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A majority of the people arrested for Capitol riot had a history of financial trouble

Thousands of Trump supporters violently storm the US Capitol on Jan. 6 to support former president Donald Trump's baseless claims that he won the election. According to a Washington Post analysis of public records, nearly 60 percent of the people facing charges related to the Capitol riot showed signs of prior financial struggles.
Thousands of Trump supporters violently storm the US Capitol on Jan. 6 to support former president Donald Trump's baseless claims that he won the election. According to a Washington Post analysis of public records, nearly 60 percent of the people facing charges related to the Capitol riot showed signs of prior financial struggles.Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Jenna Ryan seemed like an unlikely participant in the mob that stormed the US Capitol on Jan. 6. She was a real estate agent from Texas. She flew into Washington on a private jet. And she was dressed that day in clothes better suited for a winter tailgate than a war.

Yet Ryan, 50, is accused of rushing into the Capitol past broken glass and blaring security alarms and, according to federal prosecutors, shouting: “Fight for freedom! Fight for freedom!”

But in a different way, she fit right in.

Despite her outward signs of success, Ryan had struggled financially for years. She was still paying off a $37,000 lien for unpaid federal taxes when she was arrested. She’d nearly lost her home to foreclosure before that. She filed for bankruptcy in 2012 and faced another IRS tax lien in 2010.

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Nearly 60 percent of the people facing charges related to the Capitol riot showed signs of prior money troubles, including bankruptcies, notices of eviction or foreclosure, bad debts, or unpaid taxes over the past two decades, according to a Washington Post analysis of public records for 125 defendants with sufficient information to detail their financial histories.

The group’s bankruptcy rate — 18 percent — was nearly twice as high as that of the American public, The Post found. A quarter of them had been sued for money owed to a creditor. And 1 in 5 of them faced losing their home at one point, according to court filings.

The financial problems are revealing because they offer potential clues for understanding why so many Trump supporters — many with professional careers and few with violent criminal histories — were willing to participate in an attack egged on by the president’s rhetoric painting him and his supporters as undeserving victims.

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While no single factor explains why someone decided to join in, experts say, Donald Trump and his brand of grievance politics tapped into something that resonated with the hundreds of people who descended on the Capitol in a historic burst of violence.

"I think what you’re finding is more than just economic insecurity but a deep-seated feeling of precarity about their personal situation," said Cynthia Miller-Idriss, a political science professor who helps run the Polarization and Extremism Research Innovation Lab at American University, reacting to The Post’s findings. "And that precarity — combined with a sense of betrayal or anger that someone is taking something way — mobilized a lot of people that day."

The financial missteps by defendants in the attempted insurrection ranged from small debts of a few thousand dollars more than a decade ago to unpaid tax bills of $400,000 and homes facing foreclosure in recent years. Some of these people seemed to have regained their financial footing. But many of them once stood close to the edge.

Ryan had nearly lost everything. And the stakes seemed similarly high to her when she came to Washington in early January. She fully believed Trump’s false claims that the election was stolen and that he was going to save the country, she said in an interview with The Post.

But now — facing federal charges and abandoned by people she considered "fellow patriots" — she said she feels betrayed.

"I bought into a lie, and the lie is the lie, and it’s embarrassing," she said. "I regret everything."

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The FBI has said it found evidence of organized plots by extremist groups. But many of the people who came to the Capitol on Jan. 6 — including Ryan — appeared to have adopted their radical outlooks more informally, consuming conspiracy theories about the election on television, social media, and right-wing websites.

The poor and uneducated are not more likely to join extremist movements, according to experts. Two professors a couple of years ago found the opposite in one example: an unexpectedly high number of engineers who became Islamist radicals.

In the Capitol attack, business owners and white-collar workers made up 40 percent of the people accused of taking part, according to a study by the Chicago Project on Security and Threats at the University of Chicago. Only 9 percent appeared to be unemployed.

The participation of people with middle- and upper-middle-class positions fits with research suggesting that the rise of right-wing extremist groups in the 1950s was fueled by people in the middle of society who felt they were losing status and power, said Pippa Norris, a political science professor at Harvard University who has studied radical political movements.

Miller-Idriss said she was struck by a 2011 study that found household income was not a factor in whether a young person supported the extreme far right in Germany. But a highly significant predictor was whether they had lived through a parent’s unemployment.

"These are people who feel like they’ve lost something," Miller-Idriss said.

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Ashli Babbitt, who was shot and killed by police when she tried to leap through a door’s broken window inside the Capitol, had struggled to run a pool-service company outside San Diego and was saddled with a $23,000 judgment from a lender in 2017, according to court records.

Dominic Pezzola, who federal authorities said is a member of the Proud Boys, is accused of being among the first to lead the surge inside the Capitol and helping to overwhelm police. Up to 140 officers were injured in the storming of the Capitol and one officer, Brian Sicknick, was killed.

Pezzola, of Rochester, N.Y., also has been named in state tax warrants totaling more than $40,000 over the past five years, according to public records. His attorney declined to comment.