WASHINGTON — The Justice Department is appealing the pretrial release of a Jan. 6 riot suspect who was out on bail on a charge of attempted murder when he is alleged to have stormed the U.S. Capitol.
Matthew Jason Beddingfield, 20, of North Carolina, was first identified by online sleuths who are investigating Jan. 6 suspects and named in a March 2021 HuffPost story. In December 2019, just over a year before he is accused of traveling to Washington with his father in support of former President Donald Trump's efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election, Beddingfield shot a Hispanic teenager in the parking lot of a Walmart.
Beddingfield pleaded to felonious assault with a deadly weapon in connection with the shooting in August. He was sentenced to probation.
Federal prosecutors say that while he was on pretrial release in connection with the shooting, Beddingfield sent racist messages to others online, including messages that praised Adolf Hitler. Under the conditions of his pretrial release, Beddingfield was told “not to have any access to any social media.” He established two social media accounts anyway: @rightwing.dissident on Instagram and @sirwetemup on Snapchat, according to federal prosecutors.
Beddingfield has now been federally indicted on charges of civil disorder; assaulting officers using a dangerous weapon; assaulting, resisting or impeding certain officers; entering and remaining in a restricted building or grounds with a deadly weapon; and several misdemeanors in connection with the riot on Jan. 6, 2021.
There’s no dispute that Beddingfield stormed the Capitol — his federal public defender didn’t even attempt to make the argument that he didn’t, given the extensive evidence.
Prosecutors allege that video outside the Capitol appears to show Beddingfield at the front of the mob after the initial breach of the barricades, giving what appears to be a Nazi salute in front of the Capitol, using a flagpole as a weapon against a line of police officers and throwing a metal pole at police, one of whom the pole appears to strike.
Video inside the Capitol appears to show Beddingfield "attacking law enforcement with his flag" outside the Old Senate Chamber, an FBI affidavit alleges. He eventually left the Capitol after he was hit with a chemical irritant, authorities said.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Zia Faruqui ordered Tuesday afternoon that Beddingfield be placed on home detention at his grandfather's residence. Beddingfield was also ordered to avoid all contact with any victim or witnesses, as well as his "father and any person that was present at the Capitol on January 6, 2021." Faruqui also said Beddingfield could have a "non-smart phone" that was unable to connect to the internet.
The judge stayed his release order to give the Justice Department an opportunity to appeal, and the Justice Department said in a filing Thursday that it wanted Faruqui's order to release Beddingfield revoked. U.S. District Judge Carl Nichols put a hold on Beddingfield's release and set a hearing for Wednesday.
In the new filing, the Justice Department revealed additional racist and threatening messages it said were sent by Beddingfield and argued that his grandfather would be a poor custodian.
"It is not a wise course of action to release a young man with a violent criminal history and an affinity for firearms, violence, trolling and inciting others, and violating the trust of the courts into the sole care and custody of a seventy-four-year-old man who lives alone without the internet or a cellphone in rural North Carolina," the filing says.
Faruqui wrestled with whether to release Beddingfield over the course of two hearings. While his public defender didn't dispute that Beddingfield was at the Capitol, Faruqui noted that he didn't seem to engage in the same level of violence as other Jan. 6 defendants who have been jailed until trial.
The FBI and the Justice Department are prosecuting more than 750 people in connection with the Jan. 6 attack, but that's still only a fraction of the total number of people who either unlawfully entered the U.S. Capitol or committed chargeable crimes outside the building, which tops 2,500.
The delay in the charges against Beddingfield, who was publicly identified more than 10 months before his arrest, factored into Faruqui's ruling, he said.
“If this case came before me on Jan. 7, 2021, ... it’d be very different,” Faruqui said at a hearing Tuesday. If the government had charged Beddingfield early last year, Faruqui said, “I would be hard-pressed not to detain him.”
In an interview with NPR that aired Thursday, Attorney General Merrick Garland called the Jan. 6 investigation "the most urgent investigation in the history of the Justice Department" and said federal investigators were "working every day, 24-7," to bring those who participated in the siege to justice.
"We begin with the cases that are right in front of us with the overt actions and then we build from there," Garland told NPR. "And that is a process that we will continue to build until we hold everyone accountable who committed criminal acts with respect to January 6."
During Beddingfield’s detention hearing Tuesday, Faruqui grappled with whether he should release Beddingfield until trial, saying his job as a magistrate judge was somewhat impossible because it required him to try to predict the future. He tried to ascertain whether Beddingfield recognized the stakes and the sacrifice his grandfather was making for him.
“I’m trying to decide if I should stick out my neck for you,” Faruqui told Beddingfield. “‘What were you thinking, Judge Faruqui?’” Faruqui said people would wonder if Beddingfield violated the conditions of his pretrial release. “‘How silly could you be?’”
But Faruqui said he was hopeful that Beddingfield would see the seriousness of the moment and go down a different path in life.
“I hope that we can off-ramp him,” Faruqui said.