A man who joined the pro-Trump crowd that attacked the US Capitol apologized on Tuesday to officers who protected the building after telling lawmakers he regretted being duped by the former president’s lies about voter fraud.
In a hearing before the U.S. House Committee who is investigating the insurgency, Stephen Ayres testified that he felt called by former President Donald Trump to come to Washington on January 6, 2021.
He described being swept away by Trump’s false claims and believing as he marched to the Capitol that Trump would join them there and that there was still a chance the election would be voided.
“I felt like I had blinders for horses. I was locked up the whole time,” said Ayres, who is due to be sentenced in September after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor in the riot.
His message to others: “Take off the blinders, make sure you step back and see what’s happening before it’s too late.”
“It changed my life,” he said. “And not for good.”
Ayres, who was not charged with any violence or destruction on Jan. 6, said he worked for 20 years for a firm in northeast Ohio but lost his job and sold his house after the riot. He was accompanied by his wife to the hearing.
After the hearing, Ayres approached officers in the committee room who testified to being verbally and physically assaulted by the angry mob. Ayres apologized for his actions to Capitol Police officers Aquilino Gonell and Harry Dunn, Metropolitan Police officer Daniel Hodges and former MPD officer Michael Fanone.
The officers seemed to have different responses to Ayres’ attempt to make amends.
Fanone told The Associated Press that the apology was unnecessary because “I don’t mind.” Hodges told CNN he accepted the apology, adding that “you have to believe that there are people who can change.”
Gonell, who recently discovered that the injuries he succumbed to on Jan. 6 would no longer allow him to be part of the force, said he accepts Ayres’ sentiment, but that doesn’t amount to much.
“He still has to answer for what he did legally. And to his God. So it’s up to him,” the former sergeant said.
Dunn, who didn’t get up when Ayres approached him, said he didn’t accept his apology.
The House Jan. 6 committee investigating the insurgency sought to use Ayres’ testimony to show how Trump’s Dec. 19, 2020, tweet calling his supporters to Washington mobilized not only far-right extremist groups , but also average Americans descending on the nation’s capital.
Ayres described being a loyal follower of Trump on social media prior to Jan. 6 and said he felt he had to heed the president’s call to come to Washington, D.C., for the “Stop the Steal” rally. “.
“I was very upset, like most of his supporters,” Ayres said when asked about Trump’s unfounded election claims. Asked by Rep. Liz Cheney if he still believes the election was stolen, Ayres replied, “Not so much now.”
Ayres said he has no plans to storm the Capitol until Trump’s speech “unnerves everyone.” He had thought the president would join them at the Capitol.
“We were basically just following through on what he said,” Ayres said.
Ayres said he and friends accompanying him to Washington decided to leave the Capitol when Trump tweeted asking the rioters to leave. If Trump had done it earlier today, “maybe we wouldn’t be in such a bad spot,” Ayres said.
Ayres said it drives him crazy that Trump continues to push his false claims about the election.
“I clung to every word he said,” he said. “Whatever he posted, I followed him.”
His testimony echoes the words of many Capitol rioters who expressed remorse for their crimes during sentencing hearings.
He is among approximately 840 people charged with federal crimes related to the Jan. 6 riot. More than 330 of them have pleaded guilty, most to offenses punishable by more than a year in prison. Over 200 have been convicted.
In his lawsuit, Ayres admitted that he drove from Ohio to Washington on the eve of the “Stop the Steal” rally to protest Congress’ certification of the Electoral College’s vote count. He entered the Capitol through the Senate wing doors and remained inside for about 10 minutes, joining other rioters in chanting.
In a Facebook post four days before the riot, Ayres attached an image of a poster that read “The President is calling on us to return to Washington on January 6 for a big protest.”
In another Facebook post before the riot, he wrote, “Mainstream media, social media, the Democrat party, FISA courts, Chief Justice John Roberts, Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, etc. .. have all committed TREASON against a sitting US President! !! All are now warned by ‘We The People!’
Associated Press reporters Farnoush Amiri, Mary Clare Jalonick and Nomaan Merchant contributed to this report from Washington.
For full coverage of the January 6 hearings, visit https://www.apnews.com/capitol-siege.
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