WASHINGTON — In the two years since a mob of Donald Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol — violently assaulting dozens of officers, inflicting millions of dollars in damage and sending lawmakers scrambling — the FBI and the Justice Department have responded with a historic and sprawling investigation that has resulted in more than 900 arrests, nearly 500 guilty pleas, dozens of significant prison sentences and more seditious conspiracy convictions than the U.S. had seen in several decades.
Still, the FBI has arrested just a small fraction of the more than 3,000 people who could be charged. At least 250 suspects wanted by the bureau on accusations that they assaulted officers on Jan. 6, 2021, are still at large, according to federal authorities, as is the person who planted pipe bombs outside the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee before the attack.
Heading into the third year of the investigation, the pace of arrests has slowed dramatically, even as federal prosecutors have just three years left until the statute of limitations runs out on most Jan. 6 offenses. And just as the Justice Department is set to get millions of additional dollars to fuel its investigation, it will also face scrutiny from a Republican-controlled House from members who have called to defund the FBI and who have heavily criticized the Justice Department’s Jan. 6 probe.
The Justice Department did win substantial victories in the second year of its investigation into the unprecedented attempt to prevent a peaceful transition of power. Federal prosecutors secured more than 300 guilty pleas in a single year. Federal judges imposed nearly 300 sentences, including a record 10-year prison sentence for a retired New York City police officer who assaulted a Washington cop with a flagpole and then lied about his actions on the stand. The FBI made numerous key arrests, and it even arrested a GOP candidate for governor who it says helped destroy property on Jan. 6. And the Justice Department won multiple convictions in a major trial against members of the far-right Oath Keepers, including two for seditious conspiracy (three other Oath Keepers pleaded guilty to seditious conspiracy as part of a plea deal).
But the federal investigation has been strained, spread thin and strapped for resources as a sometimes less-than-agile federal bureaucracy adapts to the overwhelming scope of the caseload. That includes digging through a massive trove of digital evidence, much of it generated by rioters who extensively documented their criminal activities with their cellphones. The FBI is working its way through almost 4 million files, including more than 30,000 videos from body-worn cameras, surveillance cameras and rioters’ devices. “For context, these files amount to over nine terabytes of information and would take at least 361 days to view continuously,” the FBI said this week.
The community of online investigators who have identified rioters and played a role in hundreds of Jan. 6 cases, meanwhile, say they have spent much of the last year on an emotional roller coaster. The “sedition hunters” have celebrated arrests they had waited on for months after having turned over information to the FBI, devoured new evidence from federal trials and the House Jan. 6 committee that led to more identifications and investigative leads, and marveled at the enormous impact their work has had in case after case. They have built a repository of content from more than 5,100 Facebook profiles, 1,400 YouTube accounts, 600 Instagram profiles, 1,600 Twitter feeds, nearly 200 Rumble accounts and more than 900 TikTok profiles, according to one of the online investigators.
The online investigators say that they have positively identified hundreds of additional rioters to the FBI who have not yet been arrested and that they are growing frustrated by the slowing pace of FBI arrests.
More than 100 people featured on the FBI’s Capitol Violence webpage — which essentially functions as a “most wanted” list of riot suspects — have been identified by online investigators but have not yet been arrested by the bureau, three sources close to the investigation said. In addition, online sleuths have positively identified more than 600 people who entered the Capitol on Jan. 6 and have not been arrested, the sources said. Hundreds of those names, as NBC News has reported, are in the FBI’s possession.
While the FBI arrested more than 700 defendants in the first year of the investigation, it arrested about 200 in the second. The Justice Department has chosen to focus its resources on people who either entered the Capitol or committed violence or property damage outside, not on the thousands of demonstrators who simply passed barricades and entered the restricted grounds of the Capitol. The FBI has arrested more than 900 people, but the total number of Jan. 6 participants who could be charged under that approach is more than 3,000, according to a database compiled by sleuths.
Some of the sleuths are perplexed by what they see as a lack of prioritization by the bureau, gritting their teeth as rioters they have watched violently assaulting law enforcement officers on social media and surveillance video go on vacations and attend family weddings and spend yet another holiday home with their families without facing consequences.
The list of not-yet-arrested Jan. 6 participants whom these open-source investigators say they have identified after having either spotted them inside the Capitol or engaged in violence or destruction outside includes: veterans; people featured in adult entertainment videos; a funeral home director; the niece of a famous comedian; a corrections officer; an elected official in Connecticut who has since admitted having entered the Capitol; a celebrity photo collector who has had his image snapped with Rihanna, Selena Gomez and Kim Kardashian; a man who flashed a gun at the Capitol and then fatally stabbed a 19-year-old man in a park in Salt Lake City; a male model; a former police officer; a real estate agent; an ex-NFL player; a race car driver; a neurosurgeon; a stand-up comic who was featured on “America’s Got Talent”; and a man previously arrested for playing a musical instrument naked in public. At least two people who were featured on the FBI list died before they were arrested, as did at least two other people who went inside the building, according to the sleuths. Other uncharged Jan. 6 participants identified by the sleuths have been arrested on other charges, including a man who was arrested for walking around his neighborhood sans pants.
The clock is ticking: The statute of limitations for most federal crimes is five years, meaning most Capitol attack defendants would have to be charged by Jan. 6, 2026.
Federal authorities tried to make it clear this week that they are in this for the long haul.
“In the months and years to come, the FBI Washington Field Office will continue to partner with U.S. attorney’s offices across the country to bring to justice those who attempted to use violence to substitute their will over the will of the people,” David Sundberg, the assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Washington field office, said in a statement.
