The tableau of riot police and screaming crowds colliding under flapping American flags makes for a powerful enough news photo, but what really stands out is the red-faced man in the corner.
Drool drips from his mouth. His wincing eyes point up. Even in a giant crowd outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, the man seems alone, enraged but also pained. Court documents suggest all that was true.
Hillsborough County resident Matthew Council, the man in that photo, was sentenced Monday in federal court to 180 days of home incarceration and five years of probation. He had pleaded guilty to felony charges for his role in the attack on the Capitol, where he charged a line of officers like a fullback.
Even without his name, Council’s face must have said something about the Jan. 6 riot. His anonymous photo topped articles online from The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Boston Herald, Time and others. And now, court documents reveal even more, offering a grim portrait of a struggling man in the grip of delusions, conspiracies and cognitive decline.
First, though, the image went viral on Reddit, where Council was labeled a “frothing berserker” and became meme fodder. His resemblance to a video game character got him dubbed “Doom guy.” Amateur open-source investigators analyzing Jan. 6 video to assist the FBI tagged him with a meaner nickname, #rabidchipmunk.
Some who commented on the news stories asked about the unidentified man: “Anybody check on the guy foaming at the mouth?”
A worried father
Court proceedings later revealed the man in the viral photo as Council and provided the details of this story. Council’s attorney declined to make his client available for an interview, pointing instead to a sentencing memorandum he filed.
Council is a 51-year-old former college football player who at the time of the riot lived with his parents in Riverview. He survived on disability payments due to a litany of physical ailments and chronic pain said to be brought on by his sports career.
Council and his doctors believe he has CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease linked to repeated blows to the head. CTE can cause cognitive impairment, impulsive behavior, depression, substance misuse and dementia. The sentencing memo states: “Matt has all these symptoms.”
In 2019, he was part of a lawsuit against Liberty University and the NCAA over concussions.
Council’s father, Claude, calls his youngest child his best friend. On Dec. 30, 2020, days before the Capitol riot, he emailed Council’s psychiatrist:
For the last 6 to 8 months ... he has been spending most of his time on Twitter. He is a digital soldier in General Flynn’s army. And he spends his days trying to convince others on Twitter to believe in Trump and points out the deep state corruption and devious ways. He has been kicked off Twitter many times, 12 or so times permanently. He reopens fictitious Twitter accounts to keep going. Up sometimes at 3:00 AM. He shows us everything that he sends out online and is hyper focused on all current events relating to politics. ...
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June and I are in our late 70s and don’t see the meaning in most that he sends out. This really frustrates him. ... Mentally – I will give you a few words that seem to be where he is at. Agitated, loud, gross, impulsive, irritable, paranoid, anxious, depressed, sleep troubles, irrational fears, he won’t do his meds. His mother has to keep the many pills that he takes current. ... The birds on the pond that he feeds are his only friend.
“General Flynn” was Michael Flynn, the retired lieutenant general and former national security adviser to Donald Trump, and more recently, an influential far-right conspiracy theorist and Sarasota resident who trademarked the term “digital soldier” and promotes the stolen-election lie that Council latched onto.
Mental illness runs in Council’s family, and Council has long struggled with it, his lawyer said in a recent filing. By age 10, records state, Council drank alcohol and had tried to die by suicide through an overdose of pain medication. But for a while, football seemed to offer a path.
Struggles with mental illness
Council helped John I. Leonard High School in Palm Beach County go undefeated his senior season. The running back earned a scholarship to West Virginia University, but transferred to Liberty after an incident in which he drunkenly smashed a resident adviser’s car window. He played well, scoring four touchdowns in one game. He met his first wife and had a daughter. He had what his lawyer called “a few strange behavioral incidents.” He dropped out.
He worked in sales, but would always abruptly quit. He got divorced. He earned certification as a medical assistant and found his way to teaching at a vocational high school, which is where, his lawyer wrote, Council “truly thrived for a time,” helping coach football and track.
In an online fundraiser he organized to help his medical assistant students get better equipment, he wrote, “The first time a student told me she was homeless, I was in the middle of telling her she could not pass the class if she didn’t turn in a major project. ... I had to quickly leave the classroom so I didn’t cry in front of her. ... I could fill a book with stories of their hardships, but that would overshadow my kids’ accomplishments.”
Even as his second marriage deteriorated, Matt and his wife adopted three children out of foster care, worried they’d end up on the streets. “His conscience ‘could not leave them in the system,’” is what he told his lawyer. After the divorce, he sent most of his teacher pay to his ex and the kids while he lived in a rented room, ate from the dollar store and rode a bicycle to work.
His first delusion, his lawyer wrote, came in 2016. Council believed the school’s football players had been raping a girl and that he needed to investigate. Then he got worried he’d be falsely implicated himself. None of it was true, but feeling a great deal of pressure, Council tried again to take his own life.
