All told, seven people died in connection with the U.S. Capitol riot on Jan. 6. But only Ashli Babbitt’s death was directly caused by violence that day. She was a rioter killed by a Capitol Police officer, who fired the only shot by any person during the 4½-hour siege. Yet the story of who he is and why he opened fire remains shrouded in mystery.
More than six weeks after Babbitt succumbed to a single gunshot wound to the upper chest, authorities are keeping secret the identity of the officer who fired the fatal round. They won’t release his name, and the major news media aren’t clamoring for it, in stark contrast to other high-profile police shootings of unarmed civilians.
The secrecy has fueled Internet reports misidentifying the shooter as a Capitol Police special agent previously commended by President Trump for bravery. The false rumors have triggered threats against the officer.
Drawing on interviews with informed sources and available documents, RealClearInvestigations has put together a portrait of the actual shooter and the shooting, which some describe as completely justified and others call murder.
The officer who opened fire on Babbitt holds the rank of lieutenant and is a longtime veteran of the force who worked protective detail in the Speaker’s Lobby, a highly restricted area behind the House chamber, sources say. An African-American, he was put on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of an internal investigation led by the Metropolitan Police of the District of Columbia, which shares jurisdiction with the Capitol Police. The Justice Department is also involved in the inquiry.
The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month that the officer has been interviewed and cleared of criminal wrongdoing by a preliminary investigation, suggesting that the police killing may soon be ruled justifiable homicide. But D.C. Police spokeswoman Alaina Gertz told RCI, “This case remains under active investigation.”
The well-placed sources told RCI the plainclothes officer has gone into hiding out of fear for his safety. They said he worries about reports that some of those arrested in the riots have declared “open (hunting) season” on whoever killed Babbitt, now a martyr in their cause. Twitter accounts have been created in her name, including "We Are Ashli Babbitt" and "Justice For Ashli Babbitt." “An unarmed American patriot was murdered in cold blood! We need to know who murdered #AshliBabbitt!” proclaimed one recent post.
Meanwhile, numerous lawmakers from both parties have hailed the lieutenant as a hero who saved lives that fateful day.
Most of the circumstances that led to his actions are still unclear. But video footage filmed by rioters shows the lieutenant, after taking up a defensive position in a doorway, carefully aiming and shooting Babbitt as she tries to climb through a smashed window beside a barricaded double door leading to the Speaker's Lobby, part of a pro-Trump mob of protesters. Babbitt, 35, had no weapon. She died later at a hospital. The decorated Air Force veteran, who had traveled from San Diego, was wearing a Trump flag as a cape when she was shot.
Dressed in a dark suit and white shirt with cufflinks, along with a beaded bracelet on his right shooting hand, the Capitol Police officer fired at her from the side of the barricade, where he had been hidden from view in a doorway. At least from what can be seen and heard from the video, he appears to issue no commands to stop nor any verbal warning that he would shoot.
“That was an execution,” said Jack Feeley, a fellow Air Force vet and friend of Babbitt, adding that it “breaks my heart to know millions of people watched my friend be executed on live television.”
A former White House national security aide and Pentagon official agreed the officer appeared trigger happy. “It was an assassination. I’ve never seen a more clear case in all my years. I’ve seen EJKs that were cleaner than that,” said the former official, referring to an extrajudicial killing, or state-sponsored killing outside the formal legal system of a country. “He stepped into it [the shot] for [expletive deleted] sake.”
But appearances are deceiving, countered the lawyer whom the Capitol officer has hired to defend himself. In an RCI interview, Washington attorney Mark Schamel said his client did, in fact, warn Babbitt and other rioters to keep back -- and that he did so firmly and repeatedly.
"It’s a false narrative that he issued no verbal commands or warnings,” Schamel said. "He was screaming, ‘Stay back! Stay back! Don’t come in here!’” He added that witness statements back him up. Schamel explained the lieutenant's commands were not picked up on the video because it was recorded on the other side of the doors where dozens of rioters were shouting and banging against the doors and drowning out his words. And he said his client could not be seen yelling out the instructions because his mouth was covered by a mask he wore as part of COVID-19 protections.
It’s not clear if the officer in fact warned the marauders breaching the barricade that he would shoot if they did not heed his commands. However, his service weapon -- a .40-caliber Glock semiautomatic handgun -- was visibly drawn. Some of the rioters spotted it through the lobby windows and shouted: “There’s a gun!” followed by, “He’s got a gun!"
Schamel said his client, who received his training primarily at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers in Glynco, Ga., was acting to protect himself and lawmakers from harm.
"He was acting within his training,” he said. "Lethal force is appropriate if the situation puts you or others in fear of imminent bodily harm.”
Added Schamel: "There should be a training video on how he handled that situation. What he did was unbelievable heroism."
'He Stopped a Potential Massacre'
He pointed out that the officer was the potential last line of defense between the rioters and dozens of members of Congress and staffers, who he said had yet to be escorted out of the House chamber by security at the time. (House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other VIPs had already been evacuated.)
