The Geophysicist Who Stormed the Capitol

KITTREDGE, Colo.—The text message showed up on John Bergman’s phone in late January. Sent to him by a former work colleague, it came with the question “Have you seen this??� and linked to an article and video from a news channel. Bergman pressed play.

It was a scene from the Capitol riots on January 6. Amid a throng of rioters outside the building’s western terrace tunnel was a figure wearing a tan Carhartt jacket, teal backpack, steel-toed boots and black tactical helmet. The article identified the man as Bergman’s longtime friend, Jeffrey Sabol. In the video, Sabol vaulted over a railing and appeared to drag a defenseless cop down a set of stairs.

Bergman could barely fathom what he was seeing. He had worked with Sabol for a decade and had known him for 18 years. “I’ve always revered Jeff as one of the most intelligent, capable, thoughtful, helping people,� Bergman says. “We had just spoken a few weeks earlier, and next thing I know he’s in Washington, D.C., doing this crazy thing.�

Sabol, 51, is a geophysicist from Kittredge, Colorado, a small town in the mountains outside Denver. In the weeks after the insurrection, he became one of the approximately 465 people charged so far for their participation in the January 6 insurrection. Sabol faces eight counts, several of them felonies, including the assault of police officers. He and four other defendants named in the same indictment are accused of participating in some of the day’s worst violence, which took place around 4:30 p.m. and resulted in several officers being stripped of their protective gear, dragged, stomped on, and attacked with crutches and a flagpole.

According to the indictment, Sabol wrested a baton from a second D.C. police officer who had been knocked down by another rioter outside the Capitol’s western terrace entrance, which would be the site of Joe Biden’s inauguration two weeks later. The officer later needed staples to close a wound on his head. Before being dragged into the mob by Sabol and others, prosecutors say, these officers had tried to reach a woman who died amid the throng (the D.C. medical examiner declared her death an amphetamine overdose). Images published in the government’s criminal complaint against Sabol show the woman lying on the ground at the top of the stairs wearing jeans and a black hooded sweatshirt, while Sabol and other men clash with police above her.

Sabol, who is divorced and has three teenagers back home in Colorado, also seems to appear in a YouTube video shot about two hours earlier and unearthed by a Twitter user who is part of a group of self-styled “sedition hunters.� In it, Sabol, known to the sedition hunters as #OrangeNTeal because of his highly identifiable jacket and backpack, runs headfirst into a row of officers trying to hold the line and prevent rioters from breaching the west steps of the Capitol.


Denied bail, Sabol is now locked in a cell at the Washington, D.C., Correctional Treatment Facility awaiting trial, deemed by a judge to be the “epitome of a flight risk� because of what he did after the riots. Unlike defendants who posted about their Capitol exploits on social media, Sabol immediately seemed to have grasped the gravity of his post-January 6 predicament. Back home in Colorado, he destroyed several electronic devices in his microwave and instructed friends to delete anything he had sent them, according to Sabol’s own statements to investigators. Several days later, he arrived at Logan Airport in Boston with a ticket to Zurich, Switzerland. Worried he had been recognized, he never got on the plane. Instead, he rented a car and drove to New York state, eventually ending up in a suburb of New York City. At some point along the way, he tossed his phone off a bridge and grew so distraught that he attempted to take his own life by slashing his wrists and thighs, his criminal complaint states.


“I’ve really been struggling with this, that my bro tried to kill himself,� Bergman says, his voice cracking with emotion. “It scared the shit out of me.�

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. A report by the University of Chicago’s Project on Security and Threats found that 67 percent of Capitol defendants are at least 35 years old, and 30 percent worked in white-collar jobs. Sabol was a geophysicist for an environmental services company. Other defendants include an investment manager at BB&T Bank (who died by suicide after his arrest), a State Department employee, an Olympic gold medalist swimmer, a real estate agent, many small-business owners, a doctor and an attorney. There are several dozen current or former military members, and at least 10 current or former law-enforcement officers. For all the public attention to right-wing groups and militias, just 12 percent of the defendants belonged to organized operations like the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers or boogaloo boys. The majority of the defendants, including Sabol, also came not from the heart of Trump country but from counties Biden won.

