“I was in the D.C. riots. You can look me up, OK?” Salt Lake City police said John Emanuel Banuelos told them seven months ago, after he was arrested in Liberty Park after the July 4 killing. “I’m the one in the video with the gun right here,” he said, according to police, his description of the video appearing to match a viral Vice News footage that showed a man flashing a weapon in his waistband while outside the U.S. Capitol.
Online investigators whose work has contributed to the identification and arrest of multiple rioters told NBC News they first gave Banuelos' name to the FBI in February 2021.
Now, police records about the July 4 killing obtained by the NBC affiliate KSL in Utah and shared with NBC News may help solidify what citizen investigators say they told the FBI over a year ago: that Banuelos, 37, is the man seen with a gun strapped in his waistband in the middle of the crowd of then-President Donald Trump’s supporters rioting outside the Capitol building on Jan. 6, 2021.
Banuelos, the police records say, told police that the FBI “hasn’t came and got me yet.” Banuelos admitted to the July 4 killing but claimed self-defense, police records show, and the local district attorney's office determined not to pursue that case at the time. There is no indication that Banuelos has been questioned by the FBI in connection with the riot.
The FBI, which does not comment on ongoing criminal investigations, declined to comment on the investigation into Banuelos.
Pro-Trump rioters, whipped up by the former president’s false claims of election fraud, breached security barriers to break into the Capitol building as a joint session of Congress was formalizing Joe Biden’s victory in the November 2020 election.
Salt Lake City police said Banuelos told them he "went inside" the Capitol, although online sleuths have not found evidence of him in the actual building. Banuelos told them that he "probably" had a warrant out from the FBI for his involvement in the Jan. 6 attack.
“Man, should I just tell the FBI to come get me or what,” he asked, according to a police transcript, soon adding that he was “just playing around."
It’s unclear if officers believed everything they said Banuelos was telling them during their questioning about the fatal stabbing, as police records indicate he said a lot of things that didn’t make sense.
Online sleuths investigating the Jan. 6 attack — who have successfully identified hundreds of rioters, including dozens who have not yet been arrested — brought Banuelos’ identity to the attention of NBC News. Some citizen investigators — part of a broader “sedition hunters” community investigating Capitol suspects — say they’ve been haunted by the killing in Salt Lake City.
The case illustrates the challenges the FBI faces in the manhunt for Jan. 6 rioters, which federal authorities have described as the largest criminal investigation in American history, both by the number of suspects and the volume of evidence.
The bureau received more than 200,000 tips to its public tip line in just the few weeks after the Jan. 6 attack, and tens of thousands more through its National Threat Operations Center. The volume was 750 percent above normal.
The bureau has made more than 725 arrests out of more than 2,500 people who were captured on video breaking the law that day. The FBI’s website features photos of more than 350 individuals it is particularly interested in who still haven’t been arrested. Even with hundreds of cases yet to be charged — and with another alleged rioter named Guy Reffitt, who is accused of being armed that day, set to go to trial this month — the federal court docket in D.C. is already jammed.
Over a year after the riot, the FBI is still facing uncomfortable questions about why it didn’t do more ahead of the Capitol attack. The deadly stabbing at Liberty Park on July 4 raises another question about whether further violence could have been prevented had the online investigators’ tip not appeared to fall through the cracks, people close to the victim said.
Victoria Thomas told NBC News she’s “not surprised” that the man who police say stabbed her foster son, Christopher Thomas Senn, 19, told police that he participated in the Capitol riot, calling Banuelos a “wicked person.” She was troubled to learn sleuths say the FBI had been tipped off about him months before her son was fatally stabbed.
“I’m heartbroken,” she said. “We're disappointed in the justice system ... He should have been arrested. … He’s going to do this to somebody else.”
Randal Thomas, Victoria’s husband and Senn’s foster father, wondered how Banuelos, who was homeless, would have had the means to travel to Washington, and said he was similarly troubled by the idea that the FBI had received tips about him last year.
“That’s terrible,” Randal Thomas said. “I don’t know what other stuff he’s done since, but this stabbing of Chris is just so senseless.”
Banuelos’ current location is unclear. Two phone numbers previously associated with him were disconnected, and he did not immediately reply to a message sent to his Facebook account.
The killing appears to have occurred after a dispute over money. Before he stabbed Senn, another person hit Banuelos in the head with a skateboard, Banuelos and other witnesses told police. Banuelos, according to the transcript of his police interview, said someone had accused him of stealing $150, and he told the police he believed he was in a “life or death” fight.
Online investigators from all walks of life have provided immeasurable assistance to the massive federal investigation. The FBI has repeatedly recognized their work, and Attorney General Merrick Garland even acknowledged the role of “citizen sleuths across the country” during a congressional hearing. But the average citizens who have aided the probe are worried that critical tips are still getting buried in the system. Many of the online sleuths who originally sent their tips through online portals now have individual relationships with FBI special agents, but bureau employees are limited in what they can tell them about ongoing investigations.
