Jun 17


Erie County a dubious national leader

Only one county in the U.S. has had more of its residents charged in connection to the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol

There are 3,006 counties in the United States. Only one has had more of its residents arrested for storming Capitol Hill than Erie County.

Six residents of Erie have been federally charged in connection with the Jan. 6 siege, according to data from George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. That’s one fewer than Franklin County, Ohio, with a population of 1.3 million that includes the state capital of  Columbus. 

Tied with Erie at six defendants apiece were Los Angeles County, California, with a population about 10 times greater than Erie’s, and Bucks County, Pennsylvania, north of Philadelphia.

Cloee Cooper, a research analyst with Political Research Associates, Massachusetts-based social justice think tank, said Erie’s total should arouse “definite concern.”

“In terms of how these types of social movements work, if there were six people that went and participated, that means that there’s a much broader group of people who are involved,” she said. 

“Erie County is kind of a hotspot for militia and far-right groups and that local elected officials have been privy to some of that, or endorsed it in the past,” Cooper said.

Counties with the most residents charged

County State Cases Population
Franklin OH 7 1,317,000
Los Angeles CA 6 10,040,000
Erie NY 6 918,702
Bucks PA 6 628,270
Orange CA 4 3,176,000
Brevard FL 4 601,942
Marion FL 4 365,579
Kings NY 4 2,559,903
Dallas TX 4 2,636,000
Denton TX 4 887,207
Harris TX 4 4,713,000
Source: George Washington University Program on Extremism.

New York, with 38 arrests, ranks fourth among the 50 states. Residents from 20 of New York’s 62 counties have been charged. Most live in and around New York City, including  Kings County (Brooklyn), where four residents have been charged. 

Residents in two counties in the western part of the state — Wyoming and Monroe — also face charges.

Nationally, researchers have charted 465 federal cases, which represent defendants from 288 counties and the District of Columbia.

States with most residents arrested

State Cases
Texas 46
Florida 45
Pennsylvania 43
New York 38
Ohio 23
Virginia 22
California 21
New Jersey 15
Kentucky 15
Tennessee 14
Source: George Washington University Program on Extremism.

Bennett Clifford, a senior research fellow with the Program on Extremism, said most facing federal charges do not have apparent ties to established extremist groups. 

“One of my bosses, Seamus Hughes, referred to it in an interview as the ‘Island of Misfit Toys’ of domestic extremism,” Clifford told Investigative Post.

However, people and groups that appear unconnected from a distance can overlap at the local level, according to Heidi Jones, a Buffalo attorney who researches local right-wing activity.

“There’s intertwined networks that have been recruiting and been active for many years,” Jones said. “The COVID pandemic has given such an opportunity to recruit more people into it with the strongly divisive political environment that we’re in.”

An Investigative Post review of local right-wing social media posts in January found anti-mask and anti-vaccine campaigns, as well as Q-Anon conspiracy theory believers, were organizing under the banner “FREE New York.”  Another video, circulated online in May, depicts the logos of a number of local right-wing local organizations that purport to be organizing now as “WNY Patriot Groups.” 

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The six defendants charged from Erie County include:

  • Peter J. Harding, 47, of Cheektowaga, who was arrested Jan. 14 on misdemeanor charges, including violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds. He was released without bond. 
  • Thomas F. Sibick, 35, of Amherst, who was arrested March 12 on felony charges, including assaulting a Metropolitan Police officer. Sibick pleaded not guilty to the charges and remains in federal custody.
  • Daniel Warmus, 37, of Alden, who was arrested May 18 on misdemeanor charges, including violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds. He was released without bond.
  • William M. Sywak, 45, of Hamburg, and his son, William J. Sywak, 27, of Arcade, in Wyoming County, who were arrested May 19 on misdemeanor charges, including knowingly entering a restricted building or grounds. Both men were released without bond.
  • Traci J. Sunstrum, 44, of Amherst, who was arrested May 19 on misdemeanor charges, including disorderly and disruptive conduct in a restricted building or grounds. She was released without bond.
  • John “Jack” Juran, 51, of Williamsville, who was arrested May 19 on misdemeanor charges, including violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds. He was released without bond. 

At least 105 other Western New Yorkers traveled to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6 in a bus trip organized by Jul Thompson, a local right-wing activist well known in Western New York with her husband, Rus, who did not travel to the capital. 

Rus Thompson said he supported turning out to the Jan. 6 rally held by former President Donald Trump, but not the storming of the Capitol.

“I could not believe what I was seeing. That is not what people went there to do. And I was, I was outraged by it, to be honest.”

The six local people charged should be held “responsible for what they did, if they are found guilty,” he said.

Jul Thompson called the Western New York turnout “encouraging” and repeated several disproven claims, including that the election was stolen from Trump, that police allowed protesters to enter the Capitol Building, and that the violence was carried out by leftist agitators.

“We have a lot of people in Western New York that are engaged in the political process, and they recognize that this was a fraudulent election,” she said. “They were willing to do something about it. That’s what I’m encouraged about.”

Those arrested by federal law enforcement were detained on “probably bogus” charges as an intimidation tactic, Jul Thompson said. Though Thompson has said she helped individuals scale walls at the Capitol, she maintains no one on the trip engaged in the violence. 

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Cooper, the research analyst at Political Research Associates, said Jan. 6 should motivate concern about the right wing groups operating in their communities and the ideologies they promote.

“It’s definitely a moment to kind of pay attention to the fact that right-wing organizations are trying to seize public attention and some people are willing to take violent or insurrectionary measures,” she said. “People should be concerned about them and also the broader movements that they’re a part of.”

Investigative Post

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