The meeting, like many in the coronavirus era, took place over Zoom. In one panel: the widow of a D.C. Metropolitan Police officer who died by suicide just nine days after he was attacked by rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, in hopes of overturning the 2020 election and keeping Donald Trump in office. In another panel: one of the online investigators trying to bring her late husband’s assailants to justice.
It had been a whirlwind 48 hours when they joined the video chat last Sunday morning. Erin Smith, the wife of the late Officer Jeffrey Smith, had been fighting for months to have her husband’s death classified as a line-of-duty death. That designation would allow her to keep her survivor benefits like insurance, which she learned she’d lost while standing at a pharmacy counter months after Jeffrey’s death. It would also give her and her husband the dignity afforded to the family of a police officer who died protecting the public, and in this case, defending American democracy.
Hours before the call, Smith’s attorney filed an amended lawsuit against two Capitol rioters who were identified by the online sleuths who call themselves #SeditionHunters. In videos from that day, both men appear to tangle with Smith inside the Capitol. Since Jan. 6, Sedition Hunters volunteers have painstakingly compiled terabytes of data from the Capitol attack. They have helped identify and compile evidence against dozens of Capitol rioters arrested by the FBI. There are still hundreds of Jan. 6 arrests to be made, and the #SeditionHunters community will very likely play a role in many of them.
David Weber, a former federal law enforcement official and government whistleblower who is representing Smith and her husband’s estate, reached out to this reporter after reading a HuffPost story on how motivated online investigators are keeping the FBI on their toes as they work a probe with an unprecedented scope. Weber, now a forensics professor at Salisbury University, was sick of getting stonewalled by the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department as he fought for recognition. Erin Smith “could have been my wife or sister,” said Weber, who was formerly the chief investigator at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
Weber thought #SeditionHunters might be able to help him crack open the Smith case. Soon he was working with the Deep State Dogs, one of the volunteer open-source research organizations that popped up after the Capitol attack. The group has helped identify several violent Capitol rioters, including Daniel Rodriguez, who was arrested for electroshocking Officer Mike Fanone in the neck when he was seized by the mob on Jan. 6. Rodriguez is currently locked up until trial.
“With Michael Fanone, our search for his attacker was fueled by fury,” said Forrest Rogers of the Deep State Dogs, who was on Sunday’s Zoom call with Erin Smith. “With Jeff Smith, it feels as if we are being propelled by pain.”
The Deep State Dogs got to work quickly. Working under the tag #TeamJeff, they compiled a spec sheet identifying the minor details of Officer Smith’s uniform that might make him easier to spot: the white mask; the radio on his left side; the number on his helmet, 4626.
Members of the Deep State Dogs sorted through thousands of hours of amateur footage of the Capitol attack. They found Jeff Smith in a video of the hallway outside the House Speaker’s Lobby. They followed his movements, and soon they found him again, at a dicey moment when rioters were brawling with officers inside the Capitol building.
Officer Smith had reported that he was struck by a metal object outside the Capitol. But the video footage the sleuths uncovered showed a different assault, just inside the second-floor doors on the southeast House side of the Capitol building, not far from the Speaker’s Lobby. The confrontation takes place not long after Ashli Babbitt, a QAnon conspiracy theorist wearing a Trump flag as a cape, hopped through a broken window to the Speaker’s Lobby and was shot by a Capitol Police officer as lawmakers made their escape behind him.
Video shows Smith going down in the mob as another officer comes to his assistance. The sleuths zeroed in on two men who are right in front of Smith when that happens. Moments earlier, one of the men, holding a weaponized cane with a sharpened edge in one hand, had grabbed another officer’s baton. The second man ― his face, visible in body camera footage, twisted in anger ― can be seen lunging in Smith’s direction just before Smith goes down. Seconds later, the man is grabbing a police officer’s baton and fighting with them as he’s forced out of the building.
The sleuths, and Weber, believe it is possible that Officer Smith was assaulted twice. They’re still looking for additional footage to see what Smith faced outside. But the footage of him going down in the middle of a mob inside the Capitol, clearly stunned after being assaulted, led Jonathan Arden, the former chief medical examiner for Washington, D.C., to find that Smith suffered a concussion.
“The symptoms that he manifested after being injured in the riot and leading up to his suicide, including anxiety and depression, represented postconcussion syndrome,” Arden wrote in a formal declaration. “Therefore, his mood changes were the direct result of the head trauma he suffered in the riot on January 6, 2021.”
On Aug. 13, HuffPost published a story on how members of the Sedition Hunters community uncovered a moment where Officer Smith collapsed in a heap during a battle. One man, a D.C. chiropractor named David Walls-Kaufman, is a central player in the fracas. In the hours that followed, an effort got underway within the broader #SeditionHunters movement. They wanted to track down the other man who tangled with Smith — the man wearing a “Make Space Great Again” hat, and wielding a black cane with a sharp tip within striking distance of the officer.
They got to work on finding the man, referring to him as #AstroNOT. Online sleuths turned up a good deal of video of #AstroNOT at the Capitol, including footage of him using his cane as a weapon against other individuals on the steps of the building.
The crowdsource-generated evidence was a revolution for Weber. He sat in his loft off the Chesapeake Bay, listening to the seagulls outside, until 4:30 a.m., and watched as the #SeditionHunters did their thing. He eventually got a few hours of sleep. When he woke up, he got to work on the amended complaint.
“Sedition Hunters’ gears really started rolling,” said Rogers of the Deep State Dogs. “Within a matter of hours, the Deep State Dogs DMs were full.”
