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Misinformation and the Jan. 6 insurrection: When ‘patriot warriors’ were fed lies

PolitiFact goes deep on the court filings and information surrounding the people who stormed the U.S. Capitol.
Rioters loyal to then-President Donald Trump outside of U.S. Capitol on  Jan. 6 in Washington. Even as the first of the more than 500 federal Capitol riot defendants have begun to plead guilty, scores of suspects remain unidentified, reflecting the massive scale of the Justice Department's investigation and the grueling work authorities still face to track everyone down.
Rioters loyal to then-President Donald Trump outside of U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 in Washington. Even as the first of the more than 500 federal Capitol riot defendants have begun to plead guilty, scores of suspects remain unidentified, reflecting the massive scale of the Justice Department's investigation and the grueling work authorities still face to track everyone down. [ JOSE LUIS MAGANA | AP ]
Published Jul. 8

Editor’s note: PolitiFact has reviewed court filings and other information for hundreds of defendants facing charges related to the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol in an ongoing effort to document what role misinformation played. This report reflects our initial findings about the way that hundreds of false claims about the 2020 election being stolen contributed to the events of that day. Our reporting will continue. To comment on this story, please go to our Facebook page. Send feedback or tips via email to truthometer@politifact.com.

It was around 4:30 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 11, when police got word of a Nissan Versa driving erratically near the New York-New Jersey border. Once they caught up to the driver, they discovered the man covered in blood, with gashes across his arms and thighs.

“I am tired,” Jeffrey Sabol, 51, told the Clarkstown, N.Y., police officers as they aided him, according to court documents. “I am done fighting.”

Searching the car, the Clarkstown police found razor blades, a note with login information for a computer, a passport, a Social Security card and an airline e-ticket.

They also found a teal backpack and a tan Carhartt jacket — items that would soon be used to place Sabol among the hundreds of people who had breached the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 in an historic attempt to forcefully stop the certification of an American presidential election.

Sabol, a geophysicist and divorced father of three from the small mountain town of Kittredge, Colo., told police that he had been “fighting tyranny in the DC Capital,” and that he was “wanted by the FBI.”

Investigators would later learn that Sabol had gone to Boston, where he had planned to board a flight to Switzerland, far from U.S. politics and all the ramifications it had brought him.

But when he spotted police at the airport, Sabol abandoned his plan. He rented a car and headed south, flinging his phone out the window as he drove. Along the way, he attempted suicide.

How Sabol ended up in the situation has been confusing for those who knew him long before Jan. 6, 2021.

The Jeffrey Sabol they know is a registered independent. He has a degree in physics. He helps disarm unexploded munitions at decommissioned military sites for a living, a job that’s sent him to places like Afghanistan and Guam. He has three children from a previous marriage and a girlfriend of more than eight years. He played rugby, and he loves to snowboard, so much so that he’s spent years trying to develop a new snowboarding device. He had volunteered for years at the youth horse riding organization where his children rode. He lost his older brother in 2014 to a heart condition, a tragedy his sister and former attorney believe left him emotionally vulnerable. And he was planning to spend his summer fixing his parents’ plumbing.

A screenshot from Facebook shows Jeffrey Sabol, 51, during a hike. Friends said he loves the outdoors.
A screenshot from Facebook shows Jeffrey Sabol, 51, during a hike. Friends said he loves the outdoors. [ Facebook ]

Because of what federal prosecutors say he did outside the Capitol building on Jan. 6, Sabol is now detained at the Correctional Treatment Facility in Washington, D.C. He faces eight charges, including for allegedly assaulting police officers. If convicted, he could be sentenced to a maximum of 20 years in prison. A federal judge in April ruled him enough of a flight risk and danger to the community to deny his request for pretrial release.

Behind Sabol’s visit to Washington in January was a belief in something that was not true, a falsehood promoted for months by former President Donald Trump and repeated over and over again on social media, pro-Trump websites and conservative cable channels such as Fox News, Newsmax, and One America News Network.

To Sabol, there was no question that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump.

PolitiFact reviewed court filings, news reports and other information for approximately 430 defendants arrested through June 1 on charges related to the insurrection. Many defendants saw their actions as patriotic, and the day as a turning point in American history. They believed they were on the frontlines of a new revolution or civil war.

In about half of the cases, the court documents shed light on how misinformed beliefs influenced the defendants’ lives ahead of the riot.

