Traitor or scapegoat? How one cop became the face of Jan. 6.

Jose Luis Magana/AP/File
Rioters loyal to President Donald Trump rally at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. A trial starts this week for a former Virginia police officer charged with storming the U.S. Capitol with a fellow officer, who pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors. Jury selection began April 4, 2022, in the case against Thomas “T.J.” Robertson.
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As the House Select Committee investigating Jan. 6 continues to interview key witnesses, the Department of Justice is prosecuting individuals who participated in the attack on the U.S. Capitol. More than 775 defendants have been arrested so far; 244 have pleaded guilty, while two have been convicted by trial. The rest are still waiting.

Thomas “T.J.” Robertson, whose trial begins this week, is one of them. For much of the past year, Mr. Robertson has been in jail. Facing mostly misdemeanor charges, he was remanded in July after violating his conditions of release, with the judge citing posts on social media as evidence that he’d been “further radicalized by his pending prosecution.”

Why We Wrote This

He was initially charged with the equivalent of trespassing, but T.J. Robertson has spent nine months in solitary confinement. His trial, scheduled to begin April 5, shows how the Jan. 6 Capitol assault reverberates among families and throughout America.

Mr. Robertson, who has been terminated from the Rocky Mount Police Department in southwest Virginia, strongly rejects the idea that he has been “radicalized.” The prosecution has not linked him with any extremist groups, and he has not been charged with seditious conspiracy – the most serious offense reserved for members of the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys, whom the government accuses of planning the assault on Congress.

But as a former police officer who “hasn’t had even a speeding ticket since the late 1990s,” he can envision ripple effects from the Jan. 6 prosecutions – especially among those who are veterans, police officers, or both, like himself.

“I am going to turn 50 and I have been shot on multiple continents and here I am, in my opinion, being politically persecuted,” says Mr. Robertson, in a Skype interview at the Central Virginia Regional Jail in Orange, where for the past nine months he has spent 23 hours a day in solitary confinement for his own protection.

Samantha Robertson spots a broken railing on the front porch, and mentally adds it to an ever-growing list of chores for her husband to tackle when he comes home. Beneath the cracked rail is a neat line of men’s combat boots, unworn for the past nine months.

For much of the past year, Ms. Robertson’s husband, T.J., has been in jail, charged with a felony related to the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. She’s been living alone in their single story house at the end of a mile-long gravel road at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains. A menagerie of goats, chickens, and German shepherds roams around the backyard.  

Ms. Robertson is relieved the waiting will finally be over when his trial begins this week – but she’s not really expecting closure. Because regardless of when her husband returns, she knows their lives won’t be the same. 

Why We Wrote This

He was initially charged with the equivalent of trespassing, but T.J. Robertson has spent nine months in solitary confinement. His trial, scheduled to begin April 5, shows how the Jan. 6 Capitol assault reverberates among families and throughout America.

Thomas “T.J.” Robertson – along with fellow police officer Jacob Fracker, who went with him to the Capitol that day – was terminated from the Rocky Mount Police Department in southwest Virginia a few days after he got home. If convicted of a felony, he will never be allowed to own a gun again. He will also lose his Veterans Affairs benefits, which have been helping pay their home mortgage. Already, Ms. Robertson has been working several odd jobs over the past year to make ends meet amid the family’s accumulating legal fees.

But in some ways, it’s the personal impact she’s most worried about. Mr. Fracker used to jokingly call T.J. “Dad” – but last month he incriminated Mr. Robertson in a plea agreement with the government. Married for less than three years, Ms. Robertson doesn’t know when she and her husband will be able to resume the fertility treatments they’d started before he went to the Capitol. And she wonders how long reporters and curious folk will continue coming down their drive to see the home of one of the most publicized Jan. 6 cases. 

Photos courtesy of Samantha Robertson
T.J. Robertson (left) with his dog Reign on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Floyd County in September 2020 and Mr. Robertson during his time in the military (right), which lasted more than two decades. He spent 18 months in Iraq as a sniper between 2007 and 2008 and then suffered a serious injury in Afghanistan in 2011.

