As Ky. GOP defends Jan. 6 rioters, court records show Kentuckians' violence and intent to stop Biden presidency
State GOP leaders say Kentuckians charged in connection to the riot at the U.S. Capitol have been wrongfully detained. Experts disagree and court records show scope of violence.
Around 2:13 p.m. on January 6, 2021, Kentuckian Joseph Howe kicked at the Senate wing door of the U.S. Capitol Building while his friend Michael Sparks clambered through a broken window.
The pair were among the first rioters to enter the Capitol building that day as hundreds of people descended on Washington D.C. in an effort to overturn the results of the 2020 election and stop Joe Biden from becoming president.
Howe and Sparks traveled to the nation’s Capitol from Elizabethtown and were ready for a fight, according to a bevy of court records compiled by federal agents investigating the siege at the Capitol.
Once inside, Sparks squared off with Capitol Police and was part of a mob that chased one officer up a flight of stairs. Howe took a fire extinguisher off the wall and sprayed it into another officer’s eyes.
At 2:30 p.m., another Kentuckian, Peter Schwartz, brawled with federal police outside the building — throwing a chair and dousing retreating officers with pepper spray, court records show.
The three men are among at least 25 Kentuckians that face criminal charges in connection to the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. The attempted insurrection captivated the nation as it played out live on social media. It sparked one of the largest federal law enforcement investigations in the nation’s history and to date, more than 1,240 people have been arrested and more than 450 have been sentenced to prison.
In Kentucky, top Republican leaders recognized the three-year anniversary of the insurrection earlier this month by passing a resolution that defends many of the people arrested for their actions that day and claims they’ve been wrongfully detained. An identical resolution has been introduced in the Kentucky Senate.
The resolution states that citizens from Kentucky and across the country “exercised their First Amendment rights of free speech and assembly to express their frustration with the electoral process.”
But an analysis of federal court records by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting show men and women from Kentucky went to Washington D.C. bent on violence, vengeance and a desire to disrupt official election proceedings. There, they destroyed government property and assaulted Capitol Police officers. Some traveled with organized militias and believed they were participating in the opening salvos of a civil war.
Some rioters planned to make Kentucky a key hideout, the records show, with militia fighters holing up in the mountains, beneath the cover of dense forests, and building a network of tunnels to help facilitate an armed rebellion.
Experts on extremism say resolutions like the one passed by Kentucky’s Republican party play into a broader, right-wing narrative that excuses or even celebrates people who participated in the Jan. 6 attack. Downplaying the severity of the attempted insurrection could embolden others to commit political violence, said Jon Lewis, a research fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University.
Support from public officials, he said, could help “create the conditions for the next set of individuals to say, ‘Look at what happened. My elected officials protected us, they endorsed this, they called us patriots and heroes. We can do this next time.’”
An unlikely resolution
Kentucky Sen. Lindsey Tichenor, a Republican from Smithfield, filed the resolution with the General Assembly on Jan. 5th. The following day, the Republican Party of Kentucky’s governing body approved identical language. A party spokesman did not respond to a request for comment. The Hardin County Republican Party posted on Facebook that it was a 34-32 vote.
The resolution isn’t likely to pass out of the Senate’s judiciary committee, where it’s been assigned. The committee chair, Whitney Westerfield, a Republican from Fruit Hill, said he won’t give it a hearing.
“What I saw on January 6, 2021 was not a lawful exercise of constitutional rights, but a criminal assault on our democracy and the institutions that guarantee it,” he said in a statement last week that criticized the state party’s leadership for approving the resolution.
But if the Republican-led Kentucky Senate were to approve Tichenor’s resolution, it would formally “acknowledge the events of January 6, 2021, and recognize those citizens who have been wrongfully held without due process.”
“In all cases, citizens and non-citizens alike are afforded the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty and the right to due process. Participants in Jan. 6 have not been treated to fair proceedings," Tichenor said in an emailed statement to KyCIR.
She noted that the Kentucky Senate passed a resolution last year that condemned the Capitol riot and acknowledged the violence that happened that day. In light of that, she said she felt no need to readdress that issue.
