WASHINGTON — The breakthrough in the FBI investigation started inside a Joann Fabric and Crafts store. Last weekend, a clothing designer was standing in the checkout line waiting to purchase a needle for his sewing machine when his buddy saw something funny on his phone.
It was a tweet from the FBI’s Washington Field Office featuring two striking images of the 537th person added to the bureau’s U.S. Capitol Violence webpage, which has functioned as a “most wanted” list of Jan. 6 participants since the investigation began more than two years ago.
No. 537 on the FBI list is a woman wearing a white coat and black gloves, carrying a black Dolce & Gabbana purse, who has been the subject of Jan. 6 conspiracy theories. In one image, with her eyebrow arched, she looks dead at the camera like she’s Jim from “The Office.” In another, she’s standing near the Capitol, appearing to direct rioters with a stick.
Atop her head: a pink beret.
“I stopped dead in my tracks,” the designer, who asked not to be named to avoid harassment and threats, recalled in an interview with NBC News. “I’m like, ‘That’s Jenny.’”
He sent in a tip to the FBI. On Monday, he said he got a call from the bureau, confirming they were investigating Jenny. By Friday, a law enforcement official confirmed to NBC News that the bureau had identified “Pink Beret” as the clothing designer’s ex, Jennifer Inzunza Vargas, of Los Angeles.
Vargas did not respond to requests for comment.
The designer had dated Vargas four years ago and was able to identify her to the FBI thanks to the tweet’s popularity. Recent posts from the FBI Washington Field Office on Twitter have gathered 10,000 to 20,000 views. The tweet about the woman in the pink beret received more than 7.2 million. Among those millions of viewers was his friend in Joann Fabric.
The images did not show what the woman did at the Capitol, so many on Twitter assumed she didn’t do anything serious. Some Donald Trump supporters pounced, calling this another instance of FBI overreach, a reason to defund the bureau.
The jokes flooded in, too. One Twitter user dubbed the woman “Insurrection Eva Braun,” another compared her to Carmen Sandiego. Someone called her “fascist Matilda,” and several users made jokes about her being a character from a Wes Anderson movie. “Emily in-carceration,” read one of the joke tweets referring to the show “Emily in Paris.” There were a couple of comparisons to April Ludgate, the character played by Aubrey Plaza in NBC’s “Parks and Recreation.”
The clothing designer’s friend was among them: “He’s always on Twitter, and he said something like, ‘Yo, check out this chick.’”
That night, after tipping off the FBI, the clothing maker took to his own Twitter account, quote-tweeting the FBI’s post.
“I use to date this girl in 2019 LOL,” he tweeted, attaching an old picture of Vargas, wearing a red ski hat. After his tweet began to pick up steam, he started getting harassment and worried if could escalate to threats. He decided to delete the tweet, saying that things were getting “crazy.”
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To the “Sedition Hunters” — the online sleuths who have spent the last 800+ days compiling and organizing open-source materials to help identify Jan. 6 rioters — Vargas was known as #PinkBeret. While the sleuths had aided in the cases against hundreds of Jan. 6 defendants and identified hundreds more Jan. 6 rioters who the FBI had not yet been arrested, Pink Beret remained elusive, despite being captured in a variety of videos and photos that day.
Online sleuths had mapped out Pink Beret’s day, and she seemed to be everywhere. There she was, captured in photos and videos taken at the initial breach of the police line, by the Peace Monument. There she was, on the front lines of the attack, on video cheering on as rioters tore apart a black fence so they could chuck the pieces at the police line. There she is, in photos and video, holding the door open for other rioters at one breach point, entering the building, then entering the building again from a second breach point. There she is inside as men in military gear chase police officers under a roll-down emergency door. There she is, smoking a cigar, on the east side of the Capitol. There she is, moving a large black bag from the pile of media equipment that rioters were hellbent on destroying. “Traitors get the f---ing rope,” someone yells repeatedly as rioters smash equipment and Pink Beret looks on in high heels.
They had attacked it from all angles, but no luck. One sleuth said he had searched for pink berets so much that he began to get targeted ads for the caps, including a pink one adorned with small white puffs.
That all changed last weekend when the sleuths saw the clothing designer’s tweet. They said they ran a facial recognition check, got a match, found more photos and found plenty of material to confirm the ID, including a post in which she appears to have sold a (slightly damaged) Dolce & Gabbana purse that looks like the one Pink Beret wore to the Capitol.
