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The Strange Case of Ray Epps

Ray Epps, the Arizona man who gained notoriety for encouraging pro-Trump demonstrators to storm the U.S. Capitol building, now bemoans his plight, saying all the attention focused on his ambiguous presence at the Capitol on January 5 and January 6, 2021, has ruined his life.

His life may be in shambles, but he’ll receive no sympathy from me. His troubles have been largely self-inflicted.

During my 22-year federal law enforcement career, one of my specialties was recruiting and working with informants or sources. Here’s my opinion as to what most likely took place between Epps and the federal government.

The Ray Epps matter is far from over.

Following the 2020 presidential election, and prior to January 6, there was “chatter” indicating that far-right groups, attracted by President Trump’s January 6 rally, might use the event as a pretext to riot and storm the U.S. Capitol building.

The U.S. government — most likely the FBI — saw Epps as a potentially valuable informant. Here was a person who had the credibility to mix with his fellow demonstrators and gain access to what they were doing. His background was one of service to his country: he had served as a sergeant in the United States Marines, and he was a prominent member of an anti-government militia known as the Oath Keepers. Epps had risen in the organization to become president of their Arizona chapter. In short, he had the perfect cover and could blend right in.

Federal agents would have been anxious to pitch Epps, offering him something of value in exchange for his infiltrating and collecting intelligence against these various groups, including his own.

On January 5, Ray Epps began attracting national attention. On that day, he was caught on videotape egging on fellow protesters to enter the Capitol building. On the very same day, some fellow demonstrators comically and openly called out Epps as a “federal agent.” It was not a good sign that members of the crowd had seen through his cover.

On the following day, January 6, Epps was conspicuously active in and around the area, shepherding crowds toward the Capitol building. Epps was “all in” — front and center as a primary actor in the initial breach of the Capitol. In fact, he was seen leading the breach team.

Epps’s goal would have been to cause as many far-right activists as possible to commit felonies. But in doing so, he appears to have overreached.

Sometimes the government wins, sometimes it loses, and sometimes it just gets embarrassed.

Despite all that happened that fateful Wednesday, January 6, Ray Epps has never been arrested or charged for his role in the storming of the Capitol. For such a sweeping and high-profile FBI investigation, it is astonishing that nothing has happened to Epps. Has he been lucky — or is something else going on here?

Epps’s image as Suspect #16 (of nearly 500 suspects) promptly appeared on the FBI Capitol Violence Most Wanted List, only to be surreptitiously removed months later on July 1. Federal agents interviewed Epps in March 2021, but nothing happened. It appears the FBI was losing interest in Epps.

Epps had become the flashpoint on January 5 and 6 — his actions could be viewed as bordering on incitement to commit a riot, entrapment and a smorgasbord of other violations. Yet somehow, he received a pass.

Epps’s federal handlers were probably hoping the Arizonan would mix and mingle with the protesters and perhaps passively collect intelligence. He would be able to identify the ringleaders and miscreants during the commission of their crimes. In addition, he had most likely been coached to warn Trump supporters by broadcasting several times during the two days, “I don’t even like to say it because I’ll be arrested. I’ll say it. We need to go into the Capitol.” This was, in fact, a clever ploy, a defense against entrapment, wherein government prosecutors could later say the defendants knew perfectly well what they were doing and knew of the consequences (arrest).

Instead, perhaps carried away by the energy of the crowds or his own eccentric personality, Epps took it upon himself to assume a more active role. Going off script, he urged those around him to enter the Capitol building. In fact, in what many have construed to be an incriminating text during those fateful moments, he boasted to his nephew, “I was in the front with a few others. I also ‘orchestrated’ it.” Did that mean he was “orchestrating” events? Was this merely a strange choice of words? Or a slip of the tongue revealing something more?

Government agents may have been upset and embarrassed that Epps had gone “off the reservation,” seeming to commit the very same crimes as those he was encouraging. Epps’s handlers would have now been completely absorbed in damage control for their erratic source.

The government would have to figure out a way of making the Ray Epps debacle disappear. For federal agents, the protection of sources and methods is ingrained. These very same agents would have no other choice except to cover for him, first by adding him to the FBI’s Most Wanted Capitol Violence list and then dropping him from the same list several months later — hoping nobody would catch on. Epps, in the meantime, wisely dropped out of sight.

However, the January 6 Committee could not ignore the man the world had seen on videotape urging people into the Capitol and were compelled to conduct an interview with him. Their questions were softballs. Epps was profusely apologetic about his role during the “Insurrection.” According to Epps, he didn’t like what he saw at the Capitol that day and had a change of heart. And that contrition seemed sufficient to placate the Committee, which was now in sync with government agents to provide Suspect #16 the cover he most desperately needed. In fact, they had no other choice but to protect the government’s source as well as the integrity of their investigation.

The Ray Epps matter is far from over. At least half the country is not only seeking an explanation for his unusual conduct and action but also wondering why he would be spared the fate of his fellow “rioters.”

But — and I say this with some experience with informants — sometimes the government wins, sometimes it loses, and sometimes it just gets embarrassed.

Kenneth R. Strange Jr. is the author of It’s Your Camino: One Couple’s 500-Mile Pilgrimage Across Spain and the upcoming book, A Cop’s Son: One G-Man’s Fight Against Jihad, Global Fraud and the Cartels.


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