Thursday, November 30, 2023

Rocky Mount officer Thomas Robertson sentenced to over 7 years in Jan. 6 riot


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A Virginia police officer who prosecutors say lied about his actions before, during and after the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot, including his military service and his marriage, was sentenced Thursday to 87 months in prison.

Thomas Robertson and Jacob Fracker were members of the police department in the small western Virginia town of Rocky Mount when they joined the mob that stormed the Capitol. Both have since been fired.

“You were not some bystander who just got swept up in the crowd,” Judge Christopher R. Cooper said at Robertson’s sentencing Thursday in U.S. District Court in Washington. “It really seems as though you think of partisan politics as war and that you continue to believe these conspiracy theories.”

Robertson, 49, was found guilty by a jury earlier this year of six crimes, including using a large wooden stick to block police outside the Capitol and destroying his phone when he got home. Fracker, who pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge, testified at the trial.

Cooper said Robertson’s case was similar to that of Guy Reffitt, a member of the far-right anti-government militia group Three Percenters, who confronted an officer outside the Capitol with a gun. Reffitt was sentenced to 87 months in prison by a different judge.

At his sentencing, Robertson depicted his actions on Jan. 6 as an aberration in the life of a respected member of a law-abiding and respectable community. The government’s filings suggest he became radicalized under the influence of those around him, including the chief of a small neighboring police department and a retired FBI agent.

Prosecutors took the unusual step of publishing two detailed FBI investigations into the claims Robertson made in his appeal for mercy.

Retired police chief Dennis Deacon wrote the court saying that he had helped train Robertson as a police officer and that these crimes were “completely out of character.”

The agent produced a text conversation from March 2021, in which Robertson told Deacon, “I can kill every agent that they send for at least two weeks” and that he was “prepared to die in battle.” Deacon replied that Robertson should “be smart, pick battles, plan logistics, very carefully recruit and hope its not going to come down to it … we need a place to go … remote, defensible, water, very rugged terrain.”

Cooper said he found it particularly “disturbing” that Robertson made those comments after law enforcement officers were critically injured at the Capitol.

In an interview, Deacon said he was telling Robertson to recruit “friends” for “whatever inevitable things may happen … a flood or a hurricane,” or in the “extremely unlikely” event that “the government is overthrown by others from outside.”

Deacon retired last year as chief of police in Boones Mill, Va., near Rocky Mount. (When he was promoted in 2013, he said he was also the only officer on the force; there have been as many as seven.)

Another man described as a retired FBI agent went to the Capitol with Robertson and Fracker but did not go inside, according to the court records. That man, who could not be reached for comment, called the Capitol Police “cowards” who “will be on their knees before us” in text messages to Robertson, records said.

Fracker is set to be sentenced on Tuesday.

In his letter to the court, Fracker said he had been labeled a “rat,” a “snitch” and a “back stabber” by community members for testifying against Robertson. “It really is just heart breaking,” he said.

Robertson was a mentor to him and a “once valued father figure,” Fracker wrote.

A video from the Jan. 6 hearing on June 9 used multiple sources, including security and body camera footage, to walk viewers through the attack on the Capitol. (Video: The Washington Post)

At least two dozen people with past or current law enforcement affiliations are charged with criminal involvement in the Jan. 6 attack. Michael German, a former FBI agent who has studied far-right radicalization of police at NYU Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice, said the bureau is in “continuing denial” about the problem.

“Law enforcement has a lot of power to harm people,” he said. “Why don’t we see an aggressive project designed to protect the public?”

In a statement from the FBI, a spokeswoman said: “We cannot and do not investigate ideology. The FBI investigates when someone crosses the line from expressing beliefs to violating federal law.”

Robertson’s letter to the court explained his angry social media posts before the riot as a product of alcohol abuse and isolation while his wife was working in New York.

“I was … all alone at home,” he wrote. “I sat around at night drinking too much and reacting to articles and sites given to me by Facebook algorithms.”

However, an FBI agent wrote that Robertson’s wife went to New York after Jan. 6, not before, and that Robertson appeared to be having an extramarital affair while she was gone. Moreover, the agent said that if Robertson was drunk when he wrote the messages on Facebook that he would meet Joe Biden’s victory with violence, he was either drinking on a police shift or just before one.

At his sentencing, Robertson blamed Fracker for destroying their phones after the riot, something prosecutors noted is contradicted by both trial testimony and text evidence.

“Truth has no meaning to this defendant,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Aloi said in court. “He’ll say whatever he thinks he needs to say to get out of a situation.”

Robertson also misled the court, Rocky Mount police, journalists and friends about his military achievements, according to the FBI. He has indicated in various interviews and conversations that he trained as an Army sniper, Ranger and parachutist in the 1990s; served as an infantryman, sniper and sergeant when he reenlisted in the 2000s; and received a Bronze Star and was awarded a Purple Heart after an injury.

The FBI agent said that Robertson was discharged three weeks into basic training in 1991 for “lack of motivation”; he reenlisted in 2006 but served only as a military police officer and had no apparent training for any other specialty. He spent about eight months in Iraq with the Virginia National Guard and then went to Afghanistan as a contractor in 2011. He was injured there, but contractors are not eligible for the Purple Heart. The agent also said that Robertson exaggerated his recovery time.

The agent suggested that Robertson may have committed a crime with those falsehoods, under a law that prohibits using “stolen valor” for material benefit.

Defense attorney Mark Rollins said that while Robertson “may have boasted about his background” and “made some clear mistakes,” he served his country and community in ways that cannot be faked. “He has always served his fellow man,” Rollins said. “He’s bled for this country.”

Robertson was released after his arrest in January 2021 but was jailed months later after going on what Cooper described as a “remarkable shopping spree for high-powered assault weapons” while becoming “further radicalized.” Robertson could be charged with illegal firearm possession, the judge noted.

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