“There’s always going to be a stigma associated with it,” says Ms. Robertson, feeding the couple’s goats as a half-dozen dogs whine for her attention. “Even the people who didn’t do anything. ... You’re just going to be looked at as an individual that went [to the Capitol], and therefore you’re an immoral individual.” 

As the House Select Committee investigating Jan. 6 continues to hold hearings and interview key witnesses, the Department of Justice is simultaneously prosecuting individuals who participated in the attack. More than 775 defendants have been arrested in almost all 50 states so far, with the list continuing to grow. According to a database maintained by George Washington University, 244 defendants have pleaded guilty, while so far two have been convicted by trial. The rest, like Mr. Robertson, are still waiting. 

Most, however, are waiting at home. Mr. Robertson is one of around 65 who are currently in jail, having been remanded by a judge last July after violating his terms of release. 

Which means that for scores of families like the Robertsons – and communities like Rocky Mount – the full fallout from that unprecedented day is yet to come. What took place at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 was, for many participants, the culmination of years of frustrations. But it may also turn out to be the catalyst for an even deeper set of grievances.

“I am going to turn 50 and I have been shot on multiple continents and here I am, in my opinion, being politically persecuted,” says Mr. Robertson in a Skype interview. For the past nine months, he has been incarcerated at the Central Virginia Regional Jail in Orange, where he spends 23 hours a day in solitary confinement for his own protection, because of his decades as a police officer.

“It’s so ridiculous to think that I served my whole life on behalf of the government,” he says, before trailing off.

Jan. 6 still reverberates

On a national scale, the events of Jan. 6 are still sowing divides within the Republican Party. In early February, the Republican National Committee censured the two GOP lawmakers serving on the House Jan. 6 committee for “participating in a Democrat-led persecution of ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse.” Across the country, rallies and fundraisers have been organized for the “political prisoners” of Jan. 6. Former President Donald Trump’s unsubstantiated claim that the 2020 election was stolen continues to shape GOP primary races ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.  

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
Samantha Robertson, shown at home in Ferrum, Virginia, March 25, 2022, says she’s relieved the waiting will be over now that her husband’s trial begins this week. But she’s not expecting closure, she says, acknowledging that their lives will never be the same.

Mr. Robertson, who voted for Mr. Trump twice, now professes himself somewhat disillusioned with the former president, calling him a “loudmouth.” But to this day, he harbors doubts about the 2020 election. 

On Jan. 6, 2021, those doubts brought Mr. Robertson, who has a framed copy of the Constitution hanging in his living room, to Washington.

“I went there because I genuinely believe that there were election irregularities that needed to be fixed,” says Mr. Robertson, wearing an orange-and-white striped jumpsuit. “You have 19 bellwether counties that every president has won, for all of history, and Trump won 18 of those,” he says, repeating a point made by the former president himself – which experts say is accurate but has no bearing on claims of fraud, which were rejected by numerous courts. 

Mr. Robertson says he walked into the Capitol peacefully on Jan 6. Before entering, he says, he asked an officer if it was all right – and was told it was fine, as long as he avoided restricted areas. He says that’s what he did: He walked in, took a selfie with Mr. Fracker in the crypt, and walked out. He was inside, he says, for less than 30 minutes. 

The criminal complaint filed just days after the Capitol attack includes the now-infamous selfie, in which Mr. Fracker is making an obscene gesture, and Mr. Robertson’s Facebook posts about the event. Initially, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, which declined to comment for this article, charged Mr. Robertson with four counts: three misdemeanors and one felony – obstruction of an official proceeding. 

David Alan Sklansky, a criminal justice expert at Stanford University, calls those initial counts “about the lowest level, most basic charges you can imagine for conduct on Jan. 6.” Three of them, he says, “are literally trespassing.” 

Jacquelyn Martin/AP/File
President Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Washington, Jan. 6, 2021. That afternoon, his supporters stormed the Capitol in an effort to prevent the certification of President Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election. One of those supporters, T.J. Robertson, goes on trial this week.

“The more serious cases are the ones who brought guns to the Capitol or who are charged with assaulting the police,” says Stephen Saltzburg, a professor at George Washington University Law School. “There is none of that here. Don’t get me wrong, there are some judges on the court who are going to say, ‘Anyone who was involved in the attack on the Capitol, that’s serious.’ But there are others who will say, ‘Come on, these charges don’t amount to more than serious trespassing.’”

