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Ray Epps, Target of Jan. 6 Conspiracy Theory, Charged in Capitol Attack

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Ray Epps, Target of Jan. 6 Conspiracy Theory, Charged in Capitol Attack

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Ray Epps, the man at the center of a right-wing conspiracy theory that the federal government instigated the events of Jan. 6, 2021, was charged on Tuesday with a single count of disorderly conduct for his role in the attack on the Capitol.

In a bare-bones charging document filed in Federal District Court in Washington, prosecutors accused Mr. Epps of disrupting the orderly conduct of government business by entering a restricted area on the Capitol grounds on Jan. 6. Mr. Epps’s lawyer, Edward J. Ungvarsky, said the case had been brought in “anticipation of entry of a guilty plea.”

The saga of Mr. Epps, a former Marine and wedding venue owner who voted twice for Donald J. Trump, is one of the stranger stories to have emerged from the Capitol attack. In the months after the riot, he found himself the target of baseless allegations that he was a secret agent of the federal government who had helped to foment the violence at the Capitol as a way to discredit Mr. Trump and his supporters.

The conspiracy theory was widely promoted by the former Fox News host Tucker Carlson and was later echoed by several prominent Republican politicians. Mr. Epps, who sold his home and business in Arizona and has since gone into hiding with his wife in a trailer park in Utah, sued Fox News in July, accusing the network of defamation.

From the start, the attacks on Mr. Epps were largely based on the fact that he was never charged with any crimes, even though he was captured on video on the night before the riot encouraging people to go into the Capitol. He was also seen on Jan. 6 pointing others toward the building and then entering a restricted area of the Capitol grounds.

Those who promoted the conspiracy theory made the unfounded leap that because Mr. Epps had avoided prosecution for more than two years, he had to have been a federal asset under the protection of the government. The charges filed on Tuesday by prosecutors in Washington undercut that assertion.

With the charges, Mr. Epps became one of only a handful of people in the mob who never entered the Capitol to have been prosecuted. While videos from Jan. 6 clearly depict him as being in the first wave of rioters to move past a police barricade outside the building, footage from later in the day shows him attempting to calm the crowd around him and de-escalate tensions with the police.

It remains unclear why the Justice Department decided to charge Mr. Epps now, more than two and a half years after the Capitol attack. The charging document used against him, known as a criminal information, was filed after he brought his suit against Fox News, ensuring his story would remain in the public eye for months, if not years. It also came after he decided to fight back against the conspiracy theory in the media, granting interviews to both The New York Times and 60 Minutes.

Still, Mr. Epps is hardly the only rioter to have waited years before being charged. The Justice Department continues to file Jan. 6 cases almost daily and could ultimately bring charges against several hundred more defendants.

The unfounded accusations about Mr. Epps were some of the most persistent to have come from the Capitol attack, prompting the House select committee investigating Jan. 6 to interview him in January 2022. During the interview, Mr. Epps told investigators that aside from serving in the Marine Corps, he had never worked for the government and that he was not working for any federal agencies on Jan. 6.

But even this testimony under oath did not stop the attacks on him, which spread from Fox News to public hearings in Congress. All of it had damaging consequences for Mr. Epps and his wife, Robyn, who received death threats and ultimately sold their five-acre ranch and wedding business in Arizona, moving into a 350-square-foot mobile home at a remote trailer park in the Rocky Mountains.

Mr. Epps was also interviewed by the F.B.I. and was removed from the bureau’s list of suspects wanted in connection with the Capitol attack in the summer of 2021. “That should have been the end of the matter for Epps,” his lawyer wrote in the complaint against Fox.

But instead, the complaint said, Mr. Carlson and Fox settled on Mr. Epps as a “villain” who could help distract from the network’s own “culpability for stoking the fire that led to the events of Jan. 6.” Mr. Carlson, it continued, became “fixated on Epps” and began promoting the idea that Mr. Epps and the federal government instigated the Capitol attack.

In court papers, lawyers for Fox have sought to dismiss the defamation case, saying that the network enjoys broad protections under the First Amendment and that Mr. Carlson left enough wiggle room in his statements about Mr. Epps to have avoided meeting the standard of actual malice necessary for defamation.

On Monday, Fox requested a hearing in Federal District Court in Wilmington, Del., for oral arguments on its motion to dismiss the suit.

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