Before the Capitol riot ended, supporters of former President Donald Trump were manufacturing stories as a way to ease the pain of the cognitive dissonance they were experiencing. The first story claimed that the Capitol police invited the protesters inside. The second was that Antifa was actually behind the riot, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
When those stories didn’t stick, MAGA-world tried another. That one told the tale of an FBI informant who planted the idea of breaching the Capitol in the rioters’ minds — proof that the Capitol riot defendants were led astray by a false flag operation, and not willing participants in an attempted insurrection.
The story needed a face, and 61-year-old Mr Epps became the poster boy for the conspiracy theory.
According to The New York Times, which interviewed Mr Epps at an undisclosed location where he’s hiding out with his wife in an RV, right-wing media outlets began running selectively edited clips of Mr Epps that they claimed proved he was an FBI asset.
As disinformation often does in the right-wing media ecosystem, the story generated enough talk that pundits with larger platforms — including Fox News’ Tucker Carlson — began repeating the conspiracy theory. Conservative lawmakers, like Representative Thomas Massie and Senator Ted Cruz also picked up on the stories.
It wasn’t long before Mr Trump himself seized on the story.
For Mr Epps, a staunch conservative, the situation was a nightmare. He did go to the Capitol on 6 January to support Mr Trump. He was among the group of right-wing voters in Washington DC that day who questioned the results of the election. He had not planned a coup, but was quickly becoming a patsy for those he formerly called allies.
“I am at the center of this thing, and it’s the biggest farce that’s ever been,” he told the Times. “It’s just not right. The American people are being led down a path. I think it should be criminal.”
He has received death threats and trespassers have wandered onto his property demanding “answers” from him about the Capitol riot. Members of his church and even his own family have since disowned him.
Some adherents to the Epps-FBI conspiracy point to the fact that he wasn’t rounded up like the other Capitol riot suspects in the weeks and months after the attack. He had never been arrested, unlike hundreds of others.
However, the FBI confirmed that Mr Epps reached out to them as soon as he learned he was being investigated for his role in the riot, and agreed to meet. He provided video evidence from multiple sources that showed he was trying to de-escalate tensions inside the Capitol. Further, he had already left the Capitol by the time most of the violence began. He has since cooperated with the House Select Committee investigating the Capitol riot.
His detractors also point to a video taken the day before the riot in which Mr Epps can be seen encouraging people to enter the Capitol. He says he regrets that day, but claims he was suggesting they enter as a peaceful protest, not as an unruly mob calling for Vice President Mike Pence to be hung.
Now, more than year after the Capitol riot, Mr Epps is hiding out in an RV and considering legal action against those who he claim defamed him.