On a warm day in late January, Luke Coffee invited me to join him on the patio of an Italian eatery at a fancy Hill Country resort and take in the view. The sprawling landscape, with orchards, vineyards, and horse stables, offered guests a rustic Central Texas take on the Tuscan countryside. But Coffee, a director and actor who appeared on NBC’s Friday Night Lights, could never fully relax. Though he was living an Instagrammable vacation dream, he was in fact a man in hiding from the law, someone resisting reality until that was no longer possible.

Just three weeks before, Coffee had been more than 1,500 miles away—in Washington, D.C. On January 6, he participated in the riots at the U.S. Capitol, overnight becoming one of the most recognizable faces in the throngs of Donald Trump supporters there. An image of Coffee at the entrance to the Capitol—right arm extended as if about to give a high five—had been plastered on FBI posters seeking identifying information about the rioters. His cowboy hat and camo jacket had made him easily identifiable among the crowd, and on Twitter, a group of amateur investigators calling themselves Sedition Hunters had promised to ruin the career of the man they called the #HighFiveCowboy.

After the riot, Coffee went home to Dallas. In short order, his image began circulating on Twitter, the FBI asked him for a meeting, his father publicly urged him on Instagram to turn himself in, and his college roommate, who had remained one of his best friends, called Coffee a domestic terrorist on social media. The 41-year-old Dallasite decided to go somewhere peaceful to “clear his head.”

During our interview, Coffee sidestepped questions about how he chose the place he’d been hiding, but the resort’s owner, who’d posted on social media that the rioters weren’t insurrectionists but merely victims of a media smear campaign, was sympathetic to his case, he said, and had offered to shelter him at a discount for as long as he wanted. “It’s ridiculous,” the owner told me during dinner service at the Italian restaurant, referring to the possibility that Coffee might face jail time for his role at the riot. “The whole thing is just ridiculous.”

Coffee told me he wasn’t on the