Then, in the days following his arrest and termination from the Rocky Mount Police Department, Mr. Robertson posted a slew of violent threats online. The “next revolution” started on Jan. 6, he wrote, warning that “peace is done” and now is the time to “buckle armor or just stay at home.” Over the course of one month, Mr. Robertson ordered more than a dozen firearms online, totaling more than $12,000 – a violation of the conditions of his release.

“They are trying to teach us a lesson,” wrote Mr. Robertson on a chat forum. “They have. But its definitely not the intended lesson. I have learned that if you peacefully protest than you will be arrested, fired, be put on a no fly list, have your name smeared. ... I have learned very well that if you dip your toe into the Rubicon ... cross it. Cross it hard and violent and play for all the marbles.” (Editor’s note: The original spelling has been left intact.)

The FBI got a warrant to search the Robertsons’ home in Ferrum and found what agents said “appears to be a partially assembled pipe bomb” in a box with a label that “included the words ‘Booby Trap.’”

“His recent social media posts may contain elements of bravado and hyperbole, but they provide evidence that Robertson is sympathetic to calls for a violent ‘revolution,’ and has been further radicalized by his pending prosecution,” wrote Judge Christopher Cooper in a July order revoking Mr. Robertson’s release and sending him to jail until his trial.

Experts on far-right extremism say that a sense of martyrdom can sometimes become a catalyst for further violence, both for the individual who feels wronged as well as others who feel inspired by them. Perceived martyrs often “become a sort of rallying cry,” says Don Haider-Markel, a political science professor at the University of Kansas.

Timothy McVeigh’s anger over the Waco standoff in 1993, which resulted in the deaths of 76 people including 25 children, spurred him to carry out the Oklahoma City bombing two years later – the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history. One year after the bombing, the number of militia groups in the U.S. spiked to an all-time high. 

“Of course law enforcement has to intervene when people are engaged in criminal activity, but what that tends to do is the people who are loosely affiliated tend to drift off and drift away, while those who are committed tend to go even deeper underground,” says Mr. Haider-Markel. “That’s what we worry about.” 

“That’s the Facebook guy”

Mr. Robertson says he was in a dark place when he got home from the Capitol. He had lost his job. Every time he logged onto Facebook there were messages from strangers telling him to “rot in hell.” 

“That’s the Facebook guy, not the real guy,” says Mr. Robertson of his angry social media posts. “I talked myself into this. But the person who talked himself into this was upset and getting messages and drinking.”

He says he decided to bide his time by filling out his World War II gun collection and had them delivered to another FFL (federal firearms license) owner in Roanoke where he planned to pick them up when legally able. Court documents show his online purchases included rifles from the 1940s and ’50s; according to one gun shop proprietor, none of the guns on the list would count as modern. 

As for the partially assembled pipe bomb, the FBI’s photos show that the full label on the box reads “ALERRT kit, props and boobytrap sims.” ALERRT is a law enforcement training program for which Mr. Robertson is listed as a certified instructor. Mr. Robertson says what the FBI found was actually a prop for training (“sims” being short for “simulations”). 

The components of the box are “very consistent” with pipe bomb props that an ALERRT instructor would use, says ALERRT Assistant Director John Curnutt. “We want props to be as realistic as they can sound, look, and feel to thoroughly teach how to manage the stress and fear of an active shooter event,” says Mr. Curnutt. 

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
Samantha Robertson, shown with goats Josie and Jewell on March 25, 2022, has been caring for their animals and working several odd jobs as legal fees mount in the case against her husband, T.J. Robertson, for his participation in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

Mr. Robertson strongly rejects the idea that he has been “further radicalized” by the events of the past year, as the judge suggested. But as a former police officer who “hasn’t had even a speeding ticket since the late 1990s,” he can envision ripple effects from the Jan. 6 prosecutions – especially among those who are veterans, police officers, or both, like himself. 

“You’re taking people who have lived their whole life under the law and were part of protecting society, and you are ripping that identity away from them ... making them pariahs in their community,” he says. “You are going to eventually release them – and you are counting on the least stable of them not to be radicalized?” 

