Former Army Reservist and alleged white supremacist found guilty in Capitol riot trial
Editor's Note: This story contains descriptions of offensive language, including the use of racist slurs.
A former Army reservist and security guard at a Naval weapons station was found guilty on all counts for his role in the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Prosecutors portrayed Timothy Hale-Cusanelli of New Jersey as an extremist, who hoped for a second "civil war." The government presented evidence of Hale-Cusanelli using racist, antisemitic and anti-gay slurs, yelling obscenities at officers protecting the Capitol, and later enthusiastically boasting about breaching the building to a roommate. As jurors heard at trial, that roommate was secretly wearing a recording device on behalf of investigators with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) and the FBI.
Hale-Cusanelli's defense did not dispute that he entered the building. As the defendant himself put it when he testified in his own defense, "I should not have been there." Instead, the defense argued that Hale-Cusanelli was prone to making "bombastic," "offensive," and "extreme" comments, which generally amounted to more talk than action. He was not charged with assaulting police or causing property damage. The defense also argued that Hale-Cusanelli did not travel to Washington with the specific goal of storming the Capitol, let alone disrupting the electoral count. Hale-Cusanelli testified that he could not have intended to disrupt Congress that day, because he did not realize that the Capitol was where Congress met.
"It sounds idiotic and it is," Hale-Cusanelli testified. He said it was "embarrassing" to admit he lacked that basic knowledge. Prosecutors said that claim defied common sense, especially since Hale-Cusanelli texted friends about the electoral count process and he studied American history in community college.
After deliberating for about five-and-a-half hours, the jury sided with the prosecution.
A history of 'offensive' behavior
By many accounts, Hale-Cusanelli's life prior to the Capitol riot was troubled, and he was known for often expressing racist, antisemitic and otherwise offensive views.
In 2010, when he was 20 years old, Hale-Cusanelli was arrested with three other people after reports that they had shot frozen corn cobs at a house using a potato gun, according to court papers. The potato gun was emblazoned with the words "WHITE IS RIGHT" and a drawing of a Confederate flag, the documents state. The following year, Hale-Cusanelli stabbed his mother's then-boyfriend in what news reports described as a "domestic dispute." His attorney said in court prior to the trial that Hale-Cusanelli was defending his mother against the boyfriend, and the charges against him were dismissed.
After high school, Hale-Cusanelli signed up with the Army Reserves, where he served as a human resources specialist. He never deployed as part of his service, the Army said, and on the witness stand, Hale-Cusanelli described his service as essentially an office job. He attended community college, where he studied history, and, by 2020, Hale-Cusanelli had a job working as a security guard at Naval Weapons Station Earle. He lived on the base at the same time. His job gave him access to military explosives and munitions, and he had a "secret" level security clearance. The government would later portray Hale-Cusanelli as a security threat, given his sensitive post.
On the base, prosecutors stated in court documents, Hale-Cusanelli often antagonized his coworkers with antisemitic and offensive comments.
"Hitler should have finished the job," Hale-Cusanelli once said, according to a Naval Petty officer who spoke to investigators. A Navy seaman told the investigators that Hale-Cusanelli once said, "babies born with any deformities or disabilities should be shot in the forehead." One day at the base, Hale-Cusanelli went to work with a "Hitler mustache," prosecutors said.
He avidly supported former President Trump, and texted with friends about politics using racist, anti-gay, and antisemitic slurs. At one point, he texted a friend that Democrats might steal the 2020 election through "n***** rigging."
Hale-Cusanelli tried to explain his comments by describing himself on the stand as a "nihilistic millennial." At the very end of his trial, he said that some of his racist and antisemitic language was "self-deprecating" - he said, to some surprise, that he was "half-Jewish and half-Puerto Rican." Hale-Cusanelli testified that he was long estranged from both his parents, in large part because of their substance abuse issues. And he said his offensive comments were "a way I cope with how I was raised" and a way to get attention.
"It's just what I do. It's how I grew up. It's an outlet for what I feel. And a way to see if anyone cares," he testified.
