The FBI agents showed Thomas Webster a wanted flyer with a picture taken during the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol. In the photograph, a middle-aged man is shouting angrily across a metal barricade with a pole in his raised right hand.
“That’s a picture of you, right, Mr. Webster?” an agent asked, according to a transcript of the interview.
He was a former New York City police officer, a decorated member of the force who once worked as an instructor at the firing range and with a detail that protected the mayor at public appearances and at Gracie Mansion. But on this afternoon in February, sitting across from two agents in an interrogation room in lower Manhattan, he found himself on the other side of the law.
He looked at the picture. “Yeah,” he said, and tried to explain how it all began.
“I kept on saying to myself, ‘All right, Tom, this is your first protest’ — I’ve never been to one before,” he told the agents. “I said, ‘Stay behind the freakin’ barrier, don’t threaten anyone and keep the flagpole away from everyone.’”
This plan would not last long — not more than a minute or two. Webster, in fact, quickly did the opposite, prosecutors said — starting a brawl that stood out, even amid the many hours of video from that day. Then he drove back home, to his wife and three children and his landscaping business in Florida, New York.
Over the weeks that followed, a manhunt for the protester with the flagpole played out — the authorities did not know his name, but had plenty of pictures, and Twitter gave him a nickname based on what he appeared to be doing to a Capitol Police officer who had been knocked to the ground: #EyeGouger.
On Feb. 22, Webster turned himself in. He was questioned by agents and charged with assaulting the police and carrying a dangerous weapon onto the Capitol grounds. While hundreds of other people charged with violence at the riot were swiftly released, Webster was denied bond. He had pleaded not guilty and had been in jail for four months, not speaking publicly about the case, when he appeared at a court hearing on June 29 seeking his release to await his trial.
His case was one of more than 500 others from the riot. It seemed to come as a surprise to those who lived and worked beside Webster over the past 30 years. He was not known for voicing political extremes, had no social media presence or ties to extremist groups, and once worked to protect the halls of New York City governance. Now he had attacked an officer doing essentially the same duty in Washington, charging at a man who, one may imagine, looked to be both enemy and mirrored reflection.
As for the attacked officer: “He was doing nothing other than his job — a job that Mr. Webster himself did for years,” said Judge Amit P. Mehta of the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia, during the hearing in late June. “It’s really quite something. You want to talk about some of the worst behavior, some of the most horrific conduct someone has engaged in, it’s there on video.”
Webster is one of several current or former law enforcement officers charged in the riot, a subset that surprised Capitol officers.
“I actually encountered two police officers that day,” said Officer Harry Dunn with the Capitol Police in an interview last week. “One of them showed me his badge — ‘We’re doing this for you. Trust me buddy, we’re doing this for you.’ My initial reaction was, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’”
He said he knows fellow officers whom he disagrees with politically. “We were together, side by side, fighting against a mob,” Dunn said. “I’m never going to hurt anybody, a brother in blue especially, over a political belief.” He added, “You just feel betrayed.” He repeated his experience in a statement on Tuesday at the first hearing before the House committee investigating the attack.
Interviews with Webster’s former fellow officers from his 20 years in the department paint a far different picture than the images and profane videos of #EyeGouger. Evidence in the case and Webster’s own version of events suggest he had been swept up in weeks of online claims that the election was stolen, his angered state further inflamed by the crowds that day.
“In the Police Department, when someone gets in trouble, most times they say, ‘I knew that was going to happen’ or ‘I’m not surprised,’” said Andrew Brigida, 61, a retired sergeant who worked with Webster when he was a rookie. “In Tommy Webster’s case, we were very surprised.”
Born in Brooklyn in 1966, Webster ditched college — “wasn’t for me,” he told the FBI — to join the U.S. Marines in 1985. He served four years, earning distinction as a rifleman. He worked odd jobs for a year or so before joining the Police Department in 1991.
“He wasn’t a bully or anything like that, or a real pushy guy,” said John Reilly, 67, a retired lieutenant who supervised Webster. “Just one of the guys. Some cops are very aggressive and stuff like that — he really wasn’t.”
Brigida said former military personnel like Webster were generally a cut above. “One step ahead of the new cops,” he said. “They know how to deal with the public. They know how to handle stressful situations.”
He worked in public housing complexes in the Bronx, and later, on the streets in plain clothes. While working high-crime assignments, he never fired his weapon, which is not uncommon throughout the department, but his supporters suggest it shows an ability to de-escalate conflicts without rushing to last resorts.
He drove an hour to work from his home in the rural village of Monroe, New York, on a street near a lake where he counted two other officers and a retired military couple as neighbors. He developed an interest in dirt bikes and ATVs, collecting a small fleet and teaching older children in the neighborhood how to ride.
“He always took us to the races, he always showed us the trails,” said Matthew Moritz, 27, who lived near Webster as a teenager, and who now owns an ATV dealership. “Without him, I probably would have fallen out of the sport,” he said.
At work, Webster was eventually transferred to the department’s firing range to train officers. That posting, Brigida said, is indicative of Webster’s good standing in the department.
“You do not get assigned to the New York City police firing range unless you have a good reputation,” he said. “That’s not where you would hide somebody with a checkered past, put it that way. You hide them in a closet somewhere at 1 Police Plaza to answer a telephone.”
Later in his career, as 2010 approached, he was again transferred to another prominent position, in an intelligence detail that protected Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Webster was posted, in uniform, at the mayor’s events and appearances, his lawyer, James E. Monroe, said in a filing. His performance evaluations, submitted in court by Monroe, are consistently satisfactory. “Officer Webster is able to assess a situation, and use the facts available to make correct decisions and take proper action,” Reilly, his supervisor, wrote in a typical review.
