The Geophysicist Who Stormed the Capitol

“Sabol’s actions on January 6 and the days afterward have left many in his life confused and grappling for answers. How did a highly educated, middle-aged man with so much to lose participate in what FBI director Christopher Wray called “domestic terrorism,” and then try to kill himself? How did someone with strong views about government overreach, but also plenty of friends and neighbors outside his political bubble, end up on the steps of the Capitol, in attempt to stop the certification of the 2020 presidential election results?

In some ways, Sabol’s radicalization mirrors that of other insurrectionists, a group that collectively has put a new face on American extremism. While many of those arrested for political terrorism in recent decades have been young, underemployed and socially isolated, the majority of the 465 (and counting) defendants in the Capitol attack are much like Sabol—older individuals, mostly white men, with well-established careers.”

“Understanding Jeffrey Sabol’s transformation reveals how radicalization can happen under the radar, while offering lessons for those who want to combat it going forward: about how personal challenges can collide with political messages, and how a person’s job, education level, community and even their social media profile aren’t reliable predictors of extremist behavior. Thousands of people descended on the Capitol terrace, with thousands of individual routes taken to get there.”

“Over the past decade, several parts of Sabol’s life unraveled, according to interviews and court records. In 2011, Strotz filed for divorce. In an interview, she said Sabol began drinking heavily and acting “strange.” Then, in 2014, Sabol’s older brother died suddenly of a heart attack, leaving him devastated. “I believe at this point Jeff lost his bearing and allowed himself to be led by others that steered him down a negative path,” his sister wrote in her character letter filed with the court. She didn’t specify who the people leading her brother astray were, and she did not return phone calls or respond to emails.”

“Sabol found a large measure of stability with a woman he met while back home in Waterville one summer with his kids, according to the character letters. A neighbor to his parents, she and Sabol immediately connected. After a year of dating, she quit her job at a nursing home to re-locate to Colorado, moving into Sabol’s modest, split-level, four-bedroom rental in Kittredge.

By this point, Sabol’s strong political views were already well established. According to Strotz, they took root after Barack Obama was elected president in 2008. She denies race had anything to do with it: “It was Obama as a person. He would freak out. He hated that Obama became president, and he hated Democrats. He became obsessed.” Strotz, herself a registered Republican, says Sabol, a registered independent, wrote multiple emails to the Obama White House, though she doesn’t know what they said. Around this time, John Bergman, Sabol’s friend and former co-worker, remembers Sabol attaching a “Don’t Tread on Me” sticker to his old blue Ford pickup truck and running an American flag off the back.

Strotz says when she and Sabol were together, she witnessed what she refers to as his “bad side”—an angry streak and moods that would change quickly. She suggested that Sabol might want to talk to someone about this, but “there was nothing wrong with him in his mind,” she says. In 2016, according to county court records, Sabol was charged with misdemeanor child abuse; Strotz says Sabol had injured their then-15-year-old son. The charge was dismissed after Sabol paid fines and completed probation, a mental health evaluation and counseling. In 2018, he decided to give up custody of his son to Strotz, she says: “Jeff stood in my home and told my fiancé and I that he could no longer continue to do his 50 percent of parenting time with his son, or he would end up in jail.” Sabol did, however, consistently pay child support for his son, according to Strotz.

Whatever was triggering Sabol’s anger at home didn’t appear to carry over into other circles. Bergman says he didn’t experience his friend’s mood swings, though he describes an unusual intensity Sabol brought to his work at ECC. “I would leave the office at 5 p.m., and the next morning he’d still be there when I got in at 8 a.m. Sometimes he’d be there for two nights. He’d get into something and then just go.”

In 2020, Sabol’s fervor found new political outlets. As a geophysicist working on government contracts, Sabol had long been troubled by what he saw as the unchecked power and waste of military spending, or the “military industrial complex,” according to Kerbs. “Because of his work, he saw the other side, how corrupt it is,” Kerbs says of Sabol’s job cleaning up unused or discarded U.S. taxpayer-funded military weaponry and explosives. After the 2020 election, Sabol grew focused on another perceived abuse of government power, this one perpetrated by groups Sabol already harbored mistrust of: A strong supporter of President Donald Trump, Sabol believed the then-president’s claims that liberals and Democrats had “rigged” the election, according to prosecutors, and flew to Washington in December to attend political rallies.”

“he spoke openly to investigators about his views while recovering at the Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, New York, after his arrest, telling agents, “There was no question” the 2020 presidential election was “stolen” from Trump. He had seen videos of ballots being mishandled, he said, and knew voting machines had been tampered with, even though more than 100 judges around the country have determined that no credible evidence of fraud exists. He said he was a “patriot warrior” who had answered “the call to battle” and was “fighting tyranny in the D.C. capital.””

