4 convicted in Jan. 6 Capitol west terrace tunnel attacks on police

Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford
Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) greets D.C. police Officer Daniel Hodges, who was attacked during the Capitol riot.

WASHINGTON – Four men were convicted Tuesday of assaulting or impeding police officers in some of the most violent attacks in the Jan. 6, 2021, siege at the U.S. Capitol, including a case in which one D.C. officer was pinned to a door and another in which an officer was dragged down steps and beaten with poles and sticks.

Three of the men were convicted at a bench trial in front of U.S. District Judge Trevor N. McFadden but had other counts against them dropped, making McFadden the first federal judge in Washington to acquit members of the mob of felony charges. He found that while all three battled police, only one was clearly intending to obstruct Congress as it met to confirm President Joe Biden’s election victory.

In a separate case, a fourth man pleaded guilty to assault.

The Lower West Terrace of the Capitol was the site of some of the worst violence on Jan. 6, as police dug in against the mob unaware that other Capitol entrances were already breached. Officers testified at trial about a slow and steady advance of rioters that they managed to thwart at heavy cost over 2½ hours. They suffered bruises, concussions and fractured bones; one was forced into medical retirement.

Washington Post photo by Demetrius Freeman
Sgt. Aquilino Gonell of the U.S. Capitol Police in June.

Patrick E. McCaughey III of Ridgefield, Conn., used a riot shield to pin D.C. police Officer Daniel Hodges to the tunnel door, McFadden found, and hit another officer in the hand. Tristan C. Stevens of Pensacola, Fla., tried to engage the group in coordinated pushes, and personally shoved Capitol police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell with another riot shield. David Mehaffie of Kettering, Ohio, directed members of the mob in and out of the tunnel.

All three argued that they were merely trapped between violent protesters and police, an argument McFadden dismissed as “implausible.”

The defendants “knew what was happening,” he said, and were part of “shocking violence . . . no police officer should have had to endure.”

Separately on Tuesday, Jack Wade Whitton of Locust Grove, Ga., pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan to assaulting police with a dangerous weapon at the same Capitol entrance about an hour later. He admitted to throwing kicks, punches and objects, telling police, “You’re going to die tonight,” and dragging a D.C. officer identified as B.M. down the stairs to be beaten by other rioters.

Whitton, 32, faces a statutory maximum penalty of 20 years in prison at sentencing on March 6 before Sullivan, or roughly five to eight years based on federal sentencing guidelines as set in a plea agreement.

In the case of the three who faced trial, McFadden agreed that McCaughey, 25, used a riot shield as a dangerous weapon against Hodges, causing “significant pain and large bruises.” But he found that in other attacks on police, McCaughey and Stevens used the shields in ways that could not cause severe harm.

“I do not believe that a shield is inherently a dangerous weapon,” he said. McFadden said he did not find support for Gonell’s testimony that Stevens, 26, also attacked with a police baton.

Gonell and Hodges’s testimony was “more that of victims than typical law enforcement,” McFadden said, potentially colored by their “understandable anger and resentment” toward the rioters. But he said he believed that any inaccurate recollections by the officers was unintentional, and that their testimony was largely supported by video evidence.

McCaughey and Mehaffie, on the other hand, both “shaded their testimony” to help themselves “more . . . than the facts allowed,” McFadden found.

Testifying in his own defense, Mehaffie, 63, said he was shoved into police lines by the crushing force of the crowd, shouted “Don’t hurt the police!” and had to fight his way back out of the tunnel. On video, he can be heard shouting, “Push! Push! Don’t throw things!” He said he was trying to control conflict as the crowd advanced and play a negotiating role, telling police, “If we don’t push, you won’t push.”

There was “no negotiation,” D.C. police Officer Abdulkadir Abdi testified earlier. “Their objective was to get into the Capitol and we were pretty much in their way.”

Mehaffie struggled to explain why, if his goal was to avoid confrontation, he pounded on the glass doors, told other rioters they had to scale the walls for “battle,” helped pass a riot shield forward and remained in the tunnel.

“I don’t know that I had any expectation except to keep moving,” he testified.

McCaughey testified that he backed off when Hodges began screaming, showing that he had no desire to cause harm. McFadden said Hodges’s “gut-wrenching cries of pain” appeared to have inspired a “moment of humanity” in McCaughey but that his prior actions “cannot be undone by his subsequent kindness.”

The judge found that only McCaughey was trying to stop the counting of votes, based on comments he made to friends and to police, while Mehaffie and Stevens’s reasons for trying to get into the Capitol were unclear. Prosecutors argued that their intent could be inferred from their aggression.

“They were absolutely determined to get inside the U.S. Capitol building that day, no matter what stood in front of them,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jocelyn Bond said in closing arguments at the bench trial. “They put their words behind it, they put their actions behind it.”

Stevens did not testify; his attorney Lauren Cobb argued in closing that he used the riot shield to protect himself from police batons. He only “bopped” an officer with it when pushed from behind, she said.

“The only plausible explanation” for Steven’s behavior, which included cursing and spitting at officers, was that he wanted to join the attack, the judge said.

McFadden said that there was less evidence of intent to disrupt Congress in this case than in previous Jan. 6 trials he has overseen. But he was also skeptical of defense claims that the three men only wanted to voice opinions. “They’ve been demonstrating outside. They’ve been demonstrating all day. Why go to such efforts, why hurt multiple officers just to go in and demonstrate inside? It doesn’t pass the laugh test,” he said.

McFadden noted that two officers testified that they were more hesitant to use force at the Capitol on Jan. 6 because of the Black Lives Matter movement and the previous summer’s racial justice demonstrations. The judge, however, directed blame at political leaders as well as the rioters, opining that the trial showed “the chaos and violence that can occur when senior government leaders fail to support law enforcement officers,” and suggesting that police should have been more aggressive and had more support on Jan. 6.

McCaughey, Mehaffie and Stevens will be sentenced in January and face many possible penalties.

McCaughey was taken into custody after the verdict; McFadden said that after his “incredible” testimony, “I frankly don’t trust that he would return for sentencing.”