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U.S. Capitol Riots

Calif. statehouse candidate says she didn't join Capitol riot. Video shows otherwise

Over the last three years, dozens of people who participated in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot in some capacity have sought election to everything from school boards to Congress.

In the Instagram , Denise Aguilar Mendez stares intently into the camera. At one point, she wipes the corner of her eye. Her voice trembles with emotion: 

“The revolution is here, guys,” she says into the camera. “We stormed the Capitol, and patriots broke open the doors.”

The video was featured in a few months after the Jan. 6 insurrection. At the time, Aguilar was best-known for her work fighting vaccine mandates, and as the founder of the anti-vaccine activist group Freedom Angels and an offshoot: a self-described “militia” that shows moms how to become preppers and use guns.

Now, Aguilar is the candidate for California Assembly District 13, a seat that includes the cities of Stockton, Tracy and much of San Joaquin County. On March 5, she in the district’s open primary, gaining 37.9% of the vote, and will go on to face a Democratic rival in November. 

Aguilar’s Instagram video was long ago deleted, and she has not clarified what she meant by her stirring words. In an interview this week, she said she didn’t enter the Capitol that day.

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But a review of social media photos and videos from 2020, provided to ˽ýӳ by independent online researchers, tells a different story.

Denise Aguilar of Stockton, California, in 2016. She founded several activist groups and went on to run for a state Assembly seat. CALIXTRO ROMIAS/THE RECORD

In a video of a speech Aguilar made on the morning of Jan. 6, she has long eyelashes and wears a black beanie and a black coat with a distinctive gray fur collar. Another video shows Aguilar in the crowd in front of the same stage, alongside her partner, who has a mustache and goatee and wears a black hooded sweatshirt with a white logo for the Freedom Angels.

The researchers identified Aguilar and her partner in many other photos and videos posted from that same day. And in one of those videos, shot by a freelance journalist, the man in the black hoodie and the woman with the gray fur collar push into the Capitol itself.  

In a police officer is seen warning protesters they will be pepper-sprayed if they enter the building: “If you don’t want to get sprayed, I wouldn’t go in,” he tells the group, just as the couple pushes past him, through a door and into the Capitol. Around them, protesters chant “1776, 1776!” About a minute later, police and an apparent burst of pepper spray push the crowd back out.

Video shot by a freelance journalist shows the woman in the black beanie crowding past a police officer and into the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

The videos don’t make clear how deep inside the building the couple went, or how long it was before they exited. But at least one other person who crossed the same threshold 20 seconds ahead in the same video has been charged with illegal entry by the Justice Department. So far, Aguilar and her partner have not.  

In an interview with ˽ýӳ, Aguilar said she spoke on the stage, but had no role in the riot.

“I had no involvement in it,” she said. “I had no participation.”

Told of the evidence to the contrary, Aguilar said, “I don’t think that’s correct, because I didn’t.” 

˽ýӳ sent Aguilar the photos and video that show her outside, then show her in the same group of people as they enter the Capitol.

She stopped responding.

Storming the Capitol, then running for office

Plenty of Jan. 6 participants have decided to run for public office.

Over the last three years, dozens of people who participated in the riot in some capacity have sought election to everything from to Congress.

In some cases, candidates have worn their connection to the insurrection with pride, said Jessica Church, political director at Public Wise, a voting rights advocacy organization that of political candidates connected to the riot.

“Some election deniers use their participation in Jan. 6 as sort of a badge of honor,” Church said. “These folks are often exploiting less competitive races at the local level. Sometimes that’s because a district is ruby red, or because it’s been gerrymandered so that a Republican will certainly win, and they’re fighting it out in a primary to prove their Republican, or conservative, bona-fides.”

Aguilar’s race, for California’s 13th legislative district, is considered a safe bet for Democrats, and a Democrat every election since at least 2012.

Of the three candidates in the primary – in California, that race is open to all parties – she finished second against two Democrats, and in November she will face off against just one opponent from that party.

The mother of three told ˽ýӳ that her past activism has won her support from across the political spectrum.

“I’m endorsed by not just Republicans, I’m endorsed by independents, and I have strong support within the Democrats here as well,” she said. “I have support from all three parties.”

From anti-mask activist to political candidate

Aguilar, who was heavily featured in a separate , spent much of the coronavirus pandemic campaigning against state mask mandates in schools and public places.