Prosecutors, meanwhile, expressed doubt about the sincerity of Hale-Cusanelli's claim. In court papers prior to the trial, prosecutors described Hale-Cusanelli as a committed extremist, citing the fact that he owned copies of Hitler's "Mein Kampf" as well as "The Turner Diaries," a white nationalist novel that helped inspire the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.
Naval investigators talked to 44 people at the Navy base where Hale-Cusanelli worked, and reported that 34 described Hale-Cusanelli "as having extremist or radical views pertaining to the Jewish people, minorities, and women."
Later, at trial, federal Judge Trevor McFadden ruled that much of that evidence could not be presented to the jury, because he said it would be "unduly prejudicial" without shedding enough light on Hale-Cusanelli's actions on Jan. 6. As a result, prosecutors were unable to probe Hale-Cusanelli's statement about his "half Jewish" heritage at trial.
The path to the Capitol
Hale-Cusanelli frequently worked the night shift at the naval base. Right after he finished work on Jan. 6, 2021, he put on a gray suit (he said it was his "favorite suit"), a red "MAGA" hat, and drove from Naval Weapons Station Earle to Washington, D.C. He watched part of Trump's speech that day, and heard the then-president say, "we're going to walk down to the Capitol, and we're going to cheer on our brave senators and congressmen and women, and we're probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them."
Hale-Cusanelli testified that he decided then to go to the Capitol, and he expected Trump to join the protesters there.
Video showed how he joined the mob on the west side of the Capitol. "The revolution will be televised, c***t!" he yelled at police guarding the building. "I was very angry," he later testified, especially at the police use of pepper spray and flash bangs. Another video taken that day shows him moving a bike rack, which police had been using as a barrier against the demonstrators. When a group of rioters eventually broke a window on the Senate side and gave the mob access to the building, Hale-Cusanelli followed them in.
He ultimately spent about 40 minutes inside the Capitol, where he walked from the crypt to the underground Capitol Visitors Center. At one point, he interfered with a police officer trying to arrest one of the rioters. At another, he stood in the Capitol Visitors Center and looked up through a set of skylights at the people above. From that vantage, he could see people outside the Capitol building. Prosecutors said the video showed him waving his hands for the demonstrators to join the mob inside.
Hale-Cusanelli was able to leave the Capitol building without being arrested, and with a large blue Trump flag he picked up inside.
Less than a week after Hale-Cusanelli got home, investigators from the NCIS knocked on his front door. He wasn't home. Instead, they found one of his housemates on the Navy base. He was a Navy medic - a Black man who testified against Hale-Cusanelli using a pseudonym, because, the government said, he now feared for his safety.
'Are you wearing a wire?'
Hale-Cusanelli's housemate testified at the trial under the pseudonym "Mark Jacobs." He said he was assigned to live at the house with Hale-Cusanelli and they generally had a "cordial" relationship and were friendly, though things could get heated when they talked politics. Jacobs is liberal, and he and Hale-Cusanelli did not agree on much politically. That did not stop them from talking about a lot of things, but the topic of "race issues in America" was completely off-limits, Jacobs testified. That prohibition did not stop Hale-Cusanelli from telling Jacobs that "Jewish interests" controlled the Democrats, Jacobs said.
When federal investigators knocked on Hale-Cusanelli's door and instead found Jacobs, they soon involved Jacobs in the criminal investigation. About a week after the Capitol riot, Jacobs met with government agents at a pizza place, where they attached a recording device to his body. Jacobs testified that the agents did not give him a specific goal - just "to get Tim to speak about whatever he did on Jan. 6."
"I was extremely nervous," Jacobs testified about the decision to wear a wire.
On the tape, Hale-Cusanelli recounted the day at the Capitol to Jacobs.
"I can't describe how exhilarating it was," he said.
He said the storming of the Capitol was "never planned," but that "if we had more people, we could've cleared the building."
At a few points in the conversation, the topic of a potential second "civil war" came up.
"I think that it is probably the simplest solution," Hale-Cusanelli told Jacobs, saying that it would give the country a "clean slate."
At one point on the tape, Jacobs asked Hale-Cusanelli whether he would try to attend another event like the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
"Are you wearing a wire?" Hale-Cusanelli responded.
