On January 5 last year, Guy Reffitt, a member of the Texas Three Percenters militia, packed his AR-15 rifle and a Smith & Wesson pistol into his wife’s car and set off on the 1,300-mile journey from Wylie, Texas, to Washington, D.C.
The next day, armed with the pistol, he attended the “Stop the Steal” rally in front of the White House, then marched with the crowd over to the U.S. Capitol Building, where he allegedly charged at police officers with such force that they had to fire projectiles and use pepper spray to hold him back.
Reffitt, wearing body armor partially covered by a blue jacket and a black motorcycle helmet, was captured on video on a staircase on the West Front of the Capitol. He can be seen holding his hand up as a police officer sprays him in the face. Moments later cameras capture Reffitt, exhausted from battle, flushing out his eyes with a bottle of water.
When he returned to Texas, according to prosecutors, he delivered an ominous threat to his son Jackson, 18, and daughter Peyton, 16, about what would happen if they told anyone what he’d done: “If you turn me in, you’re a traitor, and you know what happens to traitors… Traitors get shot.”
What he didn’t know was that his son had already turned him in.
On Jan. 16, federal marshals showed up at Reffitt’s house and took him into custody. Now he’s set to become the first Capitol rioter to stand trial, next month, charged with attacking a Capitol Police officer, bringing a weapon onto Capitol grounds, and obstructing the process of certifying President Joe Biden’s victory. He is also charged with threatening his own children.
Jackson had actually tipped off the FBI in December, after becoming concerned about his father’s increasingly radicalized rhetoric, including claims he was “about to do something big.”
“I was paranoid through the roof for a while because my dad would constantly go to protests and he would constantly bring his guns and constantly get involved in stuff that he shouldn't be in,” Jackson told VICE News. “And it probably would have gotten worse and worse until someone broke into our house, or he killed someone or somebody killed him.”
Jackson discovered his father was at the Capitol when Reffitt began posting pictures from the insurrection to the family chat group. With the riot still unfolding live on television, Jackson got a call from the FBI, who asked if his father was at the Capitol. Jackson confirmed that he was.
‘We’re a little broken’
Federal prosecutors have relied heavily on tipsters to identify the hundreds of Capitol rioters who have been charged with taking part in the Jan. 6 insurrection, a key part of the biggest criminal investigation in U.S. history. In many cases, the people who’ve snitched on rioters have been their own loved ones, and as a result, many families and communities have been left devastated.
While Guy Reffitt is set to stand trial, and potentially faces decades in prison, the weight of turning him in has fallen heavily on his children and his wife, Nicole. Jackson has left the family home and cut off almost all contact. His sisters Peyton and Sarah, 24, have been forced to defend both their father and brother while their family woes play out in the media, with many platforms seeking to twist the narrative to suit their agenda.
For Jackson, the situation is simple: He believes what his father did was wrong, and that he did the right thing by turning him in. “I think the evidence against him is staggering, and I honestly think he should take a plea deal of some sort, just because it saves my family months of trouble.”
The only time Jackson has questioned his decision in the last 12 months is when he read a letter his father wrote from jail, which was subsequently published by ProPublica. In the letter, Reffitt said he had bonded with his fellow rioters, and claimed that if they’d wanted to overthrow the government, they would have succeeded.
Jackson told VICE News that reading the letter made him worry that his father was being radicalized further in jail. “It was pretty disgusting to read that. I mean like it’s psycho stuff. Honestly, it made me feel worse about my decision, only because I feel like I pushed him in a more extreme direction. I made him more enthusiastic about what he’s done.”
But the situation has left Nicole, Sarah, and Peyton with divided loyalties as they struggle to keep their family together.
Nicole fully supports her husband’s decision to go to the Capitol on Jan. 6 and believes he is now a political prisoner. She says Guy had his weapons with him simply because he always travels with them. But she also says she loves her son and doesn’t blame him for what he did.
Sarah and Peyton, meanwhile, don’t support their dad’s decision to go to the Capitol. But they don’t think he should be in jail any longer, believing that he has served enough time and is not, as a judge described him last year, a danger to the community. They also want Jackson back in their family, even though they believe turning Guy in was a mistake.
