Shouting, smashed glass, a sudden lunge, then a gunshot: Inside the deadly Capitol shooting

That afternoon both the House and the Senate were in session when the mob fought its way past Capitol Police officers and forced their way into the building

The New York Times January 24, 2021 17:00:47 IST
Shouting, smashed glass, a sudden lunge, then a gunshot: Inside the deadly Capitol shooting

A pro-Trump mob storms the Capitol in Washington after a rally where the president spoke, urging them on. By Jason Andrew © 2021 The New York Times

During the four-and-a-half-hour attack on the Capitol on 6 January, one of the moments when the mob came closest to the lawmakers they were pursuing took place just after 2.30 pm.

On one side of a set of antique wood and gla bss doors were dozens of lawmakers and their aides trying to evacuate the House chamber.

On the other were rioters yelling “Stop the steal” as they hammered the panes with a flagpole, a helmet and even a bare fist.

In between was a Capitol Police lieutenant, scrambling to pile tables and chairs into a makeshift barricade. He had 31 rounds for his service weapon, and he has told others that he feared he might need them all.

At the height of the standoff, a woman named Ashli Babbitt tried to vault through a window. The lieutenant, his weapon already extended, pulled the trigger once, killing her in a confrontation that was captured on video and widely viewed around the world.

At least three investigations into the security response on 6 January are underway, and officials have not provided the full details of Babbitt’s death.

But videos taken of the episode, legal documents and witness accounts point to a dire set of circumstances and an officer left to confront a mob. The lieutenant, who has not been publicly named, has been placed on administrative leave while his actions are reviewed by federal authorities.

The use of deadly force by officers is considered legally justified if they have an “objectively reasonable” fear of serious, imminent harm to themselves or others.

Several policing experts said that video of the encounter was not enough for them to offer an opinion on the shooting. But interviews with two people with direct knowledge of the officer’s account suggest he will make the case that he acted to protect lawmakers from harm.

“I could look them in the eyes,” said Representative Jim McGovern, Democrat, Massachusetts, who had been presiding in the Speaker’s chair and was one of the last to leave as the mob attempted to break through the doors. “I mean, that’s how close they were.”

He added: “I don’t even know what would have happened had they breached that area.”

Babbitt’s husband, Aaron, told a Fox affiliate on the day of the riot that he had seen his wife die on the news.

“She didn’t have any weapons on her, I don’t know why she had to die in the People’s House,” he said, adding, “She was voicing her opinion and she got killed for it.”

He did not respond to an email requesting comment. One of Babbitt’s brothers, reached by phone, declined to comment.

Babbitt was one of five people who lost their lives at the Capitol that day. A Capitol Police officer was overpowered and beaten by rioters. A Georgia woman appeared to have been killed in a crush of fellow rioters. One man had a stroke, and another a heart attack.

The lieutenant had heard on the news that Trump supporters like Babbitt would be converging on Washington, according to his account. But the first time the protests were discussed at work came only when he arrived early that morning; according to his account, he had been given no advance planning to counter a violent riot or an invasion of the building.

That afternoon both the House and the Senate were in session, with hundreds of lawmakers debating challenges to the certification of the Electoral College vote when the mob fought its way past lines of Capitol Police officers outside and forced their way into the building.

Some said they merely wanted to halt the proceedings while others carried weapons, climbing gear and zip ties that could be used as restraints.

The crowd was peppered with far-right nationalists, military veterans and militia members, and adherents of a dangerous conspiracy. Rioters hurled invectives at police officers and called them traitors, threatening to kill former vice-president Mike Pence, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

The lieutenant, a veteran officer, was regularly assigned to the Speaker’s Lobby, an enclosed hallway and waiting area in the inner sanctum of the Capitol where access is highly restricted. The lobby runs directly behind the House chamber and is lined with portraits of the House’s past leaders. It is bound by two sets of old wooden doors with windows, one on the Democratic side and one on the Republican side.

Around 2:15 p.m., the lieutenant heard on the radio that the Capitol had been breached, according to his account.

Pelosi was escorted from the chamber, but so little was understood about the situation at that point that she left her phone behind on the dais as if she would return shortly, McGovern recalled.

At 2:30 pm, a crowd that included Babbitt streamed through the Capitol Rotunda and Statuary Hall. At that point, they were calm, even staying within a walkway defined by velvet ropes. But as they surged toward the north doors of the House, they grew aggressive, chanting, “Break it down.”

“Hey guys, I have a knife,” one person in the crowd can be heard saying.

Those doors had been barricaded on the inside with furniture, and three plainclothes officers just inside the chamber had drawn their guns.

On the floor, the proceedings were repeatedly disrupted as leaders were ushered out.

