The first person to be tried for last year’s deadly assault on the US Capitol “lit the match that started the fire”, a United States prosecutor has alleged, as opening statements began on Wednesday in the trial of Texas militia group member Guy Wesley Reffitt.
Reffitt was armed with a holstered handgun and zip-tie handcuffs, and was wearing body armour and a helmet adorned with a video camera, when he and others charged at police officers on the west side of the Capitol on January 6, 2021, prosecutors have said.
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“The defendant was the tip of this mob’s spear,” federal prosecutor Jeffrey Nestler told jurors in his opening statement, saying Reffitt led other rioters up the Capitol’s stairs to “overwhelm” police and storm the building.
“In the defendant’s own words, he lit the match that started the fire,” Nestler said.
Reffitt was one of the thousands of people who stormed the US Capitol after former US President Donald Trump delivered a fiery speech in which he falsely claimed the presidential election had been stolen from him due to widespread fraud.
Trump was later impeached for “incitement of insurrection” in relation to the riot, which took place as Congress was meeting to certify President Joe Biden’s election victory.
Four people involved in the incident died on the day of the violence; one was fatally shot by police and the other three died of natural causes. A Capitol police officer who had been attacked by protesters died the following day, while four police officers who took part in the defence of the Capitol later died by suicide.
More than 100 police officers also were injured in the riot.
Reffitt, who has pleaded guilty to the charges against him, is the first person to stand trial for joining the assault on the Capitol, as top US officials have pledged to hold everyone who participated in the riot accountable.
Some 200 defendants have already pleaded guilty to joining the mob, which sent lawmakers running for their lives. They face charges ranging from unlawful picketing to seditious conspiracy, with which 11 people affiliated with the anti-government Oath Keepers militia were charged in January.
On Wednesday, Reffitt’s defence lawyer told jurors that the Department of Justice’s case against his client was based on “a lot of hype” and a “rush to judgement” against a man who is prone to bragging, exaggerating and ranting.
“He uses a lot of hyperbole, and that upsets people,” said William Welch. “This trial will be about fact versus hype.” Welch also said there is no evidence that Reffitt damaged property, used force or physically harmed anybody.
“He never tried to assault anyone. He didn’t help anybody else commit an assault,” Welch said during opening statements that were significantly shorter than the prosecutor’s 30-minute presentation.
But Nestler, the US prosecutor, said on Wednesday that Refitt told a friend he wanted to drag Democratic House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi out of the building. “I just want to see Pelosi’s head hitting every f*****g stair” of the building, he told the friend, according to Nestler.
Reffitt is a member of the “Texas Three Percenters” and bragged about his involvement in the riot to other members of the militia-style group, according to prosecutors.
Prosecutors believe Reffitt took an AR-15 rifle and a Smith & Wesson pistol with him when he drove to Washington, DC, with a fellow militia member. FBI agents who searched Reffitt’s home after the riot found a handgun in a holster on a nightstand in his bedroom.
Reffitt has pleaded not guilty to five charges, including carrying a semi-automatic handgun that he brought with him while on Capitol grounds. He also faces charges of obstruction for allegedly threatening his teenage children with harm if they turned him in to the authorities.
Reffitt’s estranged son Jackson, now 19, turned him into the FBI. The son will testify against his father at trial, Nestler said.