“We're all a little bit broken right now,” Nicole told VICE News.
On most days, Peyton, who’s now 17, is just grateful to get by. But then, when she has a moment to stop and think, something will remind her that her father is in prison and that she’s no longer in touch with her brother.
“I feel like I've been bleeding out on the floor for a whole year,” Peyton told VICE News. “Every day I just feel like I get stabbed over and over again. It becomes like a chronic pain because now when I close my eyes, I think of our family dynamic so differently than it was and our struggles have just become so strong.”
Peyton, who is in her final year of high school and had to move to a different school as a result of what happened, is suffering from anxiety and feels like she’s been caught in the middle of a war of words waged by those on the left and right of the political divide.
Peyton, Sarah, Jackson, and their mother became the center of a media storm in the weeks after the Jan. 6 attack, when it emerged that Jackson had called the FBI tip line.
Jackson was held up by those on the left as a hero, while his father was hailed as a hero by the right.
Peyton and Sarah were caught in the middle, with both of them forced to defend both their father and brother from online attacks and death threats.
“The political aspect of social media means you hear, ‘Your brother saved democracy. He’s a hero’ or ‘Your dad saved democracy. He’s a hero.’ Like, both of those are so false, and it makes me just want to become a congresswoman when I'm older,” Peyton said.
From braggadocio to paranoia
The Reffitts were far from the only family that saw members report loved ones to the authorities for taking part in the Jan. 6 attack, but this family’s experience highlights how the current polarization in American politics has divided not only the country as a whole but also individual families.
Reffitt told his family when he returned on Jan. 8, that he had gone to Washington to “protect the country,” that he had brought the weapons with him, and that he had “stormed the Capitol,” according to court documents.
He even admitted recording some of the events on his GoPro camera, which was strapped to his head that day, according to court documents.
Days later his braggadocio had turned to paranoia. As the FBI began scouring the nation for the Jan. 6 rioters, Reffitt told his family, according to prosecutors, that he had to erase everything because the FBI was now watching him.
The paranoia soon extended to members of his own family. He warned Jackson that if he snitched on him, Reffitt would “do what he had to do,” court documents allege. When he saw Peyton using her cellphone, he threatened to put a bullet through it, the documents also allege.
By Jan. 11, the threats became more explicit, and he threatened to shoot his children, Jackson said.
Five days later, on Jan. 16, Reffitt was arrested at his home. Reffitt has been in custody for almost a full year, and is facing five charges relating to his activity on Jan. 6 and the days after.
Soon after his father was arrested, Jackson moved out of the family home, because he “knew at some point I would be either kicked out or pushed out in some sort of way.”
He told VICE News he didn’t want to “burn any bridges,” and he wants to give his family a chance to come back together once all of this is over.
Peyton and Sarah see his decision to move out differently.
“He hasn't tried to protect us in any way, even emotionally,” Sarah told VICE News, adding that her brother told the FBI agents he was going to step up and take care of his family, but that never happened.
Jackson rejected Sarah’s assertion, saying that he has “offered plenty [of help] but my mother refuses, as she seems to feel as if it’s blood money.”
Immediately after leaving the house, Jackson lived with his girlfriend for a couple of weeks, until threats against him became so bad that the authorities felt his life was in danger and advised him to move into a hotel for a few weeks.
Jackson dismissed most of the threats as “hilarious and absolutely insane,” but some of them, screenshots of which were shared with VICE News, show that those threatening him have persisted month after month, even as the one-year anniversary of the riot approached.
Jackson was ultimately able to get his own apartment, which he could only afford because thousands of people contributed to a crowdfunding campaign he set up after he was interviewed on CNN and people asked how they could help.
To date, the campaign has raised over $150,000, money that he’s using to fund his education. Jackson is studying political science in a local community college.
Jackson’s family say they asked him for financial help on several occasions, to cover the cost of rent or therapy, but he never gave them any money. “He basically just said it's a GoFund Me not a GoFundUs, and that it has to be used for him and the things he said he was going to use it for,” Sarah said.
