As he recorded video of his journey through the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, John Earle Sullivan captured himself shouting at rioters to seize the American seat of power, breaking a window inside a Senate office and then filming the fatal shooting of rioter Ashli Babbitt outside the House chamber.
Earlier that day, a documentary filmmaker followed Sullivan and captured him helping a rioter scale a wall to reach the upper West Terrace of the Capitol; wielding a switchblade knife near the House chamber; and later musing about the Babbitt video. “Everybody’s gonna want this,” Sullivan said excitedly, according to court documents. “Nobody has it. I’m selling it, I could make millions of dollars.” Court records show that Sullivan was paid more than $90,000 for the rights to the video.
Federal prosecutors said Sullivan had been one of the thousands of rioters seeking to cause mayhem that day, and charged him with felony obstruction of an official proceeding, namely the confirmation of Joe Biden’s presidential win. Sullivan also faced a second felony for civil disorder and five misdemeanors.
When his case landed before a jury this week, Sullivan claimed that he was simply working as a citizen journalist to document history, and all of his words and deeds indicating he was sympathetic to President Donald Trump were just a ruse to blend in with the rioters. “It’s my job to document and record history,” Sullivan testified. He said his cheers of approval for the rioters and offers to help them were merely to “say a lot of things to try and protect myself” from people he feared might turn on him if they knew his true political colors.
The jury didn’t believe him. On Thursday, after deliberating for less than four hours, they convicted Sullivan of obstructing the electoral vote count, civil disorder and five misdemeanors, and Senior U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth ordered him held in jail until sentencing.
Sullivan had attended and filmed other protests, and built a large following on social media starting in the summer of 2020. But his video at the Capitol drew great notoriety in the days after the Capitol attack as conservatives like Rudy Giuliani claimed Sullivan was an “antifa” agitator who helped ignite the Jan. 6 riot, rather than Trump supporters.
On the witness stand, Sullivan, 29, initially denied and then was forced to admit actions he took at the Capitol when confronted with video shot by himself or documentarian Jade Sacker. As Sullivan stood on the upper West Terrace, seemingly exulting in the mob’s violent approach, he was captured helping one rioter climb up to the terrace.
“I don’t recall it,” he said of the footage played in court. Shown it again two days later, he admitted that there were a lot of people around him watching him. But he said it was a tactic to avoid being beaten by conservatives, who he testified had been targeting him for his online posts and for his alleged role in a Utah rally where a man was shot.
“We did this s–t! We took this s–t!” Sullivan yelled as he walked through the Capitol with Sacker, again testifying that he was merely trying to blend in.
As the crowd besieged the main door to the House chamber, Sullivan can be heard saying, “Hey, guys, I have a knife, I have a knife, let me up.” Sullivan said he took a switchblade as protection, and claimed he had a knife so that he could move to the front of the crowd and “get the shot.”
“He wasn’t saying these things to protect himself,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Rebekah Lederer said in closing arguments. “He was saying these things to get the crowd up, to incite them.” She noted that Sullivan was recorded at one point saying to Sacker, “I’m just going to film as a ploy so I don’t get arrested.”
Sullivan’s lawyer, Steven R. Kiersh, pointed out that Sullivan promptly turned over his video footage to the FBI in January 2021 and never touched or threatened anyone in the Capitol. “If he’s going to commit multiple intentional felonies,” Kiersh said, “would that same person bring a camera and record that for 50 minutes?” He said Sullivan was “there with his nonviolent camera and his nonviolent tripod. His intent was to film the events of January 6.”
Sullivan grew up in Stafford, Va., about 45 miles from Washington, and his brother James is a conservative activist who has denounced John’s liberal politics. The split between the brothers caused Sacker to film her as-yet unaired documentary called “A House Divided.”
Sullivan’s parents later moved to Utah, as did Sullivan, and he began attending protests in 2020 after the police killing of George Floyd, shooting videos and posting them on Instagram. He said in an interview that he did not organize any protests, was not political and has never voted.
But after he was charged in July 2020 with organizing a protest in Provo, Utah, which led to a motorist being shot, he said he was targeted by conservatives who believed he was a Black Lives Matter activist. Black Lives Matter activists in Utah said Sullivan was not part of their group and urged protesters to avoid him. Prosecutors in Utah said the protest charges were later dismissed, and Sullivan said he had not organized the rally, though he did speak at some rallies against police violence and denounced Trump at one D.C. protest, video shows.
Sullivan said he worked feverishly to build a social media following of nearly 500,000 by posting protest-related content as “Jayden X,” and he traveled to Washington to record the action on Jan. 6 for his audience. He is seen constantly exhorting rioters to continue into and through the Capitol, and after climbing through a broken window, he eventually reached the Speaker’s Lobby, where he yells at officers to leave “for their own safety.”
The uniformed officers do walk away, and Sullivan yells, “Go! Go! Get this s–t!” When one of the glass windows to the lobby is broken, with lawmakers evacuating the House chamber, Ashli Babbitt climbs into the window and is shot dead by a Capitol Police officer, Sullivan’s video shows. Prosecutors did not show this part of the video to the jury or tell them of Sullivan’s profit from selling it. The government seized Sullivan’s bank account after he received payment from media organizations for the footage, as alleged proceeds of a criminal act, and will seek to have him forfeit it now.
“We definitely believed,” juror Jon Stewart said, that Sullivan had “intent to sort of incite the riot, and perhaps his intent was different from the other protesters, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t interrupt the proceedings.” Stewart said, “There was a lot of evidence he was trying to get the crowd riled up.” He said the jury “felt there was space for a citizen journalist … but we also didn’t feel he was that.” Stewart said of Sullivan telling the crowd to “burn it down” and kicking over a metal barricade, “a journalist wouldn’t kick down the fence.”
Stewart said the jury planned to get together to watch Sacker’s documentary when it is released.