Palm Harbor Messianic rabbi is the latest Floridian accused in U.S. Capitol riot

A federal complaint accuses Michael Stepakoff of Palm Habor of entering the Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection.
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 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 insurrection. Stepakoff is a lawyer and a rabbi for a messianic synagogue in Palm Harbor. [ U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ]
Published Jan. 29, 2021|Updated Jan. 29, 2021

A rabbi who leads a Palm Harbor synagogue is among the latest Floridians to be accused of crimes related to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

A federal criminal complaint filed this week in U.S. District Court in Washington D.C. alleges that Michael Stepakoff entered the Capitol after a mob of supporters of former President Donald Trump stormed the building, disrupting congressional certification of the electoral college vote.

Stepakoff, 55, leads Temple New Jerusalem, a Messianic synagogue in Palm Harbor and is a former lawyer. He is now one of at least 17 Floridians who have been accused of crimes related to the insurrection.

Messianic Judaism is a syncretic religion that combines Jewish traditions with Christianity, including the belief in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. Most Jews consider it rooted in Christianity and not representative of their faith, according to the Pinellas County Board of Rabbis.

A statement of facts attached to the complaint includes two pictures taken from a closed-circuit video, which purport to show Stepakoff entering the Capitol. In one, he is seen stepping through a doorway into a lobby amid a large crowd. Another shows him standing further inside the lobby, beneath a chandelier, apparently gazing around. He wears a dark cap with blue lettering on the front, a green jacket, blue jeans and brown boots.

The video shows him taking photos with a cell phone, according to the complaint. It references an unnamed witness, described as someone that has known Stepakoff for 20 years, who identified him as the person in the images.

The document also includes a copy of a Jan. 6 Facebook post that appeared under Stepakoff’s name. The post included several photos showing the crowds of Trump supporters outside the Capitol, along with a selfie of Stepakoff, in which he wears a similar hat and clothing as those seen in the security video.

“Epic and historical moment,” a caption reads.

The document also references another Jan. 6 Facebook post from Stepakoff’s wife.

“Update on Michael, yall,” the post read. “Please continue to prayers for his protection and to be safe. He texted me privately and said he is okay but it’s very dangerous where he is- He was inside the Capitol Building ...”

A copy of a Facebook post, included as part of a statement of facts accompanying a criminal complaint against Michael Stepakoff, shows photos of crowds outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
A copy of a Facebook post, included as part of a statement of facts accompanying a criminal complaint against Michael Stepakoff, shows photos of crowds outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. [ U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ]

The Facebook posts referenced in the criminal complaint did not appear to be publicly visible Friday.

Stepakoff was arrested Friday morning at his home in Palm Harbor. In the afternoon, he sat beside six other jailed defendants in the jury box in a Tampa federal courtroom.

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U.S. Magistrate Judge Anthony Porcelli allowed Stepakoff to go free on bond, with the conditions that he remain in Florida and only travel to Washington, D.C., for court. The judge also required that he surrender his passport and any guns he owns.

The government did not object to his release, but a prosecutor noted the seriousness of what occurred and said Stepakoff “chose not to walk away.”

”This is a misdemeanor case, but it is serious,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel George. “This defendant is a former attorney who took an oath to uphold the law.”

Stepakoff referred questions to his attorney, Rick Terrana.

“He was there among peaceful protesters,” Terrana said. “There’s certainly nothing he’s done that’s wrong or criminal.”

The criminal complaint seeks charges of knowingly entering or remaining in a restricted building or grounds without lawful authority, knowingly engaging in disorderly or disruptive conduct in a restricted building or grounds, and violent entry or disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds.

Terrana described Stepakoff as a family man, a “strong Republican,” who is firm in his political convictions. He went to Washington, D.C., for a business trip related to his work as a spiritual leader and attended Trump’s speech, Terrana said.

“There certainly was no pre-planning or organization or conspiracy with him or any of these other people out there,” Terrana said. “He got caught up in the crowd. It’s yet to be seen what if anything he did wrong.”