Based on multiple interviews with people who knew him, as well as extensive public records, Sabol’s story offers a vivid example of how “normal� this new form of radicalization might look from the outside—and how hard it can be to detect. Sabol, according to his ex-wife, was involved in volatile episodes at home, and court records show that he was charged with misdemeanor child abuse in 2016, for injuring his teenage son. Yet in letters sent to the court on his behalf, 30 friends, neighbors and family members, including Army officers and a Denver police sergeant, describe the man they know in glowing terms. The kind of guy who gives his jacket to an underdressed hiker and goes down a 14,000-foot mountain in a T-shirt. A guy who steps in to prevent altercations. A guy with a peace-sign tattoo on his back.

“We discussed all kinds of topics—parenting, religion, politics, relationships, work, hobbies, and life experiences. Never once did I detect any indication of him being a fanatic of any sort,� wrote a retired schoolteacher who volunteered with Sabol at a youth horse-riding organization nearly every Saturday for the past two years. “I can’t conceive of him being a danger to the community in any way.�


Nearly six months after the insurrection, hundreds of defendants are awaiting trial or plea deals as their cases move through the justice system. Sabol is among the approximately 50 who have been denied bail and are being held in jail in Washington, D.C., in their cells for nearly 20 hours a day due to Covid concerns. The Biden administration has taken a number of steps to begin to combat violent domestic extremism across different federal departments, even as Congress recently failed to agree to create a commission to study the events of January 6.

But the larger problem—of how so many Americans came to see violence or forced entry into a government building as their best options, and whether it could happen again—isn’t at all resolved. Millions of Americans continue to hold some of the same beliefs that propelled Sabol to the Capitol. Experts say the new wave of right-wing extremism on display at the Capitol is both unprecedented in its size and scope—and far more challenging to track and root out. 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.

Where will they go next? “What’s concerning is that many did not see January 6 as the end of something,� says Susan Corke, the director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “They saw it as the beginning.�

Exactly how Sabol went from Colorado geophysicist to Capitol insurrectionist, and who or what influenced him, is hard to say, and for a reason: Sabol’s attorney, Jon Norris, who declined to comment for this article and did not respond to a list of specific questions, instructed Sabol’s friends and family members who wrote character letters not to speak, either. During an April hearing devoted to a motion to release Sabol from jail, Norris appeared intent on keeping his client’s political motives an enigma. “The government purports to be inside my client’s mind and to know what his intentions were. But the videos do not speak for themselves in the way that [the prosecutor] is saying they do,� he told Emmet Sullivan, the D.C. judge who gained attention during the trial of former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

Still, aspects of Sabol’s life story can be pieced together from friends and family who were willing to speak, as well as from public documents. The narrative that emerges is of a man whose professional success masked, or perhaps even contributed to, deepening anti-government views. It also provides an account of how explosive political rhetoric from a president and other leaders can intersect with mental health vulnerabilities, pushing someone toward action.

Born in Utica, New York, Jeffrey Patrick Sabol grew up in nearby Waterville, a small, picturesque town of 1,600 in Oneida County. According to statements from family and friends in the character letters, his dad taught chemistry and physics at the local high school, and his mom worked as a nurse. All three Sabol children went to college and into promising careers. Jeff’s younger sister became a dentist in the Army and several years ago was promoted to colonel. His older brother, a National Merit Scholar, went into tax law before deciding to become a teacher. Jeff was also an impressive student, graduating third in his high school class and studying physics at SUNY Cortland.


After college, he headed west, eventually taking a job in the Denver-area office of ECC, a construction and remediation company that worked on military contracts to remove unexploded weaponry from bases and other areas. Using electromagnetic detectors and GPS equipment, Sabol helped to comb through large areas to identify buried metals. It was painstaking, needle-in-a-haystack work. Teams would often excavate hundreds of pieces of scrap metal for each munition recovered. “Jeff just loved it, though he did go to some of the most god-awful places for like six months,� says Todd Kerbs, who befriended Sabol in the early 2000s while playing on opposing Colorado rugby teams. Kerbs says he declined Sabol’s offer to buy him a ticket to accompany him to D.C. for Trump’s rally on January 6.