The Speaker’s Lobby is a hallway that runs behind the chamber and leads to exits on both ends, so the doors where the mob had gathered, which were manned by the lieutenant, served as a strategic chokepoint. Before they arrived, the officer had piled tables, chairs and other furniture from the hallway in front of the doors to create a barricade.
"He stopped them from coming through to the hallway and into the chamber,” Schamel said. "He stopped a potential massacre."
Oklahoma Republican Rep. Markwayne Mullin, who witnessed the mayhem from behind the barricade, said that although there will be questions about the officer's use of deadly force, he “didn’t have a choice at that time.”
“They were trying to come through the front door, which is where I was at in the chamber, and in the back they were trying to come through the Speaker’s Lobby, and that’s problematic when you’re trying to defend two fronts,” Mullin said on ABC’s "Good Morning America." “When they broke the glass in the back, the lieutenant that was there — him and I already had multiple conversations prior to this — and he didn’t have a choice at that time. The mob was going to come through the door, there was a lot of members and staff that were in danger at the time. And when he [drew] his weapon, that’s a decision that’s very hard for anyone to make and, once you draw your weapon like that, you have to defend yourself with deadly force.”
Unfortunately, Mullin said, Babbitt was the first one to come through the door and the officer had to make a "split-second decision.” Tragic as it was, his decision to shoot the first rioter who breached the barricade was effective at stopping the rest of the mob from advancing. No other rioter followed after her.
Some critics argue the lieutenant panicked and should have waited for backup before firing. But those briefed on his account said he believed he was alone with no chance of assistance. He maintained he was not aware that three uniformed officers were posted on the other side of the doors, and did not know that a SWAT team armed with assault weapons and tactical gear was moving in to replace them.
Also, the officer said he heard reports of shots fired in the building earlier during the upheaval, and feared that the rioters on the other side of the doors had guns. But it turns out the reports were in error -- the sound of glass being broken had been mistaken for gunfire. No other shots were fired that day.
He also told investigators he heard reports that pipe bombs had been found elsewhere in the area and worried that the rioters might be carrying explosives. Babbitt was wearing a backpack, which allegedly compounded his fears.
The lieutenant also said he believed his own life was in danger. It’s not clear why he decided to stand his ground rather than retreat and seek out reinforcements. Well-armed Secret Service agents were standing guard nearby in the House chamber.
In contrast, another Capitol Police officer, Eugene Goodman, retreated when confronted by a horde of rioters in a stairwell, joining up with other officers who together defused the situation. He was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for his actions.
'Ashli Wasn't a Thug'
In reviewing the shooting, investigators are examining whether the lieutenant used excessive force, and will also determine whether he willfully violated Babbitt’s constitutional rights — both of which could bring criminal charges. Schamel said he expects the investigation will find his client, whom he refused to identify by name, free of any wrongdoing. “One-thousand percent he will be cleared,” he said. "If he’s not cleared, we don’t have a country we want to live in anymore."
A Joe Biden donor, Schamel also happens to represent Igor Danchenko, the "primary subsource" of the discredited Steele dossier on Trump. It’s not immediately clear if Babbitt’s family is pursuing civil action against the police, including a wrongful death lawsuit. Schamel said the family has not contacted him directly or through a lawyer. Attempts to reach Ashli Babbitt's husband, Aaron, and other family members were unsuccessful.
In an interview with a Boston TV station, however, Babbitt’s cousin-in-law said Ashli should not have lost her life.
“Ashli wasn’t a thug. She wasn’t a rioter. Ashli was a peaceful person,” said Justine Babbitt. “She did 14 years in the military. She was not there to destroy the Capitol building. She was there to be heard and be part of a movement. Ashli was a die-hard patriot. Not a Democrat, not a Republican. She was for the people. Ashli carried around the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in her pocketbook.”
Justine Babbitt added that she is waiting to learn more about the shooting and why it happened. “I don’t know who’s responsible for Ashli’s death,” she said. “I don’t know how that took place. I don’t know how that cop responded. I don’t know. And it’s not fair for me to speculate.”
In another interview, Ashli Babbitt's husband made a point to say she was unarmed. “She didn’t have any weapons on her. I don’t know why she had to die in the People’s House,” he told a San Diego TV station. “She was voicing her opinion and got killed for it."
The lack of transparency in the case has fueled Internet speculation about her shooter, leading to a case of mistaken identity. Some conservative websites have falsely identified David Bailey, the black Capitol Police officer who in 2017 heroically shot and killed a Bernie Sanders supporter after he shot Rep. Steve Scalise and other Republicans practicing on a congressional baseball field.
Comparing video footage and photographs, the websites note that Bailey wears a beaded bracelet on his right wrist like the officer who is seen shooting Babbitt. But multiple authorities interviewed by RCI say agent Bailey, who is currently still assigned to Scalise's protective detail, did not shoot Babbitt and is not a subject of any investigation. They say the 35-year-old Bailey, who was awarded the Medal of Valor by President Trump, wasn't suspended and retains the title of "special agent."