Ray Epps, the man at the center of a widely circulated conspiracy theory about the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021, filed a lawsuit Wednesday accusing Fox News and its former host Tucker Carlson of defamation for promoting a “fictional story” that Mr. Epps was a secret government agent who incited violence in The Capitol as a way to discredit President Donald J. Trump and his supporters.
The complaint was filed in Delaware Supreme Court, where Fox recently agreed to a $787.5 million settlement in a separate defamation lawsuit brought by Dominion Voting Systems to combat allegations that the company helped rig the 2020 election against Mr. Trump.
“Just as Fox focused on the voting machine companies when he falsely claimed the election was rigged, so Fox realized he needed a scapegoat on January 6th,” the complaint says. “It settled on Ray Epps and began promoting the lie that Epps was a federal agent who instigated the attack on the Capitol.”
Fox News did not respond to a request for comment. But the network moved quickly to change the venue to the Federal District Courthouse in Wilmington, Del.
The suit is the latest legal complication for Fox News, which is battling lawsuits on a number of fronts related to its coverage of the 2020 election and Mr. Trump’s false insistence that he was cheated into winning. They include a $2.7 billion lawsuit by the second voting technology company, Smartmatic, and two separate claims by Fox Corporation shareholders. Another lawsuit from Mr. Carlson’s former producer, which Fox settled on June 30 for $12 million, alleges that he condoned and encouraged a toxic workplace.
Mr Epps is seeking an unspecified amount of damages.
After baseless accusations about Mr. Eppes were aired on Mr. Carlson’s show, they quickly spread to online communities of Trump supporters and the political world as congressional Republicans attempted to connect Mr. Eppes to a bogus conspiracy theory that he was implicated in planning the Jan. 6 attack. Among them were Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Representative Thomas Massie of Kentucky, both of whom made Mr. Epps — a two-time Trump voter — an object of interest in public hearings.
The publicity had devastating consequences for Mr. Epps and his wife, Robyn, who received numerous death threats and had to sell their five-acre farm and wedding business in Arizona and move to a 350-square-foot mobile home parked in the remote location. Trailer park in the mountains of Utah. Online retailers began selling T-shirts that read “Arrest Ray Epps”. Some people even recorded songs about him and posted them on YouTube, the complaint states, adding that he has turned into a “cartoon conspiracy theory character.”
Mr. Epps was a member of the Marine Corps but said under oath in his testimony before the Jan. 6 commission that he had never worked in law enforcement or spoken to anyone at various government agencies, including the FBI, CIA and NSA. Through his attorney, Michael Teeter, Mr. Epps demanded in March that Fox and Carlson retract their stories about him and his alleged role in the Capitol riot and issue an on-air apology. The network has not responded, nor has Mr. Carlson, whose prime-time show has since been cancelled.
“Ray is taking the following steps to stand up for his rights by seeking accountability for Fox’s lies that have caused him and Robin so much harm,” Mr. Teeter said in a statement on Wednesday.
The suit paints a picture of Mr. Epps as a loyal Fox viewer who was deceived by Fox coverage and convinced he needed to attend the pro-Trump demonstrations on and around Jan. 6.
“When Fox, through its on-air personalities and guests, told its audience that the 2020 election had been stolen, Epps was listening,” the complaint reads. “Fox believed him. And when Epps kept hearing that Trump supporters should speak out on January 6th in Washington, D.C., Epps took it to heart.”
Conspiracy theories about Mr. Epps persist largely because the Department of Justice never charged him for his actions on January 6 and the night before. Mr. Epps can be seen on video encouraging protesters to walk with him and enter the Capitol at some point. However, at another point, he called for restraint once it became clear that the situation was turning violent. He also runs past a police roadblock in a restricted portion of the Capitol grounds.
But the suit says the Justice Department notified Mr. Epps in May that it was planning to file criminal charges against him related to his role in the Capitol attack. Details about the charges remain unknown, but the fact they were filed undermines the notion that Mr. Epps was shielded because of his role as a supposed undercover agent, the suit says.
The attacks on Mr. Epps began in mid-2021, largely after a video emerged online showing him the night before the Capitol attack, encouraging a crowd of people on a Washington street to “peacefully” join the Capitol. Some in the crowd began chanting “Fed! Fed! Fed! Fed!” in the face, implying he was a government agent trying to convince Trump supporters to commit a crime.
He was also seen on the day of the attack whispering in a man’s ear just moments before the man and other rioters overpowered the police officers and breached the security perimeter. It’s hard to hear what Mr. Epps says in the video. But the conspiracy theorists about him took advantage of that moment to accuse him of speaking some kind of orders.
Law enforcement immediately took note of Mr. Epps’ suspicious behavior and put a picture of him on the Internet’s most wanted list. Mr. Epps said he called the FBI’s National Threat Operations Center shortly after raising the alert level, and his phone records show he spoke to agents there for about an hour.
In March 2021, the FBI formally interviewed Mr. Epps. By that summer, the bureau had removed him from its list of wanted suspects.
“This should have been the end of it for Epps,” the complaint reads.
Instead, the complaint alleged, Mr. Carlson and Fox settled on Mr. Epps as a “villain” who could serve as a distraction from the network’s “responsibility for fueling the fire that led to the events of January 6th.” He said Mr. Carlson became “Ebbes-focused” and began promoting the idea that Mr. Epps and the federal government were responsible for the Capitol riot.
The complaint details how, over the next several months, Mr. Carlson referred to Mr. Epps repeatedly on air, saying he was the “central figure” in the Capitol attack and allegedly “helping run the insurrection.”
On several occasions, Mr. Carlson has brought on his show Darren Beatty, owner of a right-wing website called Revolver News, whom the complaint describes as “the main person driving the false story that Epps was a federal agent planted by him as a provocateur to the violent January 6th Capitol bombing.” )”.
The complaint says Carlson continued to spread baseless accusations about Mr Epps outside of Fox. As recently as March, the host appeared on a podcast and told former Fox News personality Clayton Morris: “Ray Epps was clearly working for somebody. He wasn’t a pure civilian.”