‘It’s Just Been Hell’: Life as the Victim of a Jan. 6 Conspiracy Theory.
Ray Epps became the unwitting face of an attempt by pro-Trump forces to promote the baseless idea that the F.B.I. was behind the attack on the Capitol.
Up a winding country road, in a trailer park a half-mile from a cattle ranch, lives a man whose life has been ruined by a Jan. 6 conspiracy theory.
Ray Epps has suffered enormously in the past 10 months as right-wing media figures and Republican politicians have baselessly described him as a covert government agent who helped to instigate the attack on the Capitol last year.
Strangers have assailed him as a coward and a traitor and have menacingly cautioned him to sleep with one eye open. He was forced to sell his business and his home in Arizona. Fearing for his safety and uncertain of his future, he and his wife moved into a mobile home in the foothills of the Rockies, with all of their belongings crammed into shipping containers in a high-desert meadow, a mile or two away.
“And for what — lies?” Mr. Epps asked the other day with a look of pained exhaustion. “All of this, it’s just been hell.”
Almost from the moment that a violent mob stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, allies of former President Donald J. Trump have sought to shift the blame for the attack away from the people who were in the pro-Trump crowd that day to any number of scapegoats.
First they pointed at antifa, the leftist activists who have a history of clashing with Mr. Trump’s backers but who did not show up when the Capitol was breached. Then they tried to fault the F.B.I., which, according to those who spread the baseless tale, planned the attack to provoke a crackdown on conservatives.
On January 6, Mr. Epps, who is 61, was not just a bystander. He went to Washington to support Mr. Trump. He was caught on tape telling people to go to the Capitol, and he was there when the attack happened. But a series of events that changed his role made him the face of this F.B.I. conspiracy theory as it moved from the fringes to the mainstream.
Right-wing media outlets that aren't very well known, like Revolver News, edited videos in a way that made him look like a secret federal asset in charge of a "breach team" that started the riot at the Capitol. They did this by making logical leaps that didn't make sense.
The Fox News host Tucker Carlson quickly picked up on the stories about Mr. Epps and spread them to a wider audience. Some Republicans in Congress, like Representative Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, also agreed with them.
In the end, Mr. Trump got involved. He talked about Mr. Epps at one of his political rallies, which helped the #WhoIsRayEpps hashtag spread on Twitter.
After watching for months from the shadows as people he used to look up to, like Mr. Trump, smeared his name and ruined his reputation, Mr. Epps decided to find out the answer for himself.
During a day-long interview, Mr. Epps sat in his air-conditioned RV with his wife, Robyn, and their two Shih Tzus. He talked about being a father, a former Marine, and a loyal but disappointed conservative whose leaders had let him down. He agreed to the interview, but only if his new home's location was kept secret.
He said, "I'm in the middle of this, and it's the biggest joke that's ever happened." "That's just wrong. The people of the United States are being led somewhere. I believe it should be against the law."
So, Mr. Epps and his wife have been looking for a lawyer who can help them sue some of the people who spread the false stories for slander. If they do, they would join a number of other people and companies, most notably the company that makes voting machines, Dominion Voting Systems, in using the courts to fight back against the widespread false information that kept coming up during Mr. Trump's attempts to overturn the election.
Mr. Epps said as he petted his dogs, "The truth needs to come out."
Even though Mr. Epps was involved in some of what happened on Jan. 6, the claim that he was behind a "false flag" plot to start a riot in the Capitol is based on the fact that he has never been arrested and must be safe because of this.
But the F.B.I. looked into dozens, if not hundreds, of people who seem to have committed small crimes that day but have not been charged or taken into custody.
Mr. Epps said that he did some dumb things when he and one of his sons went to Washington at the last minute to hear Mr. Trump talk about election fraud. But he said he didn't get arrested because he called the FBI as soon as he heard they wanted to talk to him. During interviews with them, he showed that he had spent most of his time at the Capitol trying to calm down other rioters, which was proven by several video clips.
Mr. Epps, who had doubts about the election results, was also interviewed twice on Jan. 6 by a House committee. After his meeting with the panel was over, officials said in a statement that he told them he had never been a federal law enforcement agency's asset or employee.
Mr. Epps said that one of the things he regrets most about his time in Washington is going to a pro-Trump rally at Black Lives Matter Plaza with his son and a friend the night before the Capitol attack. During the event, a right-wing provocateur filmed him telling people to go inside the Capitol on January 6 as a form of peaceful protest, which he called it at the time.
People have used the clip to say that Mr. Epps not only told people to riot at the Capitol but also got away with it. The Justice Department hasn't said why it decided not to charge him in public, but the legal definition of incitement says that a person's words must cause an immediate threat of danger, not one that might happen the next day.
On Jan. 6, Mr. Epps, who thought he could stop the violence at the Capitol, got in the middle of a fight between the police and a group of pro-Trump supporters. This fight is widely seen as the turning point of the attack.
Videos from around 1 p.m. that day show him confronting a rioter named Ryan Samsel, who was already fighting with officers behind a metal barricade on the west side of the Capitol. Mr. Epps said he tried to stop Mr. Samsel from attacking the police. He said he tried to explain to Mr. Samsel that the police were just doing their jobs. When the FBI arrested Mr. Samsel a few weeks later, he told them the same story.
Mr. Epps also said he was sorry he sent a text to his nephew, long after the violence had started, in which he talked about how he helped people leave Mr. Trump's speech near the White House by pointing them toward the Capitol.
Mr. Epps also said that he went past barricades and into a restricted area of the Capitol grounds, but he did not go inside the building. Most of the people who did not go into the building or do anything else wrong have not been charged.
By the time the violence started to spread, Mr. Epps had already left the Capitol after helping a sick protester get to safety.
Almost as soon as the first article about Mr. Epps appeared in Revolver News in October, he started having trouble. Suddenly, he got emails with death threats, people broke into his home and demanded "answers" about January 6, and friends, church members, and even family members turned their backs on him, he said.
After Mr. Carlson and other well-known politicians spread the lies, things got a lot worse.
At the farm-style wedding venue they owned in Arizona, Ms. Epps found shell casings on the ground near the bunkhouse at the end of December. This showed that someone had shot at the building. Then, in January, Mr. Epps got a letter from someone who said that a Mexican drug cartel had brought them into the country.
The writer said that he had overheard some cartel members talking about killing Mr. Epps.
In broken English, the letter said, "I wrote to tell you to be careful." "These people in the drug gang are very bad."
Whether it was real or just a sick joke, Ms. Epps ran away, leaving Mr. Epps to arm himself and let his security team run the family business for a while. In the end, the couple had to sell their business and ranch-style home, which cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars and ruined their plans for retirement.
Ms. Epps said, "It's been a nightmare."
The Eppses haven't done much since they moved from Arizona to the mountains a few months ago. They spend time with their children and some of their 37 grandchildren, but for the most part, they stay to themselves. Mr. Epps has taken to hiding his face with a wide-brimmed hat. If people at the gas station or grocery store tell him he looks familiar, he will usually smile and go on his way.
Even though he wants to clear his name, he doesn't think he will ever be able to fully separate it from the lies.
Mr. Epps said, "They'll always be linked." "You can't convince some people. There are extremists out there who will never change their minds no matter what you say.