“We understand the the system is overloaded and was never meant to handle this volume of cases and prosecutions, but finding out that he actually killed somebody who was practically a kid, that was definitely a major motivator for making sure that the information was public and people know about him,” one online investigator who worked to identify Banuelos. Like many of the citizens investigating the Jan. 6 attack, the person spoke anonymously to avoid harassment.
The FBI’s tip line has faced scrutiny before. Before a teenage gunman fatally shot 17 people at his former high school in Parkland, Florida, in 2018, a tipster called a FBI tip line with concerns about the shooter’s “gun ownership, desire to kill people, erratic behavior, and disturbing social media posts, as well as the potential of him conducting a school shooting.” The bureau never followed up. FBI Director Chris Wray said the bureau regretted the “additional pain” the news caused for “all those affected by this horrific tragedy,” and said the FBI would evaluate how the mistake occurred. The families of the Parkland victims settled a lawsuit against the FBI last year for more than $127 million.
Another citizen sleuth said that while the size of the Jan. 6 investigation was unprecedented and there were bound to be mistakes along the way, it was troubling that tips about violent suspects haven’t always received the attention they need.
“One of our concerns is that there seems to be a failure to prioritize fast arrests of violent people who assaulted officers or brought guns,” this person said. “There’s a real need to prioritize arrests of these violent perpetrators before anyone else is hurt or killed.”
'It’s a war, man'
The man photographed with the gun was added to the FBI’s Capitol Violence “Seeking Information” gallery on Feb. 3, 2021, just as the webpage was undergoing a revamp to make it more user-friendly and browsable.
By that point, the individual labeled by the FBI as 200-AOM — the acronym the bureau came up with for “assault on media” — had already been given a nickname by online sleuths who used hashtags to help track and remember suspects. They dubbed him #Cowpoke for his American flag cowboy hat festooned with “Trump 2020” and “Stop the Steal” stickers.
There was a lead right off the bat. The man who had been captured in a photograph and on video flashing the gun in his waistband was wearing a blue T-shirt for the 2019 Lawndale 5K race, suggesting he had links to Chicago.
On the eve of the Capitol attack, “Cowpoke” was also featured in a livestream from another Trump supporter, which gave sleuths a clear image of his unmasked face, clues about his identity and an insight into his state of mind.
“It’s a war, man,” the man said during the stream that was later uploaded to YouTube. “Let’s just do the right thing, let Trump win, we know it’s the facts, we know what’s up.” He rattled off a number of YouTube personalities who had influenced his line of thinking. “Thank you, God, for Jordan B. Peterson, thank you, God, for Dennis Prager,” he said.
He also said what sounded like a personal mantra: “God first, think twice, move once. To be aware is to be alive.”
A number of investigative threads came together around the same time. Searches for variants of the man’s mantra brought up links to social media accounts that appear to be connected to Banuelos. Facial recognition searches, which have generated leads that have helped sleuths build cases brought by the FBI, pulled up old mugshots of Banuelos, from before his face tattoos were removed, sleuths said. (NBC News did not conduct these searches on its own and cannot vouch for their accuracy.)
One of the sleuths said they sent a tip through the bureau’s online portal in February 2021, just as the FBI was being overwhelmed by new information from the public. Sleuths kept digging.
They say they learned a lot about him.
Like many of the rioters, Banuelos had a lengthy arrest record, including a prior felony drug charge that was not prosecuted and a number of other charges, including one involving a guilty plea for fleeing and eluding police. (Last week, the FBI arrested Matthew Beddingfield, a North Carolina man who stormed the Capitol when he was out on bail after he was charged with attempted first-degree murder.)
And like many other Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol, social media accounts that appear to be linked to Banuelos followed and engaged with Facebook pages that shared conspiracy-minded content claiming the election was stolen. Sleuths said a Facebook account bearing Banuelos' name features videos posted by Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., and conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, among many others.
As KSL reported, Banuelos has been arrested at least twice since the July stabbing: Police say he assaulted a woman in August, and then hit a woman and interfered with an arrest in September.
But authorities credited his reported claims of self-defense in the stabbing. In an Aug. 5 letter from the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office, an official wrote that the office was “unable to proceed” with the case against Banuelos at that time.
“This office would be more than happy to revisit this matter if further information is developed which more adequately supports the prosecution of said individual,” the letter stated. A spokesman for the Salt Lake County DA’s Office told KSL that safety is the office’s first priority, and that they file cases based on the evidence they have.
Victoria and Randall Thomas later met with District Attorney Sim Gill about the case, and are still hoping that Banuelos is charged in their foster son’s death.
Weeks after he’d been released from custody, Banuelos was on the phone with a Salt Lake Police Department investigator. He said he was drunk and high, according to police records. He’d heard about a tax refund, and he wondered where that money was. He said he was a conservative Republican. And he brought up Jan. 6 again.
Banuelos, the officer wrote, “talked about going where Donald Trump sent him.”