Among the more appealing destinations Sabol was dispatched to were Midway Atoll, a Pacific island that was the site of an important World War II naval air station; Adak Island in Alaska, which served as a Naval Air Station for 50 years; and Maui, where he met the woman who would become his wife, Shari Strotz, in the late 1990s. Sabol had been assigned to a 12-month project on the tiny Hawaiian island of Kaho‘olawe, which served as a weapons-testing site after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. When the project ended, Strotz accompanied Sabol back to Colorado. The couple bought a house in the small mountain community of Indian Hills, next door to Kittredge, and raised three children. In his free time, Sabol went mountain-climbing, camping and dirt biking, and worked in his garage on a project to build a new snowboarding device. “He’s a MacGyver-type dude,� says Kerbs. Called Revolver Gear, the device lets riders turn their front foot on the board, offering greater comfort while in the lift line or a more exhilarating ride down the mountain. After working on it for more than 20 years, Sabol posted on Facebook in January 2020 that he had created a crowdfunding campaign in the hopes of starting production.

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.


During this period, 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 sideâ€�—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,â€� 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.â€� 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.


“Jeff has always cared very deeply about his country. He’s the kind of guy if he felt something was wrong, he’d want to try and change it,� says Bergman, who adds he is dismayed that Sabol’s passions wound up being channeled into Trump’s lies. “The way I look at it is, how could you fall for that guy?�

Bergman, who says he voted for Biden, noted that he recently realized something unusual about Sabol’s Revolver Gear business cards. When Bergman helped his friend design them in the late 2000s, Sabol said he wanted the word “Freedom� to appear on the back. Bergman always took this to mean freedom of movement on a snowboard. He now realizes it also can be read as a political statement. The company’s branding, Bergman points out, features a gun motif—the logo resembling the barrel of a revolver, and the name and tagline in a Western, outlaw font.

Unlike many January 6 defendants, Sabol left no digital footprint of his political evolution. Friends say he was never a big user of social media, outside the occasional promotion for Revolver Gear. But 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.�

Law enforcement have recovered at least one deleted text message of Sabol’s from January 6, a video in which Sabol tells a friend he had just been pepper-sprayed outside the Capitol and that “we are going back in.�

Like other Capitol rioters, Sabol did not need to be saturated by Trumpism to come to his views. The University of Chicago report found that 52 percent of the individuals charged in the attacks came from counties Biden won, including Jefferson County, where Kittredge is located.

Tucked off the main thoroughfare for skiers heading up to Vail or Aspen, Kittredge is a town of 1,300 people, overwhelmingly white, whose political leanings are not unlike those of Colorado at large. They don’t embody the deep-red conservatism of many of the state’s small towns, especially those scattered to the west, where voters last fall elected the controversial gun rights advocate Lauren Boebert to Congress. Sitting deep enough in the Rockies that you feel like you’re living in the mountains, but close enough to Denver to get there in less than an hour, Kittredge is technically an unincorporated area of Jefferson County. Views about local government run deeply libertarian, and many residents are strong supporters of Second Amendment rights. In national and state elections, however, residents vote solidly Democratic. Last fall, longtime resident Kate Mondragon remembers significantly more lawns broadcasting support for Biden and Black Lives Matter than for Trump, who ended up losing the town and the surrounding area by a 24-point margin. Hillary Clinton won here in 2016, and the region’s state representative, Lisa Cutter, is a Democrat. Gary Hart, the former Democratic senator and presidential candidate, and his son are also longtime residents.

“This is not some backwater of conspiracy theorists or Three Percenters who want to overthrow the government or believe the voting system is rigged,� says Jimmy Dickson, a 31-year-old political consultant and former head of the Kittredge Civic Association, who worries about how Sabol’s participation in the insurrection could reflect on the community.