By the early morning of Aug. 14, the identification had been confirmed. A facial recognition search had pulled up images of a man on the website of the Franklin County Republicans in Washington state. There were multiple images of a man soon identified as Taylor Taranto of Pasco, Washington.
In two images, Taranto was posing with a cardboard cutout of former President Donald Trump.
“When I saw him grinning with the Trump cutout, that’s when I figured we probably had a good lead,” another sleuth who helped identify the man told HuffPost.
Taranto is listed as webmaster of the Franklin County Republicans, where a biography says he spent six years in the U.S. Navy and is a “computational biophysicist” who enjoys “making memes and homeschooling my children” when he’s not “helping the President take down the deep state.” A call to a phone number associated with Taranto was not returned. The chairman of the group indicated to HuffPost that he spoke with Taranto about what happened on Jan. 6.
“He said he did witness a bunch of buses coming in posing as Trump supporters who orchestrated this whole damn thing,” Clint Didier, chairman of the Franklin County Republican Executive Committee, told HuffPost in a phone interview. “They had buses full of these ‘antifa’ people posing as being Donald Trump supporters.” (Didier, a farmer, ended the call shortly after by explaining that he had to go because he was riding a tractor.)
Later, Didier, who is also a Franklin County Commissioner and former player for what is now known as the Washington Football Team, said he didn’t recall if it was Taranto or someone else who told him about the super-secret undercover antifa plot. But he did call Taranto “a veteran” and “a fine man” who “has some issues with PTSD.”
Taranto’s identification wasn’t definitive until online investigators found evidence of Taranto admitting he was in the Capitol that day. More than six months after the Capitol attack, Taranto seemed confused that he hadn’t yet been arrested for his conduct. On July 15, a Facebook account that Taranto evidently shares with his wife posted a selfie video that appeared to be filmed in the Capitol on Jan. 6.
“Soooo… we’re in the Capitol building, the legislative building, we just stormed it,” Taranto says in the video. The caption on the Facebook post reads: “I’m only sharing this so someone will report me to the feds and we can get this party rolling!”
The FBI hasn’t gotten the party rolling yet, but Weber has. Taranto and Walls-Kaufman were both served last week, and Weber issued a subpoena to the Metropolitan Police Department to obtain Officer Smith’s body camera footage. He’ll also be seeking footage from the U.S. Capitol Police, who control surveillance video from inside the Capitol. (HuffPost visited the Capitol last week and found that there appear to be at least three cameras covering the area, including two positioned from above in a manner that should offer clearer evidence of the encounter.)
The first amended lawsuit alleges that Taranto “directly aided, abetted and encouraged” the attack on Jeffrey Smith. The lawsuit also names Walls-Kaufman. On Facebook, in the days after the election, Walls-Kaufman shared an open letter to Trump that called on the then-president to “save this election” by doing “everything” in his power to deliver the “honest” vote. “Throw down the gauntlet and divide this nation to save what remains, and the rest will follow,” the letter read. Walls-Kaufman, in addition to being a chiropractor on Capitol Hill, runs tai chi classes and has “won and competed in numerous international Tai Chi competitions,” according to the Capitol Hill Tai Chi website.
There’s a different standard for civil complaints and criminal complaints, and the allegations in the lawsuit stem from Weber’s independent analysis of the video based on a “preponderance of the evidence” standard, not the definitive conclusions of any online sleuths. Neither Taranto nor Walls-Kaufman has been charged with any crime, although the evidence that they were unlawfully present in the U.S. Capitol during the attack, and involved in battles with law enforcement, is overwhelming.
On Friday, Weber filed a new filing with the D.C. Police and Firefighters Retirement and Relief Board, seeking to get full benefits for Erin Smith.
“The new evidence cements the causal nexus between the events of January 6, 2021 and Officer Smith’s death,” Weber wrote. “Officer Smith was clearly [enmeshed] in the traumatic events… the video evidence together with Dr. Arden’s new report demonstrate beyond all doubt that there is a causal nexus between the events of January 6, 2021 and Officer Smith’s death on January 15, 2021.”
A total of four officers involved in the law enforcement response to Jan. 6 have since died by suicide. Capitol Police Officer Howard Liebengood died on Jan. 9, three days after the Jan. 6 attack and five days before Officer Smith’s death. Last month, in testimony before the House Select Committee on Jan. 6, Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn implored his fellow members of law enforcement to seek help to deal with the trauma they suffered that day.
In last Sunday’s Zoom call, Erin Smith addressed Rogers, asking him to relay her thanks to the Deep State Dogs and the broader #SeditionHunters community.
“Please let your team know that I am deeply thankful,” she told Rogers. “There’s no good words to say thank you, but from the bottom of my heart, I really do appreciate everything that everyone has done.”
Erin said she appreciated that the sleuths took the time to comb through everything and see what happened to her late husband, even as she was struggling to get any information out of D.C. police.
“I know it’s not easy, I know they’re moving quickly and it’s sometimes hard to see even their helmets or what the little white numbers are,” she said. “I’m deeply grateful for everything y’all have done, and really given myself the chance to prove… there was an actual cause to the effect that happened.”
Weber was amazed at how the power of crowdsourcing was able to answer so many questions for a family that has struggled with the stigma of suicide in a law enforcement community that doesn’t always recognize the mental health injuries that come with police work.
“We have, in real time, on social media, an electronic manhunt going on in a way that has never, ever happened before,” Weber said.
“If it wasn’t for them,” he said, “we would have been back at square one.”
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.