California man charged in Capitol riots was known for coronavirus lockdown defiance

Jacob Lewis has been charged with knowingly entering a restricted space and violent and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds

Katie Shepherd
The Washington Post
Friday 29 January 2021 16:39
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Moment pro-Trump rioters storm US Capitol captured on TV broadcast

In May, after California Democratic Gov Gavin Newsom ordered nonessential businesses to close as coronavirus cases spiked, Jacob Lewis refused to keep his Victorville, California, gym closed. The gym owner, who became a local face of the anti-coronavirus restriction movement, said he was reopening, and openly defying the state's orders, to protect his customers' mental health and personal freedom.

"The Gym is 'essential' to people's mental and physical health," he said in an Instagram post announcing his decision to reopen in late April. "With that being said, I, Jacob Lewis will take full responsibility for re-opening of The Gym."

Now, he's facing felony charges for allegedly storming the US Capitol in the deadly attempted insurrection earlier this month.

Federal investigators said in a recent criminal complaint that video showed that Mr Lewis, wearing a black jacket and a red Trump 2020 beanie, spent seven minutes inside the Capitol on 6 January, as hundreds of rioters violently stormed the building and disrupted Congress.

Mr Lewis, 37, was arrested on Wednesday and charged with knowingly entering a restricted space and violent and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds. He did not immediately return requests for comment late Thursday.

Read more: Capitol rioter photographed with feet on Pelosi’s desk ‘entitled, brazen, dangerous’, judge says

The volatile anti-restriction protests that unfolded throughout 2020 set a precedent for the riot in Washington earlier this month. 

Anti-restriction protesters in Idaho - led by anti-government activist Ammon Bundy - repeatedly infiltrated the state Capitol building to disrupt legislative proceedings. 

In Michigan, armed anti-mask activists stormed the state Capitol and members of a self-styled militia stood guard outside a barbershop that opened despite a shutdown order. 

Many of the Capitol rioters had close ties to anti-mask and anti-restriction movements nationwide, including Lewis and Emily Grace Rainey, a US Army captain who has pushed to reopen businesses in North Carolina and allegedly helped lead a group of 100 people to the Capitol on 6 January. 

Mr Lewis made a name for himself last year by flouting laws in the name of his political beliefs. When Lewis reopened his large gym, which has a 500-person capacity, he did not require customers to wear masks while working out. At the reopening on 1 May, 2020, he raised an American flag and set up a cardboard cutout of the Constitution for customers to pose for pictures, Vice reported.

"I'm big on the Constitution," he told Reuters in May after he reopened in defiance of coronavirus rules. "So if you want to wear a mask, wear a mask. If you don't, don't."

Mr Lewis told Reuters he was reopening in order to support his customers' "mental health and freedom." He also said he did not believe there would be another outbreak - though the pandemic only continued to worsen in California, which has had more than 3 million infections and at least 38,961 deaths.

Federal investigators say they were tipped off to Lewis's participation in the Capitol riots by people who saw the gym owner's Instagram videos shot inside the Capitol during the siege. On 8 January, one tipster told the FBI that Mr Lewis "flew from Victorville, California, to Washington, DC, to attack the Capitol along with many Trump supporters to stop the certification of the electoral college," according to the criminal complaint.

Three days later, the FBI received a second tip from a friend of Mr Lewis's, who told investigators that Mr Lewis had said in December to "watch what happens to the Capitol on the 6th." Lewis had also shown the friend photos of firearms and asked the friend to buy him ammunition, according to the complaint.

Mr Lewis agreed to speak to FBI agents at his Victorville home on 15 January. According to the complaint, Mr Lewis acknowledged that he had flown to Washington and that he attended the rally outside of the Capitol. Mr Lewis also admitted he'd entered the Capitol after it had been breached by other rioters, but claimed that he had been "escorted" inside by police.

Stills taken from videos of the rioters breaching the Capitol building that investigators filed into evidence show a man who resembles Mr Lewis walking among a large crowd of people as they stormed Congress.

"At no point does it appear that he has a police escort," an FBI agent wrote in the criminal complaint.

Mr Lewis also said he believed the people causing damage and committing violence at the Capitol had been “Antifa members in disguise”. Although some Republican lawmakers have baselessly claimed that undercover anti-fascist activists were involved in the riot, law enforcement officials have said there is "no indication" that the rioters ascribed to the left-wing ideology.

After Mr Lewis's arrest on Wednesday, a US magistrate judge allowed him to be released on a $50,000 bond. Mr Lewis is required to wear an electronic monitor while he waits for his future court appearances. His next virtual court appearance is set for 10 February.

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