“The intent of the resolution was to acknowledge the unalienable rights our constitution was established to protect,” she said. “Nothing in the resolution disregards the criminal actions that took place on January 6.”
KyCIR asked Tichenor to provide examples of cases in which defendants have been held without due process. The only specific case she listed was Edward Lang, a New Yorker.
Lang has been in jail since he was arrested by federal agents in his apartment days after the Jan. 6 riots. Tichenor said Lang’s case is “one of the most egregious cases” of defendants being kept in jail while their case works through the court system. He’s accused of repeatedly kicking one officer who fell to the ground, beating another officer with a riot shield and hitting other officers with a baseball bat more than a dozen times, according to court files.
Tichenor also said that defendants in the Jan. 6 investigation have been treated “very poorly inside of DC facilities” and not been allowed to call witnesses, access or present evidence and have a fair “tribunal.” She declined to name any of those defendants.
“I would encourage you to look into their individual stories,” she said.
Several experts rebutted Tichenor’s assertion that people facing criminal charges in connection to their participation in the Jan. 6 riot aren’t being treated fairly in court.
“What you see time and time again are that these defendants are given every opportunity to present their cases,” Lewis said.
While some Jan. 6 defendants were held in jail for up to or more than a year while their cases worked through the legal system, most were not, he said.
And no one was arrested for simply exercising their First Amendment rights, said Meghan Conroy, who was an investigator for the U.S. House committee that investigated the Jan. 6 attack.
“While many of the demonstrators were peaceful, many were not,” she told KyCIR. “And the ones who committed crimes — some egregiously violent in nature, might I add — are the ones being held to account.”
Each person is having their case tried, fairly, in court, said Javed Ali, a University of Michigan professor who did national security and intelligence work for federal agencies under multiple presidential administrations, including former President Donald Trump.
“These are people who have been brought to court through a law enforcement investigation, where evidence has to be … obtained and then presented to a judge and the defense team to make sure that they have time to rebut the claims,” he said.
A report this month from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for D.C. said about 749 of the Jan. 6 defendants had been sentenced to date. More than 200 people pleaded guilty to felony crimes, according to the report.
A new analysis from The Intercept reviewed 719 of the cases and found judges gave defendants lighter sentences than prosecutors wanted in 82% of them.
And an NPR database on the Jan. 6 cases says only three people have been acquitted of all charges.
Violence, militias and a Kentucky hideout
Court records show that many of the Kentuckians that are facing criminal charges stemming from the Jan. 6 riot traveled to the nation’s Capitol with one clear goal: Stop Joe Biden from becoming president.
Their charges range from entering a restricted federal building to assault on a law enforcement officer with a dangerous weapon. Eight are still awaiting trial. Nine of 25 reached plea deals after being charged with several crimes, but some are doing lengthy prison sentences — like Peter Schwartz.
Federal court records show Schwartz is a convicted felon who was released from prison due to COVID-19 and was supposed to be at a rehabilitation facility in Owensboro on Jan. 6.
Instead, he was in Washington D.C. tussling with federal police.
Federal investigators obtained video footage that shows Schwartz tossing a chair and dousing federal police officers with a stream of orange mace.
The next day, Schwartz posted on Facebook that a civil war had broken out.
“What happened yesterday was the opening of a war,” Schwartz wrote. “I was there and whether people will acknowledge it or not we are now at war. It would be wise to be ready!”
Schwartz, a 50 year old traveling welder, was arrested in Pennsylvania and, in May of 2023, sentenced to 14 years in prison. He’s currently held in the U.S. Penitentiary at Canaan in Pennsylvania.
At the sentencing hearing, U.S. District Judge Amit P. Mehta told Schwartz he was guilty of creating chaos and mayhem like the country had never seen.
“You are not a political prisoner,” Mehta told Schwartz. “You’re not somebody who is standing up against injustice or fighting against an autocratic regime.”
Randolph was charged with assaulting a federal officer and inflicting bodily injury, obstruction of law enforcement during civil disorder and obstruction of Congress. He pled not guilty to all charges and was released under home supervision in June of 2021. His case was combined with that of other Jan. 6 participants and is ongoing. The federal public defender handling this case did not respond to a request for comment.