There was a music teacher in Washington, D.C., who amplified false conspiracy theories on his podcast and YouTube channel — that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting never happened, that former NBA star Kobe Bryant is still alive, that Earth is flat.

There was a 54-year-old woman from Pennsylvania who suggested on Facebook that people who “start researching” will find that Democrats “have been trafficking children for years,” and who one witness said lost customers at the restaurant where she worked over her views on politics.

And there was a 32-year-old man from Ventura, Calif., who said in videos posted on YouTube and other platforms long before Jan. 6 that the Smithsonian Institution is hiding evidence of giants, and that we may be living in a simulation.

While there were a handful of women in the mix, most rioters facing charges for involvement at the Capitol were 35 years or older, white and male, according to PolitiFact’s review and similar analyses from the University of Chicago and George Washington University.

The crowd included business owners and white-collar workers. It included between 40 and 65 current or former law enforcement or military members. It included members of organized right-wing militia groups, such as the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, who prepared for violence in advance and with top-down orders from their leaders to stop what they perceived was a fraudulent election. And it included supporters of QAnon, the conspiracy theory that claims a secret cabal of satanic pedophiles is operating a global child sex-trafficking ring.

Many of the defendants were active on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube or Snapchat. They also used alternative platforms like Parler and the online forums Telegram and Discord.

There and elsewhere, the defendants shared sprawling beliefs rooted in misinformation about the pandemic, gun confiscation, and child pedophilia.

But the key driver behind what happened on Jan. 6 was acceptance of the false narrative that Democrats stole the election for President Joe Biden with widespread voter fraud.

Biden won more votes than Trump in what local, state and federal officials affirmed was a free and fair election. Recounts didn’t change the outcome. States certified their results. Judges in courtrooms across the country rejected dozens of lawsuits seeking to overturn the election on Trump’s behalf. The nation’s electors cast their votes and sealed Biden’s victory.

To many defendants like Sabol, those facts changed nothing. When courts found no merit to the claims, outrage boiled.

“These people don’t think they’re spreading lies,” said Kate Starbird, an associate professor and misinformation expert at the University of Washington. “They sincerely believed that they were going to be cheated. They experienced the election as if they were cheated.”

How tragedy helped turn Sabol to politics

Sabol was born in Utica, N.Y., and raised in Waterville, a nearby town of less than 2,000 people. His mother was a nurse, and his father was a high school science teacher, according to letters that 30 family members, friends and neighbors submitted to the court on his behalf. He had two siblings: an older brother who was an attorney and later a teacher, and a younger sister who joined the Army as a dentist and rose to the rank of colonel.

Soon after he graduated from SUNY Cortland, Sabol put his physics degree to work, taking a job that would send him around the world to scrape through former military sites and remove unexploded munitions. On one project in Hawaii, Sabol met a woman named Shari Strotz, according to Politico Magazine. The two married and raised their kids in Colorado.

Sabol made friends playing rugby. He spent a lot of time outdoors — camping, climbing, snowboarding — and many weekends volunteering for a youth horse riding organization.

Around his rugby crew, Sabol hardly talked politics. Shawn Munns, a former rugby teammate of Sabol’s and a friend for roughly 25 years, said he always thought his more soft-spoken friend was liberal. Munns said that impression came from Sabol’s interest in bands such as Dead and Company and the “hippie” shirts he wore.

The letters said Sabol was someone who stopped along the highway when he saw a car broken down. Someone who helped his neighbor pay her utilities so she could take care of her grandson, and who lent his jacket to a young girl at the top of a 14,000-foot mountain because she was cold. He once painted over “crude and racial graffiti” near a town creek, one letter said.

“Jeff is one of the few people I can actually have a conversation with about politics and it doesn’t get nasty,” wrote a friend of 25 years, who described himself as “socially liberal.”

“Never once did I detect any indication of him being a fanatic of any sort,” said a retired schoolteacher who volunteered with Sabol.

Unlike some others, Sabol didn’t seem to identify with extremist groups ahead of the Capitol riot. Court filings don’t list him as affiliated with any right-wing or militia group, nor do they say he supported the QAnon conspiracy theory, like dozens of others charged in the riot.

But Sabol became “obsessed” with politics following former President Barack Obama’s election in 2008, his former wife told Politico. She said he didn’t like the president and wrote emails to the White House. Another friend said he put a “Don’t Tread on Me” sticker on his truck.

In 2011, Strotz filed for divorce from Sabol. A year later, Sabol met and started dating his current girlfriend, a woman who lived next door to his parents in Waterville.

In 2014, Sabol’s older brother Andrew died of a heart condition at the age of 46. Sabol, 44 at the time, was shaken.

“I believe at this point Jeff lost his bearing and allowed himself to be led by others that steered him down a negative path,” Sabol’s sister wrote in her letter attesting to his character.

As Sabol worked digging through old military sites, he saw up close “the bad things that governments do to people” overseas, said Todd Kerbs, a friend who met Sabol through rugby about 20 years ago. Sabol was also surrounded by conservative members of the military on the job, an attorney representing Sabol told a federal judge during an April court hearing. Between losing his brother and his workplace, his views intensified.

A screenshot from Facebook of Jeffrey Sabol, 51. Friends said the photo shows Sabol during his work removing unexploded munitions from decommissioned military sites.
A screenshot from Facebook of Jeffrey Sabol, 51. Friends said the photo shows Sabol during his work removing unexploded munitions from decommissioned military sites. [ Facebook ]

“He himself is not particularly political up until the recent events where the ‘stopping the steal’ became politicized,” said Jon Norris, Sabol’s then-attorney, in court. “Now I think he reached a point in his life a few years ago when his eldest brother passed away that was very traumatic for him, and he kind of lost one of the anchors in his life, and he started listening to more politics than he had in the past. And I think that explains why he was motivated enough to come to Washington, D.C.”

Norris no longer represents Sabol and declined to comment for this story. Sabol’s current attorney in New Jersey, Alex Cirocco, said neither he nor Sabol wished to comment.

Ballot videos and Dominion hacking conspiracies

What Sabol believed by the time he reached the steps of the Capitol on Jan. 6 is clear from court documents. He told law enforcement that there was no question the election was stolen, that he’d seen videos of ballots being mishandled, and that he was certain Dominion Voting Systems’ voting machines had been corrupted.

But who or what shaped those beliefs is not so obvious.

People are particularly vulnerable to misinformation and other influences following a tragedy, said Dr. Steven Hassan, an American mental health counselor who specializes in mind control and destructive cults. “Their critical thinking ability, their personality structure gets undermined.”

It’s important to examine who is seizing on that vulnerability, Hassan said.

“You can look at the influencee and what made them vulnerable, but ultimately you have to look at the influencer,” said Hassan, who wrote a book about what he sees as “The Cult of Trump.”

The ideas that Sabol harbored were on social media, but friends said he was not. They were broadcast widely on Fox News and other conservative cable networks, but friends said he didn’t watch much TV. They may have spread among his social or work circles, but what Sabol heard there is not clear, either.

Munns recalled sharing his own concerns about mail-in ballots around the time that Colorado adopted the practice statewide in 2013, but he said Sabol mostly listened as he talked.

“We just said, ‘This is the way you’d steal an election,’” said Munns, who described himself as conservative and said he has tried testing the state’s mail-in voting system by fiddling with his ballot signature.

“When you see your vote not counting anymore, and just policy after policy just goes one way, maybe he got frustrated,” Munns told PolitiFact. “I mean, I got frustrated.”

(Biden won more votes than Trump in Colorado, including in Jefferson County, which Sabol called home. Colorado has voted Democratic in every presidential election since 2004.)

Kerbs surmised that Sabol got his news about politics from the same places he did — outlets such as the Epoch Times and Newsmax. “It wasn’t any of the mainstream people,” he told PolitiFact.

Those outlets continued to question the election results long after they were settled. On Dec. 7, 2020, one month after major decision desks declared Biden the winner, the headlines on their homepages told a different story: “Election outcome unclear among pending recounts and legal challenges,” and “Ariz. high court taking up GOP-led suit alleging mail-in ballot defects.”

Newsmax was one of several outlets that promoted numerous false claims about Dominion’s voting machines. The network regularly featured lawyers Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, but later walked back many claims under the threat of legal action from Dominion and Smartmatic, another voting systems company.

Although rumors about Dominion machines were rampant online, they were only rumors. The machines underwent a forensic audit post-election to confirm that they were not hacked, as well as a risk-limiting audit to verify that they had counted ballots accurately, the company said.

PolitiFact debunked several rumors about the company, including claims that it flipped votes; that it was shut down; that it is owned by the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez; that the military raided a company tied to it; and that it counted votes in foreign countries. All were false.

Since Jan. 6, Dominion has filed defamation lawsuits against Giuliani, Powell, Fox News and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, and it has sent warning letters to others. Newsmax has settled a suit from a Dominion executive who was wrongly accused of rigging the election. And the New York State appellate court has suspended Giuliani’s law license over his misleading claims.

But as Dominion fought back against claims of wrongdoing immediately after the election, it was “all over the news” in Colorado, Munns said. Dominion’s U.S. headquarters are in Denver. Kerbs said he and Sabol had talked about Dominion machines being vulnerable to hackers.

The allegations against Dominion spread alongside hundreds of other false and misleading claims, all of which lumped together to form the narrative that the election was stolen. The claims included many videos that purported to show election workers spoiling or tampering with ballots — the exact type of videos Sabol told law enforcement he had seen.

In Georgia, for example, Giuliani and Trump claimed that surveillance footage showed election workers tallying “suitcases” full of fake ballots for Biden when, in reality, it showed normal ballot processing. In Arizona, social media users claimed voters were forced to mark their ballots with Sharpies so the machines wouldn’t read them, even though Sharpies worked fine. In Michigan, a video purported to show officials “stuffing ballots,” but the video was actually from Russia.

“There were so many different claims that you can refute one, and you can even get someone to agree that you’ve refuted one,” said Starbird, the misinformation expert, who worked on a report that tracked the spread of the various election falsehoods. “But they don’t get rid of the other 99 that they’ve heard.”

Against this backdrop, Sabol and hundreds of others made plans to go to Washington.

“When Mr. Sabol went to the U.S. Capitol, he believed the 2020 Presidential Election had been stolen from former-President Trump and that the election results confirming that President Biden had won were fraudulent,” U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan wrote in April when he denied Sabol’s request for pretrial release. “And Mr. Sabol did not simply hold these misguided beliefs; he acted on them.”

A ‘patriot warrior’ hears a battle call

Sabol traveled to Washington in the weeks ahead of Jan. 6 for other rallies, according to court filings. He enjoyed meeting like-minded people who supported Trump, Kerbs said.

When Trump urged supporters to come to a Jan. 6 event, promising it would be “wild,” Sabol felt he knew what to expect, Kerbs said. Kerbs declined an invitation to join him, calling it a “lost cause.”

Whether Sabol was anticipating violence has been the subject of court debate. Wearing a dark helmet and steel-toed boots, he came equipped with zip-ties, a two-way radio and an earpiece, according to court documents.

Kerbs insisted that Sabol went only to support Trump, and that the zip-ties and protective equipment he brought with him were because, as Kerbs said, “the guy’s MacGyver, man.”

“All (Sabol) would ever say is, ‘I’m just supporting, you know. We’re not going to do anything. We’re going to support our country and support what we believe,’” Kerbs said.

Once Sabol was in Washington, he got “caught up” in the “frenzy” of the day and was swayed at the rally by Trump and his allies, including Giuliani and Roger Stone, a longtime Republican operative, his attorney said during the April hearing.

“Jeffro’s more of a quiet (person),” Munns said of his friend. “You know how, when you get in sports, there’s leaders and there’s followers? Jeffro was a follower. Jeffro wasn’t a leader.”

During the Jan. 6 rally, Trump recited many of his bogus claims of election fraud: that swing states had many more votes cast than eligible voters; that dead people voted; that felons and non-citizens voted illegally; that election workers counted the same ballots multiple times; that they didn’t check signatures on ballots; that they counted suitcases full of fake ballots in secret; that they recorded mysterious “one-sided voted dumps” for Biden overnight. He urged the crowd to “walk down to the Capitol” and pressure Congress to reject the electoral votes.

At the Capitol, chants of “stop the steal” and “hang Mike Pence” rang out. (Pence had not rejected the electoral votes, as Trump had wrongly suggested he had the power to do in his role presiding over the count.)

From the ledge of a broken Capitol window, Ryan Nichols, a 30-year-old former Marine who carried a crowbar with him, shouted into a bullhorn, “If you have a weapon, you need to get your weapon!” And several people did.

The Capitol rioters brandished bats, crutches, flagpoles, skateboards, fire extinguishers, hockey sticks, knives, zip ties and chemical sprays, according to court documents. They stole and wielded police batons and riot shields. One defendant told investigators that he saw brooms with nails or hooks affixed to the ends.

At least one person had a firearm on Capitol grounds. Another, who prosecutors argued in a hearing was “under the spell” of QAnon, and who communicated threats to kill House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, showed up in Washington with a trailer full of firearms after the riot had ended.

Sabol told law enforcement that when he made it to the Capitol, he heard flashbangs going off, which he interpreted as a “call to battle” set off by antifa infiltrators. He hurried to the frontlines and “answered the call because he was a patriot warrior,” according to court documents.

Around 3:30 p.m., Sabol was in the area around the Capitol, cell phone records showed. About an hour later, Sabol was embroiled in one of the day’s most graphic moments, when officers were dragged into the crowd and beaten outside the Capitol’s western terrace entrance.

Video footage from Jan. 6 captures Sabol, wearing the tan jacket and teal backpack that social media users used to identify him as “#OrangeNTeal,” engaging with police outside the Capitol. (Storyful)

According to court filings and video, Sabol raced up the Capitol steps and yanked a baton away from an officer who had been knocked down. Other rioters dragged the officer into the crowd, where he was kicked, struck, beaten, stomped on, stripped of his helmet and maced.

Sabol then joined other rioters as they dragged a second officer down the steps. Prosecutors allege that Sabol held the baton to that officer’s back and helped pull him further into the crowd, where another person struck the officer with a flagpole, an American flag flapping from its end.

“I think he had a psychological break, is really what happened,” said Kerbs, who expressed disbelief that Sabol would ever hurt a police officer. “And he just kind of lost touch for a second, which can happen to anybody, you know?”

Both officers suffered wounds, joining the more than 140 officers who were injured in the day’s violence. Prosecutors argued that the officers had been trying to assist a rioter who was being trampled under the crowd, and who later died after losing consciousness in the mob.

Sabol acknowledged to law enforcement he was the person seen on video wearing a tan coat and teal backpack. He claimed he was trying to protect the officer he helped drag down the steps, and that he was patting the officer on the back and saying, “We got you man.” He also said his memory of the moment was foggy because he had been in a fit of rage.

Jeffrey Sabol, 51, is seen circled in a tan jacket and teal backpack in an image highlighted in charging documents.
Jeffrey Sabol, 51, is seen circled in a tan jacket and teal backpack in an image highlighted in charging documents. [ Justice Department ]

Another video uncovered by Twitter users appears to show Sabol rushing into a row of officers at a different moment during the riot.

Many rioters defended and even boasted about their actions on their social networks during and after Jan. 6. As a result, more than 85 percent were charged in part using evidence from their own or others’ social media accounts, according to George Washington University.

Back in Colorado the day after the riot, Sabol grew paranoid over his own involvement. He “fried” electronic devices in a microwave and moved two firearms from his home to an associate’s place, according to court documents. Then he left for Boston, intending to connect to a flight to Switzerland.

“He’s a super heady, super smart person,” Munns said. “I know a few of those super smart people. They get in their own heads a lot.”

Spread by sincere believers, seeded by those who are not

Several Capitol defendants have expressed remorse in court filings and public statements. One attorney told the Baltimore Sun that his Maryland client, who had been watching Fox News, Newsmax and One America News in the leadup to Jan. 6, “feels like an idiot … like he was sold a bill of goods.”

The attorney for Anthony Antonio, 27, said his client watched months of Fox News during the pandemic and suffered from “Foxitis.”

“The reason he was there is because he was a dumbass and believed what he heard on Fox News,” Antonio’s attorney told the Associated Press in May.

As for Sabol, he also “realizes he was misguided, he was wrong, he had been lied to about the election being stolen and stopping the steal,” Norris said during the April court hearing.

Starbird, the University of Washington expert, said that for claims about a stolen election to go away, people in power will also need to cut ties with the narrative.

“Most disinformation is spread by sincere believers. It’s seeded by those who aren’t sincere believers, but it’s often spread by those who are,” Starbird said.

But as Sabol and the many other defendants wait for their cases to play out in court, Trump continues to assert that the election was stolen. Polling shows that most Republicans agree.

“They used COVID in order to cheat,” Trump said during a June 27 rally in Ohio. “They used COVID in order to rig the election and in order to steal the election.”

So far, the courts still refuse to accept these claims as credible or based on evidence — because they’re not.

“The steady drumbeat that inspired (the) defendant to take up arms has not faded away,” U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson wrote in May. “Six months later, the canard that the election was stolen is being repeated daily on major news outlets and from the corridors of power in state and federal government, not to mention in the near-daily fulminations of the former president.”

Jackson’s ruling was in response to a request asking for pretrial release from another defendant who showed up in Washington heavily armed on Jan. 6.

Her response was the same response Sabol got over a month earlier: request denied.

PolitiFact reporters Samantha Putterman and Gabrielle Settles and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.