A Proud Boys supporter in New York accused of posting violent threats on the social media network Parler. A Colorado man charged with sending a text about “putting a bullet” in Speaker Nancy Pelosi. A man near Chicago implicated in a voice mail message about killing Democrats on Inauguration Day.
They were all arrested in recent weeks as part of an escalating effort by law enforcement officials across the country to react more quickly to menacing rhetoric in the wake of the deadly U.S. Capitol breach.
Law enforcement agencies have long struggled to decipher whether online statements could lead to real danger, wary of bringing cases hinged largely on speech that could be protected by the First Amendment. But the volume of tips about threats has skyrocketed since the Capitol assault, leading some officials to decide not to wait to see if violent language developed into action.
Nearly a dozen people who the authorities said made politically motivated threats by social media or phone have been charged with federal crimes. Although most of them were nowhere near Washington on the day of the riot, they have become part of its sprawling fallout, with investigators also scouring the country to track down hundreds of rioters and probing whether right-wing extremist groups like the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys had organized the attack.
“The riot increased our sense of urgency because it showed the possibility of what could happen,” said a senior law enforcement official in New York, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing investigations.
The effort has also coincided with a greater willingness by the Department of Homeland Security under the new Biden administration to publicly label domestic right-wing and militia groups as a national threat. Last week, the agency issued a public bulletin for the first time to warn that violent extremists, fueled by the 2020 election outcome and other “perceived grievances,” could commit further attacks.
It was not yet clear whether the riot would prompt more government surveillance of extremist groups online. The arrests of rioters, even on misdemeanor charges such as illegal entry, have given investigators the legal justification to obtain search warrants for their phones and electronic communications, potentially providing the government with access to a trove of intelligence on such groups.
Cases based on violent threats are no slam dunk. In 2016, a jury failed to convict an Orange County, Calif., man who wrote blog posts about beheading a top F.B.I. official, with the trial ending in an acquittal on some charges and a mistrial on others. His lawyers said the blog posts were intended to be satire and were protected by the Constitution.
Prosecutors must prove that the threat was serious and specific, with an intention to harm or kill. Social media posts before the riot about an armed revolution or even storming the Capitol would have been too vague to charge, legal experts said.
Last year, federal prosecutors around the country brought only 30 cases characterized as “domestic terrorism” that led with the charge of transmitting a threat, according to an analysis by a Syracuse University research group. Still, that number was the highest since at least 2000.
“Historically, these kinds of cases are not high on prosecutors’ priority lists,” said Daniel Silver, a former federal prosecutor in New York who supervised terrorism cases. “You really have to show the person intended to cause imminent violence as opposed to just expressing their opinion.”
Instead, prosecutors sometimes turn to other charges that are easier to prove against someone who is posting violent threats.
For instance, Eduard Florea, a software engineer in Queens, alarmed law enforcement officials with death threats that they said he had posted on Parler against Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia around the day of the Capitol riot on Jan. 6. He wrote in obscenity-laden posts that Mr. Warnock would have a hard time casting votes “when he’s swinging with the fish,” and that “dead men can’t pass laws,” prosecutors said. On the afternoon of the riot, he said he was armed and ready, writing, “Kill them all,” according to the complaint.
But Mr. Florea was not initially charged with transmitting a threat. He was hit with a weapons charge after agents searched his home and said they found ammunition, which he was not allowed to possess because he has a felony criminal record. He told the agents that he had applied to join the Proud Boys, according to prosecutors, and traveled with them last year to vandalize a church in Washington.
His lawyer, Mia Eisner-Grynberg, declined to comment. At his bail hearing, she said he did not condone violence, arguing that the “rhetoric was extremely high on all sides” during the riot.
When law enforcement officials are concerned about a violent social media threat that has not led to any real-world action, that person will often get a knock on the door from the F.B.I. with a warning.
But former officials have called the riot a “9/11 moment” for domestic violent extremism, a catalyzing event that has pushed local and federal resources around the country to focus on one top priority, with a much lower tolerance to wait and see if threats materialize.
“Before the riot, you might have let someone sit out there and stew and vent,” said Mitch Silber, a former head of the New York Police Department’s intelligence analysis. “Now your calculus has changed. You almost don’t have the luxury to let things play out.”
Early last year, F.B.I. agents confronted Louis Capriotti in Orland Park, Ill., after he had left several screaming voice mail messages for members of Congress that insulted their “race, religion, political affiliation, or physical appearance,” a criminal complaint said. Mr. Capriotti acknowledged that the messages could be seen as threatening and said he meant no harm, according to the complaint. The agents told him to stop calling.
But Mr. Capriotti kept at it, his tone intensifying after Election Day, prosecutors said, until he left a Dec. 29 voice mail message for an unspecified member of Congress from New Jersey saying that he would kill any Democrat who stepped foot on the White House lawn on Inauguration Day.
He was arrested six days after the riot and charged with transmitting a threat of violence. Mr. Capriotti’s lawyer argued that the government had no evidence he intended to carry out the threat, according to a court filing.
In another case, F.B.I. agents received a tip that Cleveland Meredith had sent threatening text messages targeting public officials, including one on Jan. 7 about finding Ms. Pelosi and “putting a bullet in her noggin on Live TV,” the criminal complaint said.
Mr. Meredith drove to Washington from his home in Colorado with an assault rifle and Glock firearm, prosecutors said, but showed up too late to attend the Jan. 6 rally. After receiving the tip, agents located him at a hotel in Washington, where he admitted to sending the texts, according to the F.B.I. He was arrested shortly after.
In addition to the text message threat, Mr. Meredith was charged with two misdemeanors related to the weapons. A lawyer for Mr. Meredith did not respond to a request for comment.
Court filings show that some of the people accused of storming the Capitol were already on the F.B.I.’s radar because of their online statements. In November, federal agents interviewed Rasha Abual-Ragheb in New Jersey after they came to believe she was behind a Facebook account posting about an upcoming “civil war” in a group for the Three Percenters, an extremist offshoot of the gun rights movement.
During the interview with the agents, she claimed that she had been kicked off Facebook for her pro-Trump posts, according to a criminal complaint.
After the riot, two confidential informants notified the F.B.I. that Ms. Abual-Ragheb shared photos of herself at the Capitol, the complaint said, resulting in her arrest. A lawyer for Ms. Abual-Ragheb declined to comment.
Accused right-wing extremists have not been the only people to face arrests for their online statements in the last month.
Federal prosecutors have also accused Daniel Baker, of Tallahassee, Fla., of promoting the killing of military officers on social media. The complaint described Mr. Baker as an anarchist who opposed police brutality and made violent threats against “people he claims are white supremacists” and fascists.
Mr. Baker was arrested on Jan. 15 after he issued a “call to arms” to defend the Florida state capitol building against “racist mobs,” prosecutors said.
In a court filing, Randolph Murrell, a lawyer for Mr. Baker, said his client’s talk about preparing for a war was political hyperbole, citing similar statements made by local Republican elected officials. Mr. Baker’s online postings did not pose a real threat, Mr. Murrell argued, because they were fantasies that could never have been put into action.
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