Editor’s note: This story was updated at 6:45 p.m. EST with additional information.
WASHINGTON — Ray Epps, a onetime Donald Trump supporter who was the target of a right-wing conspiracy theory about the Jan. 6, 2021, attack that forced him into hiding, pleaded guilty on Wednesday to a misdemeanor charge for his role in the U.S. Capitol riot.
Epps, appearing remotely for a hearing in Washington’s federal courthouse, entered his plea on a charge of disorderly conduct on restricted grounds a day after the case was filed in the Justice Department’s massive Jan. 6 prosecution.
Epps’ attorney said after the hearing that it was a step toward putting his client’s “life back together.”
“Defamatory lies have ruined his and his family’s life,” defense attorney Edward Ungvarsky said in an email.
After the riot, Epps became the focus of a conspiracy theory — echoed by right-wing news outlets — that he was a secret government agent who incited the Capitol attack.
Driven from his Arizona home, the former Marine and ex-member of the Oath Keepers extremist group filed a defamation lawsuit against Fox News Channel this year, saying the network was to blame for spreading the baseless claims that led to death threats and bullet casings in his yard.
Michael Teter, an attorney representing Epps in the defamation case, said Epps’ plea agreement is “powerful evidence of the absurdity of Fox News’ and Tucker Carlson’s lies that sought to turn Ray into a scapegoat for January 6.”
“Had Ray been charged earlier, Fox News would have called him a hero and political prisoner,” Teter said in an emailed statement. “Instead, Fox News spread falsehoods about Ray that have cost him his livelihood and safety.”
The judge scheduled Epps’ sentencing for Dec. 20. The charge carries up to one year behind bars, but federal sentencing guidelines call for zero to six months, according to court papers.
Epps, who worked as a roofer after serving four years as infantry in the U.S. Marine Corps, has vehemently denied ever working for the FBI.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Gordon said during the hearing that “Epps was not ... a confidential source for the FBI or any other law enforcement agency.”
Epps has said he went to Washington to protest the 2020 election, which he falsely believed — based on stories he heard on Fox News — was stolen from the Republican president, who lost to Democrat Joe Biden.
In videos shared widely on social media and right-wing websites, Epps is seen the day before the riot saying, “Tomorrow, we need to go into the Capitol ... peacefully.” On Jan. 6, video shows him saying, “As soon as the president is done speaking, we go to the Capitol.” Epps has said he left Capitol grounds when he saw people scaling walls and never actually went inside the building.
“Mr. Epps exhorted other supporters of President Trump to be peaceful on January 6 at the Capitol, and outside he repeatedly acted in support of officers to try to deescalate actions,” his attorney, Ungvarsky, said.
Epps’ lawyer noted that his client has been cooperating with the Capitol riot investigation since Jan. 8, 2021. Epps contacted the FBI to provide his information after returning home from Washington and hearing from a relative that his picture was on an FBI website. He and his then-attorney were interviewed by agents in March 2021. Epps was also interviewed by the U.S. House committee that investigated the Jan. 6 attack.
In the aftermath of the riot, the “search for a scapegoat” landed on Epps, who was subsequently featured in more than two dozen segments on then-host Tucker Carlson’s prime-time show, Epps said in his lawsuit.
A barrage of death threats would force Epps and his wife to sell their home in Mesa, Arizona, and live in a recreational vehicle in the Rocky Mountains, he said in an interview this year on CBS’ “60 Minutes.”
“I had to do the necessary things to keep my family safe,” said Epps, who described being “on the run.”
Fox News and a lawyer for Carlson have not responded to messages seeking comment from The Associated Press.
Epps was once a member of the far-right Oath Keepers extremist group, serving as an Arizona chapter leader before parting ways with the anti-government group a few years before the Jan. 6 attack because the Oath Keepers were “too radical” for him, he said.
Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and other members were convicted of seditious conspiracy in the Jan. 6 attack for what prosecutors said was a weekslong plot to stop the transfer of power from Trump to Biden. Rhodes was sentenced in May to 18 years in prison.
Altogether, more than 1,100 defendants have been charged with federal crimes in connection with the riot, and authorities continue to regularly bring new cases nearly three years later. Roughly 670 people have pleaded guilty, and of those 480 pleaded to misdemeanor charges, according to an Associated Press analysis of court records.
Richer reported from Boston. Lindsay Whitehurst in Washington contributed.