The clothing designer, who’s based in Los Angeles, met Vargas, who’s from Sacramento, online and they hit it off “really well” in late 2018. In early 2019, when they were in their early 20s, Vargas flew down to L.A. “We weren’t, like, trying to get married or anything,” he said. “We were hooking up for a few months.”
Toward the end of those months, the designer said, Vargas posted on his Discord that she was reading Hitler’s 1925 manifesto. They got into a discussion about it that revealed more of Vargas’ far-right politics, he said.
“I was just instantly turned off, like, ‘Yo, I don’t think this is going to work out,’” he said. “You’re, like, reading ‘Mein Kampf,’ you think immigrants don’t deserve X, Y, Z.” (One of the social media accounts linked to Vargas, which was viewed by NBC News, also makes references to Hitler.)
After their relationship fizzled, Vargas stuck around in the Los Angeles area, the designer said; the account that sold the Dolce & Gabbana bag is based in Beverly Hills, and an Instagram account that appears to belong to her has posted from Los Angeles.
They kept in touch, occasionally exchanging messages even though their interests diverged. “She’s super into politics, and I didn’t know anything besides the fact that Trump lost,” the designer said. But he knew she was in Washington on Jan. 6 and did some research. He even asked her if she was on the “no fly” list in a message he wrote to her a few days after the attack, on Jan. 10, 2021, which he shared with NBC News.
“Nope, cause I didn’t go into the [Capitol],” she wrote, despite extensive video evidence later viewed by NBC News that does appear to show her inside the building.
“But you still crossed state lines to riot,” he replied.
“I was there to support the president. Not to partake in that riot. I support the police,” Vargas responded.
In the months that she remained unidentified, some speculated that Pink Beret was an “agent provocateur,” part of a pattern of Jan. 6 defendants and their supporters attempting to deflect responsibility for their actions by suggesting fellow rioters were working on behalf of the government to entrap Trump supporters during the attack.
Kira West, an attorney for Jan. 6 defendant Darrell Neely, has questioned the government about Pink Beret, who is seen on video holding hands with Neely inside the Capitol. West wrote in a memo this year that it was “hard to believe the government doesn’t know who she is and even harder to understand why they haven’t charged her with crimes like everyone else.”
West, in a filing in February, wrote that “Mr. Neely’s entry into the Capitol was directed by Pink Beret. Mr. Neely needs to know who she is and why she was there. He also needs to understand if he was targeted by her that day and for what purpose.”
Pink Beret was “central to Mr. Neely’s defense,” and the court should allow a “robust cross examination of government witnesses about Pink Beret girl, her possible connection to law enforcement and her role in the events of January 6, 2021,” West wrote.
The government has sought to have Neely’s defense team banned at trial from raising questions about whether Pink Beret was a member of law enforcement unless they could offer any evidence for that assertion, writing, “the Government is unaware of any evidence to support that contention.”
With hundreds of cases waiting in the pipeline, months and even years have gone by between the time rioters have been identified and when they’ve been arrested. But with Neely’s trial set to begin on May 22, the government may need to produce the new evidence it collected last weekend about Vargas’ identity expeditiously.
Asked this week about Pink Beret being identified by her ex, West said she wanted answers from the FBI months ago. “The FBI is late,” West told NBC News. “I have no idea if she has a connection to [law enforcement]. They won’t tell us.”
Vargas isn’t the first Jan. 6 rioter to be turned in by a former romantic partner. Richard Michetti was turned in by his ex after he called her a “moron” at the Capitol because she didn’t believe Trump’s lies about the 2020 presidential election. Last year, he was sentenced to nine months in federal prison.
The clothing designer said he thinks it’s important to get to the bottom of things and figure out if Vargas was working with any extremists on Jan. 6. But he said his “heart hurts” for Vargas.
“She’s clearly, like, a lost person,” he said, but added there needs to be accountability for people who stormed the Capitol.
He said he was struck by the sheer randomness of learning that an ex-girlfriend was on the FBI’s wanted list because of viral Twitter jokes.
“It’s just going to be one of those things for me,” the designer joked. “I dated this girl that was on the FBI’s most wanted list.”
CORRECTION (May 8, 2023, 2:50 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the name of a woman. She is Jennifer Inzunza Vargas, not Inzuza.