Behind the Strategic Failure of the Capitol Police

“It wasn’t just the building that had them horrified. In the past two decades, the Capitol Police has grown into one of the largest, best-funded and most single-focus police departments in the country, with a budget of more than $460 million and around 2,000 sworn officers to guard just 2 square miles of the capital. (By comparison, that’s half the size of the entire police force for Washington, D.C.)”

“Appalled experts, watching the crisis unfold, asked themselves: Where was the protective intelligence? Where was the quick reaction force? Where were the long guns? Where were the helmets and batons? Where were the tall, secure fences that normally ring the Capitol during high-profile protests? And perhaps most important: Where was the strategy? Word on Thursday evening that the Capitol Police evidently twice turned down offers of reinforcements only deepened the sense of disbelief.”

“Minute by minute, individual officers sometimes acted bravely, but hour by hour, Wednesday’s events demonstrated a top-to-bottom failure by a key federal law-enforcement agency. The crisis can’t even be called a failure of imagination, as 9/11 is sometimes seen, because in many ways the idea that the pro-Trump mob might march on the Capitol to disrupt the proceedings inside seemed all but obvious. Nor was this an incident that just slipped under the radar. The joint session inside was the single biggest news event in the United States that day, and the rioters had been planning disruptive protest for weeks, in the open.”

“The Capitol Police, which until the 1990s had perennially struggled for resources—more a team of security guards than an elite force—has undergone a sea change since four Capitol-altering events: The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, a 1998 attempt by a gunman to storm the House whip’s office, the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent spate of anthrax-laced letters targeting Capitol Hill leaders. Until those events, most members of Congress saw little value in its police force beyond, as one police leader told me, “Where’s my parking space, and can I get a better one?”
The Capitol Police, as much as any federal law enforcement agency, has been the huge beneficiary of the boom in government security spending, nearly tripling in size in the past quarter century—in no small part because it’s the agency in charge of protecting those who appropriate the money in the first place. It has also consolidated its control of Capitol Hill, merging in 2009 with the previously separate Library of Congress police.

Today, the Capitol Police boasts advanced resources equal to the largest and best police departments in the country, including a bomb squad, intelligence unit, hazmat units and specialized dignitary protection agents, as well as crowd control and riot gear and access to an arsenal of weapons that would impress many small armies. Its officers are well-wired with other local and regional police departments and participate in FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces. Plus it has the entire federal government and numerous local and regional D.C. police departments to call upon for help when needed.

And, at its core, its whole job is to protect about 270 acres, a land mass less than a third the size of New York’s Central Park—including, and especially, the 58-acre Capitol and grounds itself. That unusual balance—immense resources and an extremely specific zone to protect—makes its colossal failure Wednesday so much more stunning to law enforcement experts.”

“The Capitol Police should, in theory, have had the crowd-control skills to meet the moment. It’s an agency uniquely experienced in handling First Amendment protests and protesters—on issues as varied as abortion rights, health care or anti-war activists. After run-of-the-mill traffic offenses, protest-related arrests account for the majority of the department’s total arrests; it probably arrests and confronts more protesters than any other police department in the country. Nor are the Capitol Police a stranger to securing high-profile events, from presidential State of the Union addresses to the inauguration set for later this month on the very scaffolding and stands that the Trump mob rampaged over Wednesday.”

“The failure to plan meant that the die was cast as soon as the Trump mob began walking to the Capitol. In the military, the saying goes “prior planning prevents piss-poor performance,” and the Capitol Police lost the battle for Congress on Wednesday hundreds of yards away from its famous steps—as soon as the mob pushed over and past the first low metal fence far down on the west grounds of the approach to the building.
But from there, the department continued to fail, collapsing in a way familiar to any 19th-century general watching an army in retreat. At every turn, officers seemed at a loss to respond, indicating both training lapses and catastrophic leadership failures. There were failures at the start: A video, with unclear context, circulated on social media of Capitol Police even opening and removing barricades to allow the rioters close to the Capitol. There were failures as it unfolded: Other videos showed officers posing for selfies with rioters inside occupied Capitol office buildings. And there were failures as the crisis wound down: An officer even held a woman’s hand as she was escorted out of the building and down the steps. By late afternoon, police had made fewer arrests (13) in the storming of the U.S. Capitol than are typically made at the New York Giants stadium during a home game (21).

It took more than five hours for control to be reestablished, and only after thousands more law enforcement and military resources were rushed to the Capitol from across the city and neighboring states—resources desperately requested from the Pentagon and the FBI, among others, that Capitol Police leaders had turned down in the days and hours ahead of the mob’s arrival.”