She initially co-founded , which as “Political strategy & grassroots organizing to protect children,” and which helped organize a May 2020 anti-lockdown protest in Sacramento that attracted an .   

In 2021, Aguilar founded “,” an organization that says it is dedicated to teaching American mothers how to prepare for disasters and medical needs and also to training women how to use and maintain firearms.

This activism attracted the attention of California law enforcement. According to The Bee, analysts with California’s State Threat Assessment Center sent out bulletins warning about Freedom Angels’ and Mamalitia’s activities, often labeling the latter “Mom militia,” and noting its .

As the pandemic receded, however, Aguilar turned her focus toward political office.

She told ˽ýӳ there’s nothing extremist about the political stances she holds.

“I asked for transparency within money exchanged between the pharmaceutical companies and legislators,” she said. “I think that’s a position that can be accepted across party lines, because informed consent, and the right to choose what kind of medical procedures you want to participate in, should not be politicized.”

Less than a minute inside the Capitol; a three-year sentence

˽ýӳ received evidence about Aguilar from a group of volunteer online sleuths that has spent the last three years poring over footage and photographs of the insurrection and sending information about people they identify to the FBI.

The bureau would not comment on whether Aguilar is the subject of an investigation, but urged the public to keep sending tips about Capitol rioters.

Aguilar and her partner, Primo Mendez, can be seen in photographs and videos from throughout the day culled from publicly available social media posts. Mendez did not respond to questions about his role on Jan. 6.

In one video, the couple pauses to take a selfie with a man the independent researchers identified as Joshua Macias, who was found guilty in 2022 of bringing guns to a Philadelphia vote-counting center.

The couple cannot be seen on security footage from inside the Capitol, but cameras did capture several of the people who crowded into the building directly in front of them.

One of those was , a Northern California woman.

A court filing by an FBI investigator shows images tweeted by Valerie Elaine Ehrke as she entered the Capitol during the Jan. 6, 2021, riot.

Ehrke and the group around her were inside the Capitol for less than a minute before a phalanx of police officers in riot gear and spraying pepper spray pushed them back outside, where some collapsed, coughing and wheezing.

That was enough, however, to lead to Ehrke’s arrest on Jan. 19, 2021. She was charged with multiple crimes including entering and remaining in a restricted building and violent entry and disorderly conduct in a capitol building. She cooperated with the FBI and admitted her involvement in the riot; a judge gave her a . 

Next steps: Federal prosecutions? Removal from the ballot?

Aguilar is among more than 100 people volunteer investigators have identified within photos and video from the Capitol that day, but who have not yet been arrested. ˽ýӳ published an investigation last year about the volunteer effort to identify insurrectionists and the delays in prosecuting them.

After that story, the two participants identified by ˽ýӳ were arrested by the FBI. One, former New Jersey National Guardsman Gregory Yetman, led agents on a two-day manhunt before eventually surrendering to police.

Another person identified in a later ˽ýӳ report is Oliver Krvaric, a onetime rising Republican star from San Diego. Krvaric has not been charged. 

Aguilar’s position as a political candidate raises another question: Whether she could be removed from the ballot in California because of her activity on Jan. 6, via a move similar to efforts in some states to remove former President Donald Trump from the ballot.

Experts on California election law said such an attempt would likely not succeed, however.

Like the cases against Trump, a motion to remove Aguilar would rely on the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits candidates from holding office who have previously “engaged in insurrection or rebellion” against the United States. Crucially, however, the 14th Amendment also requires that a person has previously sworn an oath to the U.S. Constitution as an elected officer.

The amendment, which dates to the end of the Civil War, was designed to prohibit people who had previously served in government, but rebelled against it, from holding office again, explained University of California, Los Angeles, Law Professor Rick Hasen. Since Aguilar does not appear to have previously served in office, or taken an oath to uphold the Constitution, she couldn’t be removed from the ballot under the 14th Amendment, Hasen said.

Church, the political director at Public Wise, said it’s important for the public to pay close attention to cases like Aguilar’s. No matter the government position, she said, insurrectionists should be discouraged from holding public office – if not in court then in the voting booth.

“The majority of elected officials serving at the national level got their start in local politics,” Church said. “So for us to defeat election denialism, once and for all, and restore our democracy, we have to keep those extremists — those insurrectionists — out of public office at every level of government.”

Will Carless is a national correspondent covering extremism and emerging issues. Contact him at wcarless@usatoday.com. Follow him on X @willcarless.

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