When Ray Epps, now 61, arrived in Washington DC in early January, 2021, he believed he was answering the call of his president.
Mr Epps was one of the thousands of MAGA loyalists who believed former President Donald Trump’s lie that the 2020 election had been stolen. He also thought he and a throng of conservative allies would protest the election’s certification.
The night before the Capitol riot on Jan 6, Mr Epps told a crowd of fellow Trump supporters that they should enter the Capitol. This exchange was caught on video. He did not call for violence, and later claimed that he was encouraging a peaceful protest inside the building.
Nearly 900 people have been arrested for their participation in the failed insurrection that occurred the following day. Though Mr Epps is not among that number, he has nonetheless become the focus of a MAGA-world conspiracy theory placing the blame for the entire debacle squarely on his shoulders.
Who is Ray Epps?
Mr Epps is a former Marine who runs a wedding and event venue in Queen Creek, Arizona. He describes himself as a staunch conservative, and was a vocal supporter of former President Donald Trump.
Mr Epps went to Washington DC believing that the 2020 election had been stolen. Politico has reported that Mr Epps is a former Oath Keeper, the militant right-wing gang whose members are currently under investigation on seditious conspiracy charges.
Since the Capitol riot, his life has been turned upside down by the very people he once marched alongside.
The conspiracy theory
After failing to pin the Capitol riot on Antifa, right-wing media outlets refocused their efforts to reshape their narrative around Mr Epps. According to the New York Times, obscure right-wing outlets like Revolver Media began reporting on selectively-edited videos of Mr Epps during the Capitol riot, and later capitalised on the footage from 5 January in which he called for people to enter the Capitol.
The theory claims that Mr Epps, who was not arrested in the wake of the Capitol riot despite apparently encouraging people to enter the building and participating in the event himself, could only have evaded law enforcement if he was working with the government.
To explain this apparent contradiction, outlets and conspiracy theorists decided that Mr Epps had to have been an FBI agent sent into the crowd to stir dissent and set up a “false flag” event meant to justify the incarceration of hundreds of Trump supporters.
Larger right-wing media platforms, including Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, picked up on the story, thrusting Mr Epps into the mainstream conservative consciousness. Republican lawmakers including Senator Ted Cruz and Representatives Thomas Massie, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Matt Gaetz leapt on the theory in their efforts to reframe the Capitol riot narrative.
Mr Trump himself eventually signed onto the conspiracy theory, feeding the man who believed his lies into the right-wing conspiracy machine’s ever hungry maw.
What really happened?
Days after the Capitol riot, Mr Epps learned that the FBI was treating him as a person of interest in its then nascent investigation into the riot. He immediately called the agency and agreed to call them to discuss what had happened.
During their talks, Mr Epps insisted that he had remained peaceful and had instructed other rioters to do the same. Video footage that was eventually edited and used to suggest Mr Epps was inciting violence actually showed that he was trying to talk down other protesters who were getting angry.
In one video, he tells another protester, Ryan Samsel, to relax and reminds him that the Capitol police were doing their jobs. According to the Times, Mr Samsel was questioned by the FBI and fully corroborated Mr Epps’ version of events.
“He came up to me and he said, ‘Dude’ — his entire words were, ‘Relax, the cops are doing their job,’” Mr Samsel told investigators.
Further, Mr Epps was able to prove that he had left the Capitol before the violence began in earnest. A protester who had fallen ill required help away from the chaos, and Mr Epps volunteered to help lead them out.
Since then, Mr Epps’ life has turned upside down. He has become a persona non grata in conservative circles due to his association with the conspiracy theory.
After the conspiracy theory picked up steam, Mr Epps began receiving death threats and even had intruders trespass on his property. According to Mr Epps, those individuals approached him and demanded to know the “truth” about his supposed involvement with the FBI.
He has had to leave his home in Arizona and is currently hiding out in an RV with his wife at an undisclosed location.
Mr Epps told theTimes that he fears the direction the US is heading, and called what was done to him “criminal.”
“I am at the center of this thing, and it’s the biggest farce that’s ever been,” he said. “It’s just not right. The American people are being led down a path. I think it should be criminal.”
In July 2023, Mr Epps filed a defamation lawsuit against Fox News and its former host, Tucker Carlson. Mr Epps filed the lawsuit in the Superior Court of Delaware, the same court in which Fox was given a $787.5m judgement to settle a separate defamation case brought by Dominion Voting Systems, the New York Times reports.
Fox News has since moved to have the lawsuit moved to the Federal District Court in Wilmington.
Mr Epps is seeking an unspecified amount in damages.
The move comes after Mr Epps demanded in March that Fox News and Carlson retract their stories and issue on-air apologies to him.
“Ray is taking the next steps to vindicate his rights by seeking accountability for Fox’s lies that have caused him and [his wife] Robyn so much harm,” his attorney, Michael Teter, told the Times.
The lawsuit blames Fox News for spreading 2020 election fraud misinformation, painting Mr Epps as a loyal viewer who trusted the network’s commentary.
“When Fox, through its on-air personalities and guests, told its audience that the 2020 election had been stolen, Epps was listening,” the complaint says. “He believed Fox. And when Epps kept hearing that Trump supporters should let their views be known on Jan. 6 in Washington D.C., Epps took that to heart.”
It goes on further to claim that Fox News and Carlson made Mr Epps the “villain” of their stories, and said Carlson in particular became “fixated” on the former Marine.
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