Geller – “Pink Beret” – were released by the FBI

Joshua Skule, a former FBI senior executive who now runs national security services company Bow Wave, says the use of smartphones and social media has made looking for fugitives both easier and harder – easier because of electronic trails, but harder because of the rise of encrypted communications.

Some arrests have come as the result of lucky breaks. Earlier this year, a woman captured on camera at the riot wearing a pink beret, white coat, black gloves and a Dolce & Gabbana purse was finally identified as Jennifer Inzunza Vargas Geller.

Ms Vargas Geller had gone unidentified until April 2023, when the FBI tweeted her picture. The tweet went viral, two ex-boyfriends saw it and notified authorities, and Ms Vargas Geller now faces charges of entering a restricted building and disorderly conduct.

“Public co-operation with the FBI is critical,” says Mr Skule. He said many of the suspects caught on camera may have been recognised by friends or family who may be reluctant to turn them in, either out of sympathy with the rioters or simply to protect them.

But some critics of the FBI think the investigation has simply been too slow. Volunteer open-source investigators who’ve organised on social media claim to know who many of the suspects are, and say they have passed information on to the authorities, only to be met with delays in investigations and arrests.

Forrest Rogers, who was involved in these efforts and now works as a journalist in Switzerland, says the names of the vast majority of the 312 people classed as unidentified by the FBI have actually been named by volunteer researchers.

“We know who they are and the FBI know who they are too,” he says.

One recent example is the arrest of Gregory Mijares last week, nearly two years after volunteers identified him.

Court documents say the FBI received a tip off from researchers in October 2021 about a man pictured allegedly breaking though Capitol doors and fighting with officers. Phone records placed Mr Mijares at the scene of the riot.

But Mr Mijares wasn’t questioned by the FBI until May 2023, and was only arrested last week on charges including civil disorder and disorderly conduct.

“Questions about the pace of the investigation have plagued it from the beginning,” says Jonathan Lewis, a research fellow George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. “While this is a uniquely complex investigation, there are fair criticisms around the time lag.”

The FBI's most-wanted suspects in connection with the Capitol riot. Adam Villarreal, Christopher John Worrell, Paul Belosic, Joseph Daniel Hutchinson IIIImage source, FBI
Image caption,

Left to right: Adam Villarreal, Christopher John Worrell, Paul Belosic, Joseph Daniel Hutchinson III

Mr Lewis, who has been tracking the investigation in detail, says many rioters have continued to play an active role in far-right politics even as they are wanted by FBI agents, and have been emboldened by the delays.

He says that investigators have not fully adapted to the world of decentralised, online networks which inspired the rioters – most of whom were not members of an organised extremist group.

“We have not seen any evidence that there is a sea change in how agencies are able to respond to the threat of domestic extremism,” he says.

When asked about progress in tracking down the remaining rioters, an FBI spokesperson said the investigation “has been and remains a priority”.

The BBC has attempted to contact Mr Mijares and Ms Vargas Geller.

Mr Skule says the long sentences handed out to Proud Boys and other leaders of the riot may convince some of the suspects to turn and co-operate with the FBI in hopes of getting a lighter punishment.

“For many of these folks, they are not committed criminals, and they most likely did not have a plan to flee,” he says.

For most of them, Mr Skule says, it will just be a matter of time before they are caught.

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