Rarely alone, but alone on Jan. 6
After a hospitalization, Council left South Florida to stay with his parents. “Matt was almost never alone” in those years, his lawyer wrote. It was somewhere in this time he began devouring political content online.
Council traveled to D.C. on Jan. 5, 2021, with his brother-in-law driving. They’d discussed wanting to see Trump’s final speech as president, a historic moment. They joked and laughed. Council had a couple beers and went to bed.
But when Council woke at 3 a.m., his brother-in-law later told a lawyer, he “snapped.” Council insisted they go to the National Mall right then, long before others arrived, and he spoke incessantly about the “deep state” and a conspiracy to remove Trump. He said Trump’s speech would reveal secrets.
In a later interview with the “Sovereign Souls” podcast on Parler, Council said he expected Trump to expose “like, the flies with the cameras on them” — that the president had conducted surveillance of election tampering with fly-mounted cameras.
After the president’s speech, Council’s brother-in-law wanted to head back to the hotel. Council insisted on marching to the Capitol. He was alone.
Chaos at the Capitol and the photo
Prosecutors documented Council’s movements through the Capitol chaos with surveillance stills, news photos and public social media videos. Their records sometimes contradict Council’s own, more flattering accounts in post-riot interviews.
Council was pepper-sprayed outside the building, multiple times — once on the West Plaza before his viral photo. Prosecutors, in asking for a 30-month prison sentence, pointed to that as a moment when he could have turned back.
Council claimed in a podcast that protesters weren’t toppling barricades or looking for confrontation, but video shows thousands had surrounded the west side of the Capitol, climbing scaffolding and hurling projectiles onto officers’ heads. Council himself is seen trying to shove a barricade aside.
By 2:28 p.m., the police were in retreat, prosecutors wrote in a filing, and rioters were in control. Council followed a torrent of people flowing into the building. He later said he used his size and strength to breach the door. The scene in the hallway packed with Trump supporters and flags, he said, “gave me chills.”
He told an interviewer he “backed the blue” and protesters were never there to hurt police. But, “Soon after Council entered the Capitol through the parliamentarian’s door,” prosecutors wrote, “he decided it was in fact permissible to attack the blue.”
Council made his way to the front of the crowd, where a line of police officers blocked the way. He lowered his head, stuck out his arms and rammed into them, pushing them 50 feet back, in his own estimation. He fell, and immediately surrendered to arrest. Officers described him as cooperative and remorseful.
In asking for a sentence of probation in lieu of prison, Council’s attorney, family members and doctor portrayed him as a loved son, sibling and father in the throes of mental illness. They say he has finally stabilized his delusions through medication, supervised care and sobriety. He’s no longer a danger, they said, but he risked relapsing if sent to prison.
Council’s diagnosis, attributed in court documents to forensic psychologist and defense expert Scot Machlus, is schizoaffective disorder, characterized by delusions and hallucinations.
Aftermath and conspiracy theories
Things got far worse for Council after Jan. 6 before they got better.
In one episode, he believed his parents’ neighbors were pedophiles who had stolen his marijuana. When his father intervened, Council pushed him down and was arrested for battery on a person over 65. The charges were dropped.
He was involuntarily committed to a behavioral health facility in Tampa after hearing voices at the jail, saying he had seen guards point guns at him through the cell door and identifying himself as an admiral in the Space Force.
Around this time, far-right, independent media began interviewing him. He seemed to fit into a story they wanted to tell about the mistreatment of accused Jan. 6 “political prisoners,” and a liberal conspiracy to incite the Capitol riot. Though Council admitted to being delusional at points, he described what he believed were corrections officers tormenting him with music and chanting, tapping guns on his window and raping people nearby so he could hear it.
Out of his parents’ house, Council barricaded himself in a hotel room as deputies tried to serve him court papers and caused thousands of dollars in property damage. He claimed people were trying to blow up the floor beneath him. He was hospitalized again. Council now lives in an assisted living facility and, his attorney stated, has turned a corner with medications, regular treatment and sobriety.
“I truly thought I would never get my dad back,” Council’s daughter wrote in a letter, before saying that he has “done a complete 180.”
She wrote: “A punishment to him now, for something he did during that time, would be like punishing a person for someone else’s mistakes.”
Prosecutors argued that Council’s crimes on Jan. 6 “were not an isolated event in an otherwise law-abiding life.” They said his actions while awaiting trial show “a propensity towards substance abuse and violence,” and his social media statements after Jan. 6 “are those of a man girding for another battle and seeking to overthrow the current government.”
But Council’s lawyer said Monday that the judge took Council’s mental illness into consideration when handing down a lighter sentence.
How to get help
If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline or chat with someone online at 988lifeline.org.