If Sabol’s political evolution was in any way a reaction to the town’s politics, residents say it occurred behind closed doors, something largely in keeping with the town’s character. “This isn’t a wealthy community. Pretty much everybody works their bunnies off, and they’re too busy to fuss with whether they agree or don’t agree with somebody,� says Russett Goulding, a former Denver schoolteacher who has lived in Kittredge since the 1980s.

Goulding and others nonetheless say they were surprised that the depth of Sabol’s political passions motivated him to participate in the insurrection at the Capitol. “Pardon my French, but holy shit,� said Sabol’s landlord, Sarah Troster, by phone from Arizona, where she spends half the year. Troster said she hadn’t heard the news about Sabol and added, “I see this as Trump’s fault. He got so many people to believe in his nonsense.� She describes her tenant as a “very responsible, decent guy� who did free landscaping on the property and helped pay utilities for the woman living on the lower level. “I wish I had more tenants like him,� Troster says.

“Jeff didn’t really stand out in any way. He was your average guy. His truck was always clean. He was always put together,� adds Brian Anderson, who owns the Kittredge General Store, one of the dozen businesses that line the rural highway running through town. “From what I know of him, he probably regrets what he did.�

On a bright April afternoon, following a morning spent making a batch of burritos to sell at the store, Anderson described Kittredge as a place people move to because they want a quiet and relatively affordable place to live. He said many people don’t lock their doors and like to look out for each other. At the cash register of the Kittredge General Store, a decorative coffee can reads, “Community Fund.� When buying groceries or gas or lunch on Taco Tuesdays, residents and people passing through often leave their change, or larger donations. When residents are in need, Anderson distributes the money. “We’ve fixed a lot of cars, bought tires, paid rent, covered insurance premiums for people going through cancer treatments,� he told me. He said all his employees know that if someone comes into the store and asks for $2 worth of gas with a pile of change and kids in the car, they should use the fund to put additional gas in their tank.


Sabol’s house is located on the south side of town, where homes sit tightly together and sell for several hundred thousand dollars less than the houses on the other side, many of which sport sweeping views of the valley or run along the creek. Dickson says he met Sabol once, while knocking on doors for a Democratic state representative in 2018. “Oh man, you’re at the wrong house,� was Sabol’s response, Dickson recalls. He describes the interaction as good natured. “He didn’t seem angry,� Dickson says.

Anger also wasn’t something parents at Westernaires, the volunteer-run kids’ riding club some 15 miles down the hill, associated with Sabol. On a recent Saturday morning, Brian Reichlin was at his usual post upstairs in the tack room, waiting for his daughter to practice a riding routine. Most Saturdays, he and Sabol came early to feed the horses in the sick bay and clean the stalls. Then they stayed to watch their kids. Sabol also worked on the tractors and loaders when they needed fixing. Reichlin remembers Sabol teaching him how to drive them.

When he first saw the videos and images of the man he had come to know and like, he thought someone had made a mistake. “I thought, ‘There is no way that can be right,’� Reichlin said. “I would love to talk to him and ask him what the turning point was.�

In a video that one of Sabol’s friends shot and posted to Facebook, and that Shari Strotz described to me, Sabol and his friend walk calmly along the National Mall after Trump’s speech earlier in the day on January 6. Sabol is wearing a baseball hat. “I was really nervous seeing that video, knowing Jeff was there. But I thought, ‘Oh, OK, he’s going to be OK,’� Strotz says of watching the video that day (it has since been taken down). Not long afterward, Strotz says, the friend returned to the Willard InterContinental hotel, where he and Sabol and other Trump supporters, including Roger Stone, were staying. Sabol decided to remain at the rally, eventually walking to the Capitol and swapping his hat for a helmet. A few weeks later, the friend called Strotz, she says, to apologize for “leaving Jeff alone.�

Understanding how someone crosses the threshold from belief to action isn’t easy. Of the millions of people who believed the election was stolen, tens of thousands converged on Washington that day to protest and hear Trump speak. Of these, thousands stormed the Capitol grounds in an attempt to disrupt the counting of Electoral College votes in the Senate. And of these, the FBI believes that hundreds acted violently.

