Editor’s Note: The following is adapted from “Sedition Hunters: How January 6th Broke the Justice System,” a new book by NBC News justice reporter Ryan J. Reilly. The book, published by Public Affairs, tells the inside story of the online sleuths driving the FBI’s sprawling investigation into the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
“JOHN RICHTER! JOHN RICHTER!” the man on the floor of the U.S. Senate said, calling out for his friend. “THIS IS US! THIS IS OUR RIGHT HERE! THIS IS OUR HOUSE! THIS IS WHAT YOU DO WHEN YOU TAKE IT! DON’T GIVE IT BACK TO THEM NOW!”
As rioters looted the desks on the Senate floor on Jan. 6, a man named Joseph Irwin roamed around, shooting a selfie video. The former deputy sheriff in Hardin County, Kentucky — birthplace of Abraham Lincoln, neighbor of Fort Knox — began forming a plan with his old army buddy after Donald Trump lost the election, but it crystallized after Trump sent his “will be wild!” tweet on Dec. 19.
“Muster for liberty,” Richter had texted. “Let’s show these liberal soy boys what the sleeping giant looks like when it’s up, angry, and ready to fight.”
“Are we going open militia or innocent/ready bystander?” Irwin asked in a text message.
“I think we are gonna be in a huge crowd mostly,” Richter replied. “So we will have to be opportunists most likely. Gnome sayin? I like the ready bystander wildcard approach myself.”
Irwin and Richter attended Trump’s speech and then headed to the Capitol. They saw someone bust in the window of an emergency fire exit, reach the magnetic lock bar on the inside, and open the door. Violent rioters flooded in. The duo scurried right over; stormed the building, chanting “USA”; and made it onto the Senate floor, where they occupied Senate desks. They were some of the last rioters to leave when police finally had enough manpower.
About two months later, two men knocked on John Richter’s door with some questions. He didn’t answer at first: he was on a work call and thought it was probably just an Amazon delivery. They were persistent.
He glanced at his doorbell cam. It was just two dudes in jeans and polos, but they weren’t leaving. What are these, Realtors trying to get me to sell my house or something? he thought. He had no idea they’d want to question him about storming the Capitol.
Why would he? The FBI had the wrong John Richter.
This John Richter worked for Joe Biden’s campaign. Hillary Clinton’s too. He’d also worked at the Capitol for the better part of a decade and had friends who’d hidden in their offices during the attack.
This John Richter had been in Pennsylvania during the 2020 campaign, helping Biden win the state. He favored button downs, not camouflage pants. He’d returned to D.C. after the campaign, when he was based out of Scranton. When he popped open the door to his home on Capitol Hill and the special agents introduced themselves, this John Richter figured somebody must be getting a security clearance.
“It’s D.C.; everyone’s trying to get background checks, so like, Oh, they’re here trying to, like, confirm one of my neighbors lives here. I don’t really talk to my neighbors that much, so I was like, Oh, I really don’t have any time; I’m on a work call,” he later told me.
They said it was important. They wanted to ask him about Jan. 5, where he’d been between the hours of 7:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m. “When the FBI’s at your door on a workday, and they ask you where you were on Jan. 5, you don’t remember where you were on Jan. 5,” he said.
“I have no idea,” Richter said. The special agents, Richter said, questioned why he remembered what he was doing on Jan. 6 but not the previous day.
“It was a violent insurrection, like, five blocks from my house. I worked there for 8.5 years, I have friends that were trapped in their office, of course I remember Jan. 6,” he said. “I don’t remember Jan. 5.”
His puppy was going crazy in his crate. He started going through his phone. John’s Instagram was full of pictures of the Washington Monument, flowers on the National Mall, etc. If he had gone for a walk on Jan. 5, maybe he’d snapped a photo that night. As he scrolled back, one of the FBI special agents pulled out a manila envelope. They’d blown up his passport photo and had a photo of a masked figure in a gray sweatshirt.
“Do you know what this is a picture of?” they asked.
“Yes,” Richter replied, increasingly nervous.
“How do you know what this is a picture of?”
“It’s the person who dropped the bombs, it’s on bus stops, it’s all over Twitter, it’s everywhere,” he said. “What do you mean how do I know?”
Did he know who the bomber was? No!
Suddenly it all clicked. He’d adopted his eight-week-old puppy on Jan. 2. “I wasn’t even leaving the living room without him whining,” John said. Jan. 5 had been the first night that he’d given the pup a bath in the sink, along with his roommate and his roommate’s girlfriend.
“I’m showing the FBI agents me playing with my dog, giving my dog a bath, and at the same time he’s going crazy in his crate, so clearly they know I have a dog,” Richter said.
If he did know who the bomber was, would he tell them?
“Yes! I worked for Joe Biden, I worked for Hillary Clinton, like, I wasn’t trying to ‘stop the steal,’” Richter said. The only time he’d even left his place on Jan. 6 was to take the bumper magnet off the back of his car. He didn’t want rioters to burn his vehicle upon seeing Biden’s name.
After Jan. 5, he even pored over photos of rioters on the FBI’s website himself, hoping he’d recognize someone he could turn in himself. “I was like I want to find somebody I know that I could turn in. I’m from Scranton, there has to be somebody I know that is in these photos,” Richter said. “I told the FBI that! Every time you put out a new photo, I’m searching through like Where’s Waldo to see if I can find someone!”
Richter had no idea why the FBI would question someone who worked in Democratic politics for fifteen years about leaving bombs near the Capitol to stop the electoral college certification. Did his Pennsylvania phone number pop up on some cell phone list? There certainly were plenty of Pennsylvanians who’d stormed the Capitol.
Asking Jan. 6 suspects if they knew anything about the pipe bombs was good practice and also routine. The FBI did so when questioning suspects that ranged from serious violent offenders to low-level defendants charged with petty misdemeanors. FBI special agents showed up to the doorsteps of self-identified journalists who were at the Capitol looking for footage too.
Still, showing up to the home of a random person — a Biden campaign official, in fact — to see if they were the bomber seemed like something the FBI could’ve ruled out with a bit of research.
Richter’s run-in with the feds became an ongoing joke among his friends. “Even last weekend, my friend introduced me to her new boyfriend, and I had to tell him the FBI story,” he told me in 2023. There were jokes about him being on the no-fly list. Whenever the FBI raised the reward for information on the bombs placed outside the Republican National Committee and Democratic National Committee on the night of Jan. 5 — they bumped it up to $500,000 in January 2023, signaling they were still desperate for leads — D.C. John Richter would receive texts from friends joking about how the money was too good and they were going to turn him in and collect.
“Sorry Richter but the reward is up to $500K. I think we have to turn you in,” one wrote in a group text.
“Maybe we should wait till the reward climbs to $1M,” suggested another.
Months after visiting the wrong John Richter in 2021, the FBI arrested former police officer Irwin and obtained a warrant for his cell phone. Then, two years after the FBI visited D.C. John Richter, the FBI arrested the right John Richter in March 2023.
D.C. John Richter saw the news, and suddenly things made sense. “I was always curious why they were asking me questions,” Richter said. “This might make sense now. It’s literally one of the craziest stories I have.”
The group text blew up when John Richter’s friends found out about the other John Richter.
“OMGGGGG,” wrote one friend. “Omg I’m crying,” wrote another.
Adapted from "Sedition Hunters: How January 6th Broke the Justice System" by Ryan J. Reilly. Copyright © 2023. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Hachette Book Group Inc.