“You could hear people shouting outside the door of the chambers and pounding on the door,” said Representative Zoe Lofgren, Democrat, California.

But no one on the House side yet understood the size of the crowd or the gravity of the situation, McGovern said.

Seeking another way into the House chamber, part of the crowd, including Babbitt, peeled off and made its way around to the Democratic side of the Speaker’s Lobby.

They were heading right for the passage being used to evacuate the House floor. Dozens of lawmakers and aides, according to witness estimates, were being ushered through doors on the Republican side of the chamber into the Speaker’s Lobby.

It was a slow-moving group that had to funnel into a narrow staircase.

When McGovern reached the corridor, he turned to see the barricade of upturned furniture and the scene beyond.

“I could see the angry crowd banging on the glass, and I saw several police officers sandwiched between the crowd and the doors,” he said. “That’s when I realized that this was more than just a few people.”

He added, “You ask me to describe evil — that’s what it looked like. I mean, these people seem crazed. And I mean, they weren’t here to make a political point. They were here to destroy things.”

Standing guard outside the doors were three Capitol Police officers. The crowd hurled insults at them and punched the glass just inches from their heads. To the right, at the top of a stairwell, stood a man in a suit with an earpiece, identified by a person familiar with congressional security as an unarmed member of the House sergeant-at-arms staff.

Near the front was Babbitt, 35, who had served 14 years in the Air Force and was an enthusiastic supporter of President Donald Trump. Her social media feed was filled with QAnon conspiracy theories.

One man in the crowd, David Charles Mish Jr. of Wisconsin, told an investigator later that Babbitt was telling the police officers, “Just open the door. They’re not gonna stop,” according to an affidavit.

Inside the doors was the lieutenant, who, according to his account, had trained to deal with an active shooter but never a scenario like this, in which the Capitol was being overrun by large numbers of people. Calls for backup and reports of officers engaged punctuated the radio traffic.

Since the breach began, rioters had wielded bear spray, batons, pipes and fire extinguishers against officers. When the lieutenant thought he heard on the radio that shots had been fired, according to his account, he positioned himself in a doorway off to one side of the corridor, with a view of anyone trying to get through the glass doors.

With the lawmakers slowly draining out the far end of the hall, those doors became a strategic choke point.

The officer, according to his account, could not see the three uniformed officers outside and did not know they were there — he only described seeing a hallway full of oncoming people. The three officers had no visible shields or riot gear — two of them were not even wearing hats.

According to the lieutenant’s account, he did not know who among the rioters, if anyone, was armed. Nor could he see how far down the hall the crowd extended.

The lieutenant was also unaware, those briefed on his account said, that a tactical team from the Capitol Police was climbing the stairwell behind Babbitt, intending to reinforce the area and clear out the rioters.

As the team arrived, one of the three officers standing guard gave the word: “They’re ready to roll.”

The officers moved away from their post, leaving the doors unguarded for a crucial 30 seconds.

“Go! Let’s go!” someone yelled as a few rioters renewed their attack on the glass. They continued to hammer, shaking the doors in their frames.

Several members of the crowd have since been identified and arrested by the FBI They include Christopher Ray Grider, a winery owner from central Texas who is accused of trying to kick in the doors and supplying a black helmet used to break windows, and Chad Barrett Jones of Coxs Creek, Kentucky, accused of breaking windows with a flagpole.

As they moved in, they got a clear view of the lieutenant on the other side, who was raising his .40-caliber Glock handgun.

“There’s a gun!” “He’s got a gun!” people shouted.

In the thick of the action, a man wielding the helmet broke out the windowpane in front of Babbitt. A few seconds later, someone tried to boost her through. She wore a Trump flag around her neck like a cape, and a backpack over it.

As Babbitt was hoisted up, the lieutenant fired a single shot. She plummeted backward, striking the hard floor. There was no evidence that she had been armed.

Since Babbitt’s death, far-right extremists and white supremacists have claimed her as a martyr and a “freedom fighter,” even reproducing her image on flags and with anti-Semitic imagery. Many have demanded the release of the name of the officer who shot her.

McGovern said any loss of life was tragic. But he praised the Capitol Police as heroes, noting that no members of Congress or their staff had been harmed. “I think he and others showed a great deal of restraint in this whole thing,” he said of the lieutenant.

The shooting put an end to the attempts to break through the doors. Officers tried to push back the rioters and give Babbitt medical aid.

A member of the tactical team tried to stop her bleeding, pressing down on her left shoulder as blood streamed from her mouth and nose.

Outside the Capitol, word of the shooting began to spread, helping fuel the mob’s anger.

Adam Goldman and Shaila Dewan c.2021 The New York Times Company

Updated Date:

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