At least 100 individuals charged in the Capitol attack have military experience, according to the George Washington University database, about 13%. That’s “statistically higher than what you would expect,” says Andrew Mines of GW’s Program on Extremism, given that roughly 7% of all Americans are veterans. According to Mr. Mines, almost 30% of those military arrestees had some affiliation to domestic violent extremist groups like the Proud Boys or the Oath Keepers. 

Veterans are “prized recruits” for extremist groups because of their combat and weapons training, says an October 2021 report by the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. For some veterans, experts say, these groups offer a sense of brotherhood like they had in the military. “The camaraderie of having a small group of people who you depend on for your life – militia groups help re-create that,” says Mr. Haider-Markel.

Mr. Robertson joined the U.S. Army in 1990. Over the next several years, he graduated from Ranger and sniper school while earning his civil engineering degree from Virginia Tech, taking some of his classes at Fort Bragg. Around 2000, he joined the Army Reserves and began a more than two-decade career with the Rocky Mount Police Department – spending 18 months between 2007 and 2008 in Iraq as a sniper. 

During this time, he married his first wife and had two children: a daughter and a son. Mr. Robertson says his children, now young adults, are handling his detention all right, having grown accustomed to his absence during the years he spent abroad in the military when they were young.

Two years after his tours in Iraq, Mr. Robertson went to Afghanistan as a Department of Defense contractor, serving as an embedded tactical trainer for the Afghan army. In September 2011, he was seriously wounded from being shot in the leg and hit with shrapnel from surrounding mortars. Back in Virginia, he underwent almost a dozen surgeries before rejoining the Rocky Mount P.D.  

The prosecution has not linked Mr. Robertson with any far-right extremist groups in court documents, and Mr. Robertson says he has no connection with any. Nor has he been charged with seditious conspiracy – the most serious offense the Department of Justice has reserved for members of the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys whom the government accuses of planning the assault on Congress. 

And the same personal history that prosecutors point to as cause to take his online threats seriously makes Mr. Robertson’s friends incredulous at the notion that he would ever do anything at the Capitol other than protest. 

“The guy has spent his entire adult life serving his country,” says Mark Whitefleet, who worked with Mr. Robertson as a fellow Rocky Mount police officer before he left the field a decade ago, speaking from his kitchen. Service flags and medals hang on the wall behind his head; a rolled up Blue Lives Matter flag leans against his doorway. 

Many are equally incredulous that America won’t listen to their claims of election fraud – despite the fact that those claims have been refuted by numerous recounts, audits, and court rulings.

“I’ve got over 15 ribbons and badges from Iraq and so does T.J. You’re telling me we’re all wrong?” says George Bobbouine, a fellow veteran who worked alongside Mr. Robertson at the Rocky Mount Police Department for over a decade before he retired in 2018. 

Mr. Bobbouine had initially planned to go to Washington on Jan. 6 with Mr. Robertson and Mr. Fracker but wound up having to cancel for emergency dental surgery.

“Because I’m a cop”

Last month, Mr. Fracker, who declined to be interviewed, accepted a plea deal. He pleaded guilty to one charge of conspiracy and promised to cooperate with the government’s investigation.

His statement of offense says Mr. Robertson brought gas masks to the Capitol and “a large wooden stick or club,” which he used to impede officers’ paths. Mr. Fracker’s plea resulted in prosecutors upgrading two of his former trespassing misdemeanors to felonies. Mr. Fracker also claims that Mr. Robertson used the stick to impede officers’ paths – adding a fifth charge, a felony. After the men were served arrest warrants in Rocky Mount, Mr. Fracker says Mr. Robertson destroyed both of their phones – a claim that has added a sixth charge, and another felony, to Mr. Robertson’s case.

Mr. Robertson says he brought gas masks because of scenes of pepper spray he had seen during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. The stick, he says, was his walking stick – which several friends say he often carries when walking long distances due to his combat injuries. As for the phones and destruction of evidence, he says it was Mr. Fracker who did that. 

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
Dennis Deacon, former police chief for Boones Mill for almost a decade before recently retiring, has known T.J. Robertson for decades and was the best man at his first wedding. Photo taken at his home in Callaway, Virginia, with his dog Roxy on March 24, 2022.