In the weeks leading up to the Capitol violence, Stepakoff’s Twitter page featured a number of tweets and retweets relating to efforts to overturn Trump’s election loss. On Jan. 5, he retweeted a post from Trump’s now-suspended account.

“I am proud to be an American,” he wrote, “and I made the trip up from Florida to support the effort to save America. DC swarming with MAGA people. We’re not gonna take it! Thank you President Trump!”

The FBI continues to try to identify all who participated in the Capitol riots. Five people, including a police officer, died in the chaos. It followed a speech in which Trump challenged his election loss to Joe Biden, urged his supporters to “show strength” and “fight like hell” and told them to head to the Capitol.

Related: Florida man accused in Capitol lectern theft allowed to go free on bond

As of Thursday, federal authorities had accused a total of 164 people of being involved in the Capitol siege, according to the Program on Extremism at George Washington University. They hailed from 39 states. Their average age was 40 years old.

It has been estimated that roughly 800 people entered the building. They smashed windows, rampaged through offices, and breached the Senate floor.

Related: At least seven Floridians are among capitol arrest tally

Some of the other Floridians accused in recent weeks:

Joseph Randall Biggs, Ormond Beach — Biggs, 37, is described in an FBI affidavit as an organizer for the Proud Boys, the far-right extremist group whose members have been known to commit acts of violence. The group had a significant presence at the Capitol during the insurrection.

Samuel Camargo, Deerfield Beach — Camargo, 26, is alleged to have posted video of himself struggling with police officers during the insurrection. He was arrested two weeks later in Washington, D.C., after authorities said he attempted to attend President Biden’s inauguration.

Gabriel Garcia, Miami — Garcia, 40, is also a member of the Proud Boys and ran an unsuccessful race last year for a seat in the Florida House of Representatives. A complaint alleges that he posted video to social media, showing him storming into the Capitol with others.

Anthony Mariotto, Fort Pierce — A criminal complaint alleges that Mariotto, 52, was one of the rioters who breached the U.S. Senate chamber. The document includes a copy of a selfie he apparently posted to Facebook, showing the Senate floor in the background.

Felipe Marquez, Coral Springs — Marquez, 25, is alleged to have posted video to Snapchat that showed him walking into the Capitol while smoking a vape pen, according to an affidavit. The document states that he entered an office belonging to Sen. Jeff Merkley, of Oregon. Merkley later posted video to Twitter documenting damage to the office.

Dana Winn and Rachael Pert, Middleburg — Winn, 45, and Pert, 40, were identified in a picture showing a small group of people who were part of the Capitol mob walking amid a smoky haze, according to an affidavit. A tipster recognized Pert as a coworker at a northeast Florida Circle K store, the document states.

Jesus Rivera, Pensacola — A complaint alleges that Rivera, 37, posted video to Facebook showing himself inside the Capitol. The Pensacola News Journal reported that he is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who recently assembled a large social media following as he traveled the country to hold rallies for Trump.

Bradley Weeks, Macclenny— A complaint cites photos and video that show Weeks, 43, inside the Capitol. In one, he is alleged to have boasted that the crowd had to “break stuff” to get through. “We’re taking back our country!” he says, according to the complaint. “This is our 1776!”

Times staff writer Kavitha Surana contributed to this report.

• • •

Tampa Bay Times U.S. Capitol coverage

REACTING TO RESPONSE : Did race play a role in police treatment of the U.S. Capitol mob?

CALL TO ACTION: Charlie Crist: Remove Donald Trump from office by invoking 25th Amendment

25TH AMENDMENT: When can it be used against a president?

EDITORIAL: The ugly spectacle perfectly captured the Trump-era GOP.

CLASSROOM TOPICS: Tampa Bay teachers, parents brace for tough conversations after U.S. Capitol siege

POLITIFACT FACT-CHECKS THE SIEGE: Here’s a look at the day’s short session, and the chaos that interrupted it.

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