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A year later, Florida still leads nation in Capitol riot arrests

Federal prosecutors have charged 76 Floridians related to Jan. 6, 2021. What can we learn from their cases?
Adam Johnson, of Parrish, carries the lectern of U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi through the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol Building after a mob stormed the building on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington, D.C.
Adam Johnson, of Parrish, carries the lectern of U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi through the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol Building after a mob stormed the building on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington, D.C. [ WIN MCNAMEE | Getty Images North America ]
Published Jan. 6|Updated Jan. 6

TAMPA — They were as young as 20 and as old as 72. They were military veterans. They were business people. They were stay-at-home parents. They were former political candidates.

They came from Tampa. They came from Orlando. They came from Miami.

They number 76 total — the Floridians the government has arrested in connection with the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol. With about 10 percent of the more than 700 people arrested so far, Florida has more people accused in the attack on America’s legislative branch of government than any other state.

Why so many from the Sunshine State?

“We’ve seen a lot of domestic violent extremist movements flourish in Florida,” said Jon Lewis, a fellow at the George Washington University Program on Extremism. “I don’t know that there’s any particular societal or socioeconomic reason.”

The commonalities

While a precise reason for Florida’s distinction is hard to come by, a closer look at the Florida Jan. 6 cases show a few things. For one, more than 20 of those arrested here are alleged to have been part of either the Oath Keepers or the Proud Boys, the extremist groups that had a prominent presence at the Capitol.

The rioters don’t appear to be concentrated in any particular area of the state. Highly populated counties like Hillsborough, Pinellas, Orange, Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade each have several Capitol riot defendants. Brevard County, home to Cape Canaveral on Florida’s east coast, had seven people arrested, among the highest of any county in the state. A few mostly rural counties also saw multiple arrests; among them were several counties near Jacksonville. Marion County, home to the city of Ocala, had six cases.

In this Jan. 6, 2021, photo rioters loyal to President Donald Trump hold on to a police barrier at the Capitol in Washington.
In this Jan. 6, 2021, photo rioters loyal to President Donald Trump hold on to a police barrier at the Capitol in Washington. [ JOHN MINCHILLO | AP ]

The Program on Extremism released a report in March, which drew from federal court records, and categorized the rioters into three groups. They were “inspired believers,” who went to the Capitol alone; “organized clusters,” who came to the Capitol in small, close-knit groups of family or friends, but lacked top-down direction; and “militant networks,” who are described as having a hierarchical organization and chains of command.

A forthcoming update to that initial report introduces a fourth category, described as spontaneous clusters. They arrived at the Capitol individually, but engaged in violence with other people they did not know.

The Florida cases

The most serious and complex investigation is also one rooted in Florida.

It is a case centering on the Oath Keepers, a nationwide far-right group affiliated with the militia movement. Of the 76 Floridians charged, at least 11 are accused of being part of a group of Oath Keepers who planned for a sort of paramilitary resistance effort. Voluminous court records include snippets of conversations the group exchanged, coordinating travel plans and planning to stash guns outside town in apparent preparation for an armed conflict.

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A photo contained in federal court documents shows Oath Keepers militia members moving up the steps of the U.S. Capitol in a military stack formation.
A photo contained in federal court documents shows Oath Keepers militia members moving up the steps of the U.S. Capitol in a military stack formation. [ Court filing ]

As crowds swarmed the Capitol, the Oath Keepers were seen in what’s referred to as a military “stack” formation, waded through the masses on their way inside, according to court records.

A Marion County man, Kelly Meggs, is quoted in court records as taking a leadership role in Florida. Other group members who have been charged came from the Sarasota area, Tampa, the Orlando area and South Florida.

A Tampa man, Caleb Berry, sits at the center of the Oath Keepers case. Berry pleaded guilty in July to federal charges and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors as they prepare to bring the others in the group to trial. It is unclear what information he has provided. Three other people involved with the Oath Keepers have done the same.

At least a dozen Floridians have pleaded guilty. Their crimes ranged from entering restricted areas, to assaulting police officers, to conspiracy. The few who have been sentenced so far have received penalties ranging from probation to up to five years in prison.

An image included in a government sentencing memo shows Robert Scott Palmer as he retreats from a tunnel outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, as rioters clashed with police.
An image included in a government sentencing memo shows Robert Scott Palmer as he retreats from a tunnel outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, as rioters clashed with police. [ U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ]

The latter was what Robert Scott Palmer received for attacking officers with a wood board and a fire extinguisher. Palmer, of Largo, said in his sentencing hearing in December that he was embarrassed when he saw video clips of himself from that day.

“I’m really, really ashamed of what I did,” he said.

This photo shows Paul Allard Hodgkins, 38, holding a Trump flag and wearing a Trump T-shirt as he stands in the Senate chamber during the Jan. 6, 2021, riots at the U.S. Capitol, according to a federal complaint.
This photo shows Paul Allard Hodgkins, 38, holding a Trump flag and wearing a Trump T-shirt as he stands in the Senate chamber during the Jan. 6, 2021, riots at the U.S. Capitol, according to a federal complaint. [ U.S. District Court ]

Paul Allard Hodgkins, of Tampa, was the first of 700 defendants to plead guilty. Hodgkins was among a small group that managed to breach the evacuated Senate chamber, where he carried a Trump flag. When he was sentenced in July to eight months in federal prison, Hodgkins expressed regret and acknowledged that his actions had hurt the country.

A few locals have looming sentencing hearings. They include Adam Johnson, the Parrish man whose image as he smiled and waved while hauling a lectern belonging to the Speaker of the House through the Capitol hallways became iconic of the riot.

Michael Stepakoff, a Palm Harbor messianic rabbi who was seen wandering inside and snapping pictures among the crowd, also faces sentencing later this month.

A closed circuit video image, included in federal criminal complaint, shows a person authorities believe is Michael Stepakoff inside the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection. Stepakoff is a lawyer and a rabbi for a messianic synagogue in Palm Harbor.
A closed circuit video image, included in federal criminal complaint, shows a person authorities believe is Michael Stepakoff inside the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection. Stepakoff is a lawyer and a rabbi for a messianic synagogue in Palm Harbor. [ U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ]

The vast majority of cases remain pending.

Regardless of how each case resolves, extremism researchers say it’s important not to downplay the attack — which caused more than $2 million in damage and resulted in five deaths.

“That narrative will continue to inspire and motivate and radicalize individuals,” Lewis said. “It will create this idea that you can engage in political violence as long as it’s in the name of your specific ideology.

“January 6 should be understood as a foundational threat to our democracy,” he said. “Trying to downplay it makes it that much likelier that this will happen again.”

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