"Yes, Tim, I'm wearing a f****** wire," Jacobs responded sarcastically.
"I would love to be part of a historical event," Hale-Cusanelli then said.
On Jan. 17, 2021 - not long after that conversation - a group of federal agents arrested Hale-Cusanelli. Jacobs received $4,000 from the government as compensation for wearing the wire.
At bail hearings after his arrest, prosecutors presented the litany of extreme statements Hale-Cusanelli had made. The judge - a Trump appointee - decided Hale-Cusanelli posed too great a danger to the public to be released on bond.
By the time his trial began in May 2022, Hale-Cusanelli had been locked up for about 16 months.
During Hale-Cusanelli's time in jail, a longtime family friend of his named Cynthia Hughes began advocating for him and other Jan. 6 defendants, referring to them as "political prisoners." Hughes eventually founded a nonprofit called the Patriot Freedom Project, which has raised more than a million dollars, in part through the support of figures like former Trump advisor Steve Bannon, right-wing commentator Dinesh D'Souza, and the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate J.D. Vance. The group has also attracted controversy among some Jan. 6 defendants and their families, who question how the funds are distributed. Hughes has defended the group's practices, and other families of defendants have effusively praised the group.
Hughes attended Hale-Cusanelli's trial, and tweeted about Jacobs' testimony, "Hope that $4,000 dollars was worth destroying someone's life over politics you rat!"
Given the copious video evidence against him, Hale-Cusanelli's defense at trial relied largely on a claim of ignorance. The most serious charge Hale-Cusanelli faced was "obstruction of an official proceeding" - basically the intentional disruption of Congress' certification of Joe Biden's electoral college win. Hale-Cusanelli testified that he could not have intentionally disrupted Congress, because "I did not realize that Congress was in the Capitol building."
He also tried to explain his comments recorded by Jacobs' wire - he testified that he was "embellishing" and "exaggerating what happened" on that tape.
Hale-Cusanelli's attorney, Jonathan Crisp, said in court that his client "couldn't shut up to save his life," that he was "simplistic in his thought processes," and compared him to a "child having a temper tantrum." (Hale-Cusanelli was 30 years old at the time of the riot.) Crisp also said that Hale-Cusanelli is "offensive" and "abusive" with his language, but that it was, essentially, just talk.
Prosecutors argued that Hale-Cusanellit's claim that he did not know that Congress met in the U.S. Capitol defied common sense. They pointed out that the Capitol Visitors Center, where Hale-Cusanelli was for part of the riot, is designed for tourists and has signs saying "House of Representatives" and "Senate." They also noted that Hale-Cusanelli studied American history, and often texted with friends about the electoral college process.
Prosecutor Karen Seifert said Hale-Cusanelli had never previously mentioned this supposed confusion about Congress and the Capitol.
"He hadn't thought of that excuse" until the trial, Seifert said.
After three days of testimony, the jury began deliberations. Five and a half hours later, they returned a verdict: guilty on all counts.
NPR spoke to two jurors as they left the courthouse, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The jurors said the deliberations were "intense" at times, and three jurors were initially skeptical that Hale-Cusanelli intentionally breached the Capitol in order to obstruct Congress. Eventually, after hearing the other members of the jury explain their reasoning, those three jurors were convinced to convict.
One juror said Hale-Cusanelli's testimony actually hurt his case. "He wasn't credible at all," this juror said.
The other juror described Hale-Cusanelli's testimony as "contradictory," and was troubled to hear Hale-Cusanelli's antisemitic comments given his testimony that he is "half Jewish."
"I couldn't fathom how he slandered his own culture," this juror said.
In court, Judge Trevor McFadden also said he found Hale-Cusanelli's testimony that he did not know congress met in the U.S. Capitol "highly dubious." As a result, McFadden said he was open to a sentencing enhancement for obstruction or impeding of the administration of justice. He set the sentencing date for September 2022.
Standing outside the courthouse, Hughes, who describes herself as Hale-Cusanelli's "adoptive aunt," said he was "convicted because of words and for being offensive, and for no other reason." She called on other trials of Jan. 6 defendants to be moved out of Washington, DC, because, she said, "there will never be a fair and impartial jury in this city."
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