William Stover from Elizabethtown told a witness that he body slammed and hit an officer.
He was arrested and charged in July 2023 with felony civil disorder and three misdemeanor offenses. His case is still ongoing. An attorney representing Stover could not be reached for comment.
Some of those charged from Kentucky have connections to organized militia groups.
Daniel Edwin Wilson from Elizabethtown identified himself in group chats as a member of the Gray Ghost Militia, according to court records compiled by agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Wilson admitted in a group chat that he planned to travel to Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6.
“Ooh rah. Curb stomp crew all in!!!,” Wilson wrote.
Wilson was chargedwith felony obstruction and four misdemeanors and his case is ongoing.
Benjamin Cole, from Louisville, is one of several other defendants across the nation investigated that self-identify as a “Three Percenters,” a militia style group whose members hung an effigy of Gov. Andy Beshear outside the governor's mansion in Frankfort in 2020.
Cole was part of a Three Percenter subgroup called the Guardians of Freedom, court records show. He and other members who traveled to D.C. called themselves the “B Squad,” referring to their “plan B” — which was to use violence to stop Joe Biden from becoming president.
In footage reviewed by federal investigators, a leader of this group instructed people to bring metal batons, walking canes or folding knives they could use as a weapon.
The group reserved 15 hotel rooms in D.C. from Jan. 5th through Jan. 7th under the name “Black Group.” Federal investigators said approximately 40 people associated with the group checked into the hotel, including Cole. They were seen wearing tactical gear, carrying zip ties, pepper spray and batons.
On the day of the riot, video footage shows members of the group, including Cole, attempting to force their way through a line of police officers on the Capitol grounds.
In January 2022 Cole posted about the investigation on Facebook, stating that he did nothing wrong. Federal prosecutors charged him with civil disorder, entering or remaining in a restricted building and disorderly and disruptive conduct in a restricted building. He was released on personal recognizance in August 2022. His case is ongoing, the federal public defender handling his case did not respond to a request for comment.
Federal prosecutors charged and convicted two leaders of the extremist group the Oathkeepers, Elmer Stewart Rhodes III of Texas and Kelly Meggs of Florida with seditious conspiracy last May.
Court documents released during that trial showed two Oathkeepers from Southern Ohio, Donovan Crowl and Jessica Watkins, discussed plans to take refuge on “hundreds of acres” in the Kentucky mountains. Watkins, using the pseudonym Jolly Roger, discussed the benefits of Kentucky in a group chat with Crowl and other members of the group.
“Something like 20+ Oathkeepers going to Kentucky mountains on hundreds of acres apparently,” Watkins wrote. “Kentucky seems solid [as f***].”
The landscape made for good fighting positions and the Oathkeepers could dig a network of tunnels like the North Vietnamese Army, Watkins said.
A jury found Rhodes guilty of conspiracy to disrupt an official proceeding. He has yet to be sentenced. Watkins was acquitted at trial of seditious conspiracy, but sentenced to eight years in prison for conspiracy to disrupt an official proceeding.
Oathkeeper records leaked in 2022 show 513 paying members of the group reside in Kentucky.
Michael Stansbury, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Louisville field office, said in November that investigating domestic terrorism and the subjects of the Jan. 6 riot is a priority and several agents are leading the effort across the state.
'Four more years'
A few days before Sparks and Howe left Elizabethtown for the Capitol, Sparks made his intentions known in a group chat.
“We want a civil war, to be clear,” he said.
Once on the Capitol grounds he turned towards a nearby camera and said that he believed the 2020 election was stolen by President Barack Obama and “the Italian people.”
And then he made a prediction.
“Vice president [Mike Pence] is going to deem you President Trump,” he said. “Four more years of the presidency.”
Sparks was released on his own recognizance shortly after his arrest, just days after the riot at the Capitol. He pleaded not guilty to charges of entering a restricted building without lawful authority, violent and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds and obstructing law enforcement. His trial is slated to start in February. The federal public defender representing Sparks did not respond to a request for comment.