The Justice Department said the federal investigation “continues to move forward at an unprecedented speed and scale,” with Attorney General Merrick Garland praising staff members who participated “in one of the largest, most complex, and most resource-intensive investigations in our history.”
“Our work is far from over,” Garland said in a statement. “We remain committed to ensuring accountability for those criminally responsible for the January 6 assault on our democracy. And we remain committed to doing everything in our power to prevent this from ever happening again.”
But online investigators worry time is running out.
“While it was encouraging to see the FBI state that they plan to bring justice to the remaining rioters in the months and years to come, the current pace of arrests is simply not sufficient to achieve that goal,” one of the sleuths said. “The phrase ‘justice delayed is justice denied’ seems very applicable to this situation.”
There was another bright spot for sleuths this week. At a court hearing in a Jan. 6 case Thursday, U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan said he understood the Justice Department had 1,000 more cases in the pipeline, according to a journalist and a lawyer who heard his comments. A law enforcement source said the Justice Department had briefed the court on what to expect ahead. NBC News could not independently confirm the number. A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Washington, D.C., had no immediate comment.
Threats — both physical and existential — linger as the investigation enters its third year. Even though millions of dollars in additional Justice Department resources for the Jan. 6 investigation were tucked into the omnibus bill signed by President Joe Biden, bottlenecks are inevitable in an investigation that involves dozens of FBI field offices and U.S. attorneys’ offices spread across the country, in addition to a jampacked court system in which it can be tough to find room on the docket.
Assuming House Republicans can settle on a speaker, several right-wing members of the GOP caucus have signaled their plans to go after the bureau for its Jan. 6 investigation. Some have called the Jan. 6 defendants being held before trial “political prisoners,” while others have spread conspiracy theories about the attack that have propagated on far-right forums and on Fox News prime time. House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy of California, who has worked to appease the right flank of the caucus, has said in recent weeks that a “Church-style investigation” of the bureau is needed to “change the course of where the FBI is today.” (Led by Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho, a Senate select committee formed in 1975 investigated intelligence abuses by the CIA, the National Security Agency, the FBI and the IRS.)
With the political attacks have come the physical threats. Just last month, Jan. 6 defendant Eric Christie — who was photographed carrying what appeared to be a hammer during the Capitol attack — got into an hourslong standoff with the FBI when they went to arrest him.
“Better come in here shooting,” Christie told law enforcement officers during the standoff as he pointed a gun at the entrance of his home, according to court documents.
The standoff came not long after Jan. 6 rioter Edward Kelley — who authorities said was one of the first people to breach the Capitol and busted open a fire door, letting in other members of the mob — was arrested with another man and charged with plotting to kill members of the FBI.
Some of the anger aimed at the FBI is fueled by conspiracy theories, including the notion that the bureau set up some sort of trap on Jan. 6, using undercover operatives dressed as Trump supporters to rile up a mob.
Online sleuths have done their best to bust those myths, too. After a right-wing lawyer for Jan. 6 defendants proclaimed on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show that a man wearing a “Keep America Great” hat on the front lines of the battle was “clearly a law enforcement officer” and an “agent provocateur,” online sleuths identified him as a man who calls himself “Rally Runner” and spent his time running around the stadium during St. Louis Cardinals games. The man, who has not been charged, regularly posted about Carlson’s program and later said he was disappointed that Carlson was helping spread lies about him. The man, who said he spoke with the FBI immediately after the Capitol attack, told NBC News this week that he has heard “nothing” from the FBI since his initial interview. “I only heard from them the day they came over,” he said. “That was it.”
More recently, a sleuth identified three men pictured wearing “MAGA CIVIL WAR” T-shirts and Trump hats, who had been the subject of right-wing memes suggesting they were undercover federal operatives.
In fact, an investigation by sleuths using facial recognition revealed, two of the men are members of the same family from Kentucky, and the third man is Facebook friends with the two others. All have blue-collar jobs, according to their social media profiles. Public records show that all three are registered Republicans. The day after the Jan. 6 attack, the youngest of the men changed his Facebook cover image to show an upside-down U.S. flag. None of the men answered phone calls to cellphones registered under their names. NBC News is not naming them because there is no evidence that they entered the building or committed violence outside and they have not been charged with crimes.
Some charging documents in Jan. 6 cases make the role that online sleuths played clear. In other FBI affidavits, you have to know what to look for. Sometimes there are no fingerprints at all, and federal authorities instead lean on previous tips in their database or interview people who know the suspects to build out their cases.
Garland has publicly praised the work of “citizen sleuths around the country,” and a law enforcement source close to the investigation confirmed the critical role sleuths are playing behind the scenes.
“I am always grateful and impressed whenever the sleuths provide materials that enrich both individual prosecutions and the overarching investigation,” the source said.
Despite some frustrations, the sleuths are keeping at it, and they hope to see a lot more arrests in 2023, especially as ongoing cases are adjudicated and as the government gets past its major seditious conspiracy trials against members of the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys.
“No one’s giving up. New information is still being found every day. New videos are being found every day,” a sleuth said.
Jan. 6 rioters who think they can move on with their lives without facing consequences, the sleuth said, should think twice.
“When the statute of limitations are up, there’s nothing else we can do, and we’ll put out everything we have,” this person added. “Anyone who entered the Capitol should never consider themselves anonymous, ever.”
The sleuth’s recommendation for those waiting for a knock from the FBI?
“Turn yourself in.”