U.S. Capitol Police officer convicted of obstructing Jan. 6 probe

REUTERS/Tom Brenner/File Photo
Birds fly near the U.S. Capitol at sunrise, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., February 8, 2022.

About two weeks after he went into the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and posted extensively about it on Facebook, Virginia Beach fishing boat captain Jacob Hiles was arrested. In speaking with the FBI, Hiles mentioned something that caught the attention of investigators, according to court records: “following the riot he had become friends with a Capitol police officer.”

The FBI then took a look at Hiles’s phone, and found a screenshot of a Facebook message sent to Hiles by U.S. Capitol Police Officer Michael A. Riley on Jan. 7. “Hey Jake,” Riley wrote, “im a capitol police officer who agrees with your political stance. Take down the part about being in the building they are currently investigating and everyone who was in the building is going to charged. Just looking out!”

Riley and Hiles continued to message until Hiles’s arrest, court records show. Then Riley deleted all of his messages with his Facebook friend, whom he’d never met in person. In August 2021, Riley was indicted on two felony counts of obstructing a federal grand jury, for his original message to Hiles and the deletion of their conversations.

After hearing five days of evidence, and then deliberating for parts of four days, a federal jury convicted Riley on Friday afternoon on one of the obstruction counts, for deleting his Facebook messages with Hiles, and failed to reach a verdict on the issue of his initial message to Hiles. Two jurors, who declined to give their names, said the jury was deadlocked 11 to 1 in favor of conviction on the message count.

Riley, 51, was not in the courtroom for the verdict, due to a previously scheduled medical appointment. His attorney, Christopher Macchiaroli, declined to comment. U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson declared a mistrial on the unresolved count, and still must rule on Macchiaroli’s motion for acquittal filed at the close of evidence.

Some Capitol Police officers were criticized for their actions on Jan. 6, accused of taking selfies with rioters or standing aside as rioters entered the Capitol. The Capitol Police said last year that they had investigated 26 officers internally, found no wrongdoing by 20 of them, and disciplined six for conduct unbecoming an officer, failure to comply with directives, improper remarks or improper dissemination of information.

Riley is the only Capitol Police officer to face a criminal charge related to Jan. 6, and that did not emerge from the internal probes.

Riley testified in his own defense, saying he didn’t consider that a grand jury would investigate Hiles’s nonviolent actions, or the pair’s messages. Most protesters the Capitol Police arrest are charged with misdemeanors, with no grand jury involvement.

Protesters ridiculed the notion that a 25-year veteran wouldn’t know that a grand jury would be investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection. “Of course the defendant knew,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Mary L. Dohrmann said in her closing argument, “that a grand jury would be involved in investigating the massive attack on the Capitol on January 6.”

Riley was suspended without pay after his arrest, and resigned from the Capitol Police in October 2021, his lawyer said. He was a K-9 officer who spent Jan. 6 working with his partner on the bombs that were left outside the Democratic and Republican national headquarters on Capitol Hill.

Riley faces about 15 to 21 months in prison, according to federal sentencing guidelines. Hiles, on the other hand, received two years probation for trespassing in the Capitol. He is one of only six defendants, out of nearly 300 sentenced so far, for whom prosecutors did not recommend incarceration or home detention. Prosecutors asked the court to seal their sentencing memorandum and sentencing hearing for Hiles, which Jackson did. Jackson then presided over Riley’s trial.

“Absent Hiles’ forthrightness, both in preserving records of communications by him and Riley,” the prosecutors wrote in the memo, obtained by The Washington Post before it was sealed, “and in addressing sensitive inquiries from law enforcement, prosecution of Riley – a now-former U.S. Capitol Police Officer – may not have been possible.”

Hiles was on the witness list for the prosecution as well as the defense in Riley’s case but neither side called him. Before Hiles’s arrest, he attracted media attention when he told a Norfolk TV station in 2020 he wouldn’t allow Democrats on his fishing boat.

Hiles said in an interview after the verdict that he was surprised he wasn’t called to testify, and noted he had never met Riley.

“I don’t have any ill will or bad blood with him,” Hiles said. “I don’t even think what he did was wrong. I think there’s a lot of political things going on.” He noted that he didn’t delete any of his Facebook posts “because I didn’t have anything to hide. I didn’t do anything violent, that’s not who I am. I was there protesting.”

Riley testified he was a passionate fisherman and friended Hiles on Facebook in early January 2021 because Hiles had a large following and posted fishing videos on YouTube.

Hiles was captured on video smoking marijuana inside the Capitol and harassing officers, and he recorded multiple videos of the scene himself on Jan. 6, court records show. He sent several videos to Riley after Jan. 6, and Riley’s friends sent him a video on Jan. 9 of Hiles smoking pot, but Riley continued to communicate with Hiles. One of Riley’s friends testified he sent the video expecting that Riley would forward it to the FBI, but Riley did not.

When Hiles learned on Jan. 16 that there was a warrant for his arrest, he messaged Riley. “Call me,” Riley responded, and the two spoke for more than 20 minutes, prosecutors said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Anne P. McNamara asked Riley why he told Hiles to delete evidence.

“It’s not that I didn’t want him to be charged,” Riley said. “I reached out to him because he’d made a post that said he’d been pushed into the building. I didn’t associate him with those who went into the building and assaulted officers.” Riley said he had been “duped” by Hiles into thinking he was innocently pushed into the Capitol.

“That I tricked him, that he was duped,” Hiles said, “that wasn’t the best defense. … I didn’t reach out to him. He reached out to me.”

Then on Jan. 20, after Hiles surrendered and first met with the FBI, he messaged Riley that the FBI had his phone and was curious about his interactions with the Capitol Police officer. Riley then deleted hundreds of his prior communications with Hiles, court records show, and sent Hiles a message the next day declaring their conversations over. He did not delete his farewell note to Hiles, which prosecutors called his “coverup story.”

“He betrayed his oath and he betrayed his fellow officers,” McNamara said in her closing argument. “Rather than report Jacob Hiles, he told Mr. Hiles what to do to avoid getting caught. He told him to get rid of the evidence to avoid being charged with a crime. Evidence the experienced police officer knew was already being investigated.”

Macchiaroli, the defense attorney, pointed out that the FBI had Hiles’s videos and posts as early as Jan. 8, 2021, and that there was “nothing” in the messages between Hiles and Riley “showing he wanted to help Jacob Hiles avoid charges, or being arrested, or anything like that.” He added, “You don’t wake up one day and decide you’re going to obstruct the grand jury, on a post that everyone has already seen.”