“For researchers on extremism, that’s the white whale—trying to understand what makes someone turn violent,� says Bennett Clifford, a senior research fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. “A lot of it is determined by individual circumstances and vulnerabilities.�

Clifford says he worries about the ways in which January 6 itself, much like 2017’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, functioned as an accelerant for extremist views. “The Capitol brought out every single type of domestic violent extremist from throughout the far right—the racially and ethnically motivated folks, the militia/anti-government people, unaffiliated pro-Trump people. When multiple flavors of people gather in one place, stay in the same hotels together, it runs the risk that you get crossovers, the recruitment of previously unaffiliated people by larger groups. Or even if they don’t join the group formally, it can help infuse some new ideology into their worldview. That’s the scariest part of January 6 for me.�

Brian Levin, a criminal justice professor who runs the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, believes part of the solution has to include addressing extremism as a mental health issue. “I’m not saying that this is something that absolves people of criminal responsibility, but when you have broad reservoirs of grievance and unstable or emotionally vulnerable people who are undergoing stressors at the same time, it’s a recipe for radicalization,� he says.


One of the co-defendants in Sabol’s case, Michael John Lopatic Sr., a 57-year-old from Manheim Township, Pennsylvania, is said to have struggled with mental health issues. His wife of 34 years wrote in a letter to the court that Lopatic, a father of four adult children and a Catholic Sunday school teacher, has post-traumatic stress disorder from his service as a Marine in Beirut, as well as bipolar disorder and an inoperable brain tumor.

Todd Kerbs, Sabol’s rugby friend, believes Sabol, whom he calls “Jeffro,� experienced something resembling “a psychological break� while at the Capitol, a moment in which he lost control: “He fell off the edge for about a minute. But I know for a 1,000 percent fact that he didn’t go there with any ill intentions. He just wanted to observe and see what was going on.� Kerbs says he thinks Sabol was wearing steel-toed boots and a tactical helmet and carrying a radio and zip ties in his bag, as prosecutors allege, because he had been anticipating confrontations with anti-Trump counterprotesters, who had clashed violently with Trump supporters several weeks earlier during a December “Stop the Steal� rally in D.C.

If and when Sabol’s case goes to trial in the backlogged D.C. federal court system, the focus will be on why the 51-year-old acted the way he did. If convicted, Sabol faces a maximum sentence of 20 years, but because he would be considered a first-time offender, he is more likely to get between four and eight years. He has admitted to law enforcement that he dragged an officer down the stairs at the Capitol and stole another’s baton, though he says he was trying to help and protect the officers from other rioters. He also said he did not remember whether he hit officers with the baton, because he was in a “fit of rage,� as prosecutors put it. “He came to D.C. for reasons he thought were good,� Norris, Sabol’s attorney, said at the April bond hearing before Judge Sullivan. “He’s since realized he was misguided, that he had been lied to about the election being stolen and stopping the steal. … But in his mind, he believed he was doing good that day by trying to help officers who were injured or tripped or wounded.�

Prosecutors allege otherwise. In opposing Sabol’s release from jail, they called Sabol’s actions “assaultive,� pointing to worn body camera footage in which Sabol appears to pull the officer he dragged away from fellow officers trying to bring him back to safety.


For his part, Bergman says he doesn’t really know what happened to his friend that day. He’s been thinking about how the “mob mentality� of the crowd and the charged rhetoric from a U.S. president, repeatedly accusing Democrats of stealing an election, might have ignited whatever long-simmering rage Sabol had toward political figures—anger that might have stayed just below the surface, if it were not for the past few years in American politics.

At the same time, he can’t excuse what Sabol did. “At that moment, he thought he could initiate change by causing violence, and that feels like terrorism,� Bergman says. “If I didn’t know Jeff, I’d say throw the book at him.�

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