Mr. Robertson and his supporters believe the government and the media are treating many Jan. 6 defendants unfairly – but none more so than him. When asked why, he looks left and right before putting his hand over the receiver to cover his mouth so other inmates can’t read his lips. 

“Because I’m a cop,” he whispers. 

“If you want to hold me to a higher standard, you can,” he says. “Hold me to trespassing – I did that. I will do my time. But they are really, really trying to paint me into being something I’m not.” 

Dennis Deacon, who recently retired after serving as police chief in nearby Boones Mill for almost a decade, has known Mr. Robertson for 30 years and served as best man at his first wedding. He says Mr. Robertson often enjoyed talking politics with friends at Bojangles over biscuits and coffee – but he never got riled up about it. 

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen him mad. He’s been in the middle of fights and shootings, and he don’t get mad,” says Mr. Deacon at his home in Callaway, his dog Roxy chewing a bone at his feet. “So I don’t think ‘radicalized’ has anything to do with T.J. I think [it’s more] ‘disappointed in the system and watching our country.’”  

“You can’t deny that there are major shifts,” he adds. “Just look at what happened in Portland.”

They seemed like “the nicest people”

Many allies of Jan. 6 defendants point to the riots and looting in places like Portland, Oregon, and Kenosha, Wisconsin, in the summer of 2020 following the murder of George Floyd as an example of how offenders on the left and right are treated differently.

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
Bridgette Craighead (left) with her co-worker Faatimah Ziegler inside Ms. Craighead’s salon El3ven11 Beauty Lounge, March 25, 2022, in Rocky Mount, Virginia. Ms. Craighead says she found it hypocritical that two Rocky Mount police officers, who demanded nonviolent protests after George Floyd’s murder, participated in the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

To local hairdressers Bridgette Craighead and Faatimah Ziegler, the difference between the summer of 2020 and the violence at the Capitol comes down to what the groups were protesting: centuries of racism versus a free and fair election in which one candidate refused to concede. Speaking while conditioning and combing the hair of two young Black women sitting in styling chairs, Ms. Craighead and Ms. Ziegler say Mr. Robertson’s status as a law enforcement officer – and their own history with him – makes the whole episode seem more hypocritical. 

In June 2020, a few weeks after Mr. Floyd was killed by a police officer, Ms. Craighead organized a Black Lives Matter rally in downtown Rocky Mount – the first that this rural Virginia county had ever had. There was dancing and pizza, and Mr. Robertson and Mr. Fracker were there with her, holding up signs. At the time, she says, they seemed like “the nicest people.” 

“It just felt so good,” says Ms. Craighead from her salon El3ven11 Beauty Lounge, a small shop with purple and yellow walls just down the street from where the rally took place. “Like, this is what a small community should be.”

But shortly after Jan. 6, she saw a photo circulating in group chats of Mr. Robertson and Mr. Fracker in the Capitol. Ms. Craighead posted the selfie online, which parties on both sides cite as the start of the officers’ legal troubles. She was angry that after the officers had cautioned her about keeping her Black Lives Matter rally nonviolent, they turned around and participated in the assault on the Capitol less than a year later.

“The way that you presented yourself to us last year, you made me feel like you know, that we don’t have to be aggressive and angry to get our message across,” says Ms. Craighead. “But for you to police us the way you did, and then do it yourself?” 

The events inspired Ms. Craighead to run for the Virginia House of Delegates last November. She lost, but she hasn’t ruled out running again. 

Mr. Robertson says the whole experience has made him not want to even vote again. When he gets out, he plans to only “leave the mountain” when he needs to go into town to get things.

Still, when asked if he would go to the Capitol again if he knew all that would follow, Mr. Robertson says “absolutely.” He probably wouldn’t go inside, he says, and he definitely wouldn’t post anything online.  

“But I would go again.”

For his wife, it’s a harder call.

“I would never ask him to plead to a felony that I know would hurt his integrity as a person,” Ms. Robertson says, after a long pause. “So it’s kind of the same thing as asking him not to go to the Capitol.”

She adds: “I want him to be able to live with himself and what he thinks is right.”

Editor’s note: This article was updated to correct the upgraded charges against Mr. Robertson.

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