Jan. 6 Looms in Federal Trial of Retired Special Forces Soldier

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Rioters rally at the U.S. Capitol in Washington.
Rioters rally at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. (Jose Luis Magana/AP File Photo)

TAMPA -- Jeremy Brown has an explanation for most of the illegal items federal agents say they found when they searched his property last year while investigating his connection to the Jan. 6 Capitol riot: The government planted it.

As Brown's federal trial opened Monday in Tampa, his defense attorney promised to reveal evidence of a stunning effort by government agents to retaliate against the retired Army Special Forces soldier for his refusal to become an informant.

"The evidence will show you that when Mr. Brown did not play ball with the federal agents ... bad things happened," attorney Roger Futerman told a jury.

A prosecutor argued that what happened was much simpler: Brown illegally possessed two guns, two hand grenades and several classified documents related to sensitive military operations and procedures from his years in the service.

"From his time in the military, the defendant knew the rules," prosecuting attorney Menno Goedman told the jury. "He knew what was allowed and what wasn't. ... He broke the rules anyway."

Brown, 48, is charged in an indictment with 10 separate federal crimes including possession of unregistered firearms, possession of a destructive device and unauthorized possession of documents related to national defense.

Incarcerated for more than a year, he ran an unsuccessful campaign for the Florida House of Representatives from jail.

In court Monday, he sat quietly, donning a light-green suit jacket, clean-shaven, his hair close-cropped. Occasionally, he turned and smiled at supporters who packed courtroom benches behind him.

A small group carried protest signs outside the federal courthouse. A man toted a yellow banner in the style of the Gadsden flag, a popular symbol among right-wing activists. It bore the text: "Don't tread on Jeremy Brown."

In opening statements, the prosecutor guided the jury through a methodical search federal agents conducted when they arrived at Brown's home on Sept. 30, 2021.

It was in Brown's bedroom that an agent found a rifle, its barrel cut to less than the minimum 16 inches required by federal law -- a modification that would make it easier to hide, Goedman said. In an RV parked on the property, an agent found a shotgun -- its barrel sawed off well short of the minimum 18 inches the law requires.

Near the shotgun, an agent found a black briefcase. It held a number of Brown's personal belongings, among them a campaign sticker touting "Brown 2020,″ related to his short-lived bid for Congress. A manila folder inside held a compact disc labeled "secret" and "U.S. government property," Goedman said. On the CD, agents would find several documents dating from Brown's time in the Special Forces. They detailed military operations in Afghanistan and other information relating to national defense.

If disclosed, the prosecutor said, the information could risk "making the United States less safe."

In the RV's bedroom, an agent found a green tactical vest with pouches secured by Velcro straps. Opening the pouches, the agent found a pair of hand grenades. The find prompted the search team to evacuate while bomb technicians were called to secure the items.

The jury was not told in opening statements the specific reason for the search. It related to an investigation of Brown's involvement in the events of Jan. 6. A self-described member of the Oath Keepers extremist group, he remains accused in Washington, D.C., of being among the rioters who breached the U.S. Capitol grounds on Jan. 6, 2021, disrupting certification of the 2020 presidential election results.

Brown is not accused of actually entering the Capitol building that day. But he has spoken publicly about his involvement with the Oath Keepers.

Five Oath Keepers were found guilty last week of various charges after a lengthy trial in Washington, D.C. Stewart Rhodes, the group's national chairperson, and Kelly Meggs, the leader of the Florida Oath Keepers, were both found guilty of seditious conspiracy, the most serious criminal convictions to result thus far from the events of Jan. 6.

In the defense's opening Monday, Futerman alluded to a visit Brown received from two Homeland Security agents in December 2020.

Brown made a recording of the interaction. The agents told him they came to see him because someone reported comments he'd made about "trying to recruit people for civil war."

They told Brown to let them know if he hears of any plans and suggested he could get paid if he helped prevent an attack.

Brown later shared the recording in an online interview about two months after the insurrection. He criticized the attempt to recruit him as an informant. His arrest came about seven months later.

Futerman noted that when agents arrived to search Brown's home, they immediately turned off all video cameras on the property. He also pointed to forensic tests the FBI conducted on the grenades, which he said revealed DNA from two men, but excluded Brown. An animal hair found on one of the grenades also was not a match to either of Brown's two dogs.

"The forensics don't lie," he said.

But the prosecutor promised the jury will hear about another visit to Brown's home. In 2017, a military investigator inquired after hearing that Brown might have classified military documents. Brown denied it.

"The defendant lied," Goedman said.

©2022 Tampa Bay Times. Visit tampabay.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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