Nicole, Sarah, and Peyton set up their own crowdfunding campaign, though they couldn’t use GoFundMe because the popular platform banned the families of insurrectionists from fundraising there. Instead, they used the Christian-focused platform GiveSendGo, and raised just shy of $55,000.
The FBI, which in the wake of the riots has carried out a historic manhunt, has relied on people like Jackson Reffitt to identify suspects. Insurrectionists have been turned in by family members, colleagues, high school friends, former lovers, ex-wives, and, in at least one case, themselves.
Zachary Alam was seen in a video using a helmet to break through glass in the doorway to the Speaker's Lobby—the same doorway where Ashli Babbitt was later fatally shot by police. Alam’s relatives told prosecutors they watched the video 20 times to make sure it was him before they picked up the phone. During his most recent hearing, in December, Alam continually interrupted the court, potentially derailing plea negotiations taking place between his legal team and prosecutors.
Thomas Fee, meanwhile, effectively turned himself in, after his girlfriend posted a selfie Fee took inside the Capitol Rotunda to her Facebook account. Unfortunately for Fee, his girlfriend’s sister’s husband was a U.S. Diplomatic Security Service agent and spotted the picture. When he contacted Fee directly, Fee sent the agent the same picture.
Larry Rendall Brock, an Air Force veteran, was reported by the woman he was married to for 18 years, while Riley June Williams, who was seen directing insurrectionists toward Nancy Pelosi’s office and has been charged with stealing the Speaker’s laptop, was reported by a former lover.
Adam Johnson, who became known as “Podium Guy” after he was captured carrying the speaker’s lectern through the Capitol, was also reported by someone who knew him.
“I recognized him from being involved in photographing the right-wing extremists in southwest Florida,” Allan Mestel, a Florida-based photographer who reported Johnson to the FBI, told VICE News. “He was also the neighbor of my wife’s best friend. And also, his wife, who is a doctor in Palmetto, was a friend of another friend of ours, who is a doctor. So I was 100% sure it was him.”
Like many of those who reported on Jan. 6 rioters, Mestel was on the receiving end of online harassment and threats from people who believed he was betraying his country. His personal information was leaked online, and he received abusive messages from as far away as Denmark.
Mestel, who’s been documenting the far right in Florida in recent years, is used to such threats, but one message in particular caused him to sit up and take notice.
“There was only one email that particularly troubled me, and that was one with a warning to be careful opening packages, and it specifically referenced the names of my two children, who were nine and 11 years old,” Mestel said. “That one infuriated me and I took that to the police.”
Because of the nature of their situation, the Reffitts faced threats from all sides.
“We had a lot of death threats through the mail, and getting threats through the mail is different: You react differently if someone's actually writing it,” Sarah said. “Someone even colored a photo of an American flag and then drew all over it and then wrote [my dad] needs to hang until he’s dead, dead, dead.”
While the threats have been disturbing for all involved, Jackson and Peyton believe the worst is still to come.
Next month, Reffitt is likely to be the first Capitol rioter to face trial, with a tentative date of Feb. 28 set. It is then that Jackson will have to see his father—and the rest of his family—for the first time since he moved out, when he’s called to give evidence that could send his father to jail for a long time.
“It will suck,” Jackson said. “He's probably gonna be there in the courtroom, which is gonna suck so much. And just looking at him is gonna suck. I mean, I still feel guilty, but this is the best-case scenario.”
Peyton will also have to give evidence against her father, confirming her previous testimony that her father threatened to shoot her if she turned him in. But unlike Jackson, who viewed the threat as real, Peyton believes her father was just being “a drama queen,” and feels he has been punished enough.
The damage Guy Reffitt’s decisions on Jan. 6 did to his family, and the fallout in the year since, seems irreparable. But Nicole, Jackson, Sarah, and Peyton all told VICE News that they believe their family will come through what they describe as the worst year of their lives, stating that after everything is done, the family will reconcile and heal.
“If we keep our distance right now and then whenever the trial wraps up then we can kind of get back together,” Jackson said. “It'll just be building bridges from there. It'll just take time. My family's kind of badass in that way, and we’re pretty resilient.”
Follow David Gilbert on Twitter at @daithaigilbert.
Update: This story has been updated with comment from Jackson Reffitt.