But by 2011, after 20 years, Webster had had enough of being a cop.
“The crazy, you know, hours, and, you know, missing family stuff, and I was like, ‘You know what? I’m done,’” he told the FBI. “My decision was just to break away from all this stupid stuff. No offense, what you guys do is great, but I just burned out.”
He started a landscaping business, calling it Semper Fi, a “big pipe-dream thing” that he ultimately pared down to an office of just one. Many of his customers were friends and grateful neighbors.
“I had a couple medical issues, and without even asking he came and helped me out tremendously,” said Michael Purdy, 58, a retired station agent with the city’s transit system and one of Webster’s closest friends. “I heard noise in the backyard and I came out and there he is,” clearing gutters and mowing. Another neighbor, Laura Moritz, 57, the mother of Matthew, the ATV dealer, said that after a snowstorm, “Tom was the kind of neighbor who would come over and snowblow your driveway and you didn’t know who did it.”
His friends and neighbors describe a cheerful family man with little visible interest in politics. But one of them sensed trouble. Joseph Simone, a retired master sergeant in the Air Force, said he ran into Webster once last summer during the campaign and found him “quite animated, quite hyped about the current state of affairs and liberal bias.”
“It left me quite uneasy,” Simone said. “I was very concerned. This wasn’t the old Tom I knew and appreciated.”
Then came Jan. 6, when thousands of supporters of former President Donald Trump left his speech at the Ellipse and marched to the Capitol — a massed blend of those caught up in the moment and others intent on breaching the building and halting the certification of President Joe Biden’s victory.
When Webster decided to go to Washington, his wife booked his hotel room online. Webster walked the FBI agents through his actions that day.
“I think it’s extremely important to point out that I just went down there just to show support for something,” he said. “Like there was one last chance to maybe show some support to maybe set things right.”
But prosecutors, in releasing several new details of the case against Webster in recent weeks, said the evidence suggests his motives were more sinister. Webster came to the nation’s capitol “armed and ready for battle,” with body armor, a printout map of the area, MREs similar to what members of the military eat in the field — and his handgun, prosecutors said. He left the food and the gun in his hotel room on Jan. 6 and, wearing the armor and clutching a U.S. Marine flag on a lightweight flagpole, arrived at Trump’s speech.
“And I noticed people were leaving,” he said. “I thought that was odd.” After the speech, he hung around talking to others in the audience, then walked with a group to the Capitol. The riot was well underway.
“I didn’t know what the hell had happened,” he told investigators. “I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness, this is just crazy.’”
He said he was intent on getting to the police line to voice his discontent over the election. An officer’s body camera footage shows, at one particular section of the barricade, a raucous but mostly nonthreatening group of protesters. Then Webster bursts into view, calling officers “Commie” and shouting profanities. “You wanna attack Americans?” he shouted. He challenged the officers, who were also wearing armor, to “take your (expletive) off.”
He later told the FBI: “I was upset, I was vocal.” He said one officer, identified in court filings by his initials, N.R., was “encouraging me to jump over the barrier” to fight in a “barroom type of moment.”
The video shows him slamming the flagpole down on the barricade and charging forward, knocking through it and straight into N.R. In seconds, he and the officer are on the ground, Webster on top, reaching down for the officer’s gas mask. The officer later told investigators that he was being choked by his own chin strap and could not breathe for 10 seconds.
Then, just as quickly, as protesters poured through the breach that he had created, he disengaged and walked away, lost in the crowd. Later, standing outside the Capitol — there is no evidence that he ever went inside — he looked into another man’s camera and said: “Send more patriots. We need some help.”
Webster, in his telling to the FBI, claimed he was attacked first. “I got hit with a freight train in my face,” he said, a “big sucker punch.” He believed it came from the Capitol officer before him. Webster said he was not trying to gouge the officer’s eyes, but called grabbing his mask a kind of defensive maneuver: “a hockey type of move type thing where you don’t want to fight somebody.”
He said he wore the armor out of fear. “I’ve seen countless videos of people with my beliefs being assaulted by large groups of people,” he said. “I was worried about being stabbed.”
Prosecutors said Webster took three photos and videos of the riot that he later deleted. He returned to his hotel and sent a friend a text: “All is well, in my room. Never forget this date.”
After seeing his face on the FBI’s wanted postings online, Webster turned himself in. He was immediately jailed and denied bond, with prosecutors citing the viciousness of his attack. He was transferred from a Westchester County jail to a facility in Oklahoma, without explanation, his lawyer said. He was later moved to jails in Virginia and Washington, D.C.
His lawyer perhaps offered a preview of his defense in filings asking that Webster be released on bond, arguing that the “weapon” he is charged with wielding — the flagpole — is hollow and weighs less than a pound. He also said Webster was angered by seeing the same officer he attacked, several minutes earlier, push a woman to the ground; prosecutors said Webster was nowhere near that incident.
Mehta, considering whether to grant his release pending trial, reprimanded Webster during the June 29 hearing. “I’m still utterly mystified, I really am,” Mehta said. “Lots of folks come before me. I’m mystified by their conduct, but your conduct in particular, it’s hard to get my head around. You were a police officer. You should know better.”
But he allowed Webster to go home. He was ordered to spend 24 hours a day inside his house, set back on a hill on a quiet dead end. He answered a reporter’s ring at his doorbell on a recent July morning, friendly but firm: “I’d love to talk to you, but I just can’t make a comment,” he said before closing the door again.
There are the usual conditions to his release — electronic monitoring, no firearms — and an extra one added onto the boilerplate home-detention paperwork: No internet.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.