A federal judge in Washington, D.C., sentenced a Palm Harbor messianic rabbi Thursday to two months of home confinement plus a year of probation for strolling into the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6, 2021, riot.
Michael Stepakoff, was also ordered to pay a $742 fine to reimburse the government for the cost to monitor him throughout the past year.
“Entering the Capitol was a terrible mistake on my part,” Stepakoff said in court. “I deeply regret it. I wish I could take it back, but I can’t. It was not done in defiance or as an a act of civil disobedience, but because I failed to properly appreciate the situation.”
While prosecutors had requested a two-week period of imprisonment, U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras concluded incarceration was unnecessary. But the judge didn’t buy arguments from Stepakoff’s lawyer that he wasn’t aware of the seriousness of his actions when he entered the Capitol with the mob.
“He refers to himself as Mr. Magoo-like character, oblivious to the mayhem around him,” Contreras said. “The defendant is a highly educated individual, who the court finds is highly unlikely to have been oblivious.”
Stepakoff pleaded guilty in September to a single charge of parading, demonstrating or picketing in a Capitol building.
He attended a rally in support of former President Donald Trump early that afternoon, according to court records, then followed the crowd to the Capitol. Along the way, Stepakoff recorded a video.
“There comes a time for people to say, ‘we’re not going to take it,’” he said in the recording, as quoted in court records. “Here we are taking our stand on Capitol Hill.”
At about 3 p.m. that day, Stepakoff was seen on security video walking into the Capitol through a door marked “exit.” He walked around the hallway amid a growing crowd, took pictures, and walked back out a few minutes later.
“The Capitol is OUR house. Not theirs,” he later posted on social media. He went on to say that there was “very little violence,” despite “fake news” images, and described the events as an “almost completely peaceful demonstration.”
The riot, which disrupted congressional certification of the 2020 election results, caused more than $1 million in damage. More than 100 law enforcement officers were injured. Five people, including an officer, died.
In the leadup to Thursday’s hearing, Stepakoff’s lawyer, Marina Medvin, downplayed the violence of that day as the actions of a few, referring to the majority who breached the Capitol as “peaceful.”
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Stepakoff saw no violence, the attorney said, and shook hands with a police officer before leaving. When he later heard about violence that day from TV reports, he brushed them off as media embellishment or the work of “antifa.”
Medvin suggested that a $50 fine was an appropriate sentence, and noted that Stepakoff had already paid $500 in restitution.
But prosecutors accused Stepakoff of “willful blindness” to the signs of danger all around him on Jan. 6. He saw people scaling walls. He saw toppled barricades. He walked past people crawling through windows and skirted past broken glass furniture, but claimed not to notice.
He posted social media messages about “storming the gates,” and wrote of violence becoming “inevitable,” among other statements, according to the prosecution’s sentencing memo.
The prosecutor noted Stepakoff is a former lawyer. Thus, she said, he should have known his conduct was illegal.
The government pointed out that Stepakoff in 2006 received a temporary suspension from practicing law for what was described as “acts of dishonesty.” It had to do with a case in which he suggested that his 94-year-old client invest $30,000 in a real estate development company, without disclosing that he was part owner of the company, according to court records. His license to practice law has since lapsed, according to Florida Bar records.
Stepakoff, 56, leads Temple New Jerusalem, a house of worship for messianic Judaism in Palm Harbor. Messianic Judaism is a syncretic religion that combines Jewish traditions with Christianity, including a belief in Jesus as the messiah.
Before he was sentenced, Stepakoff explained that he went to the Capitol to be part of what he said was a significant historic event. He said his aim was only to make his voice heard.
“If the GOP candidate lost, so be it,” he said. “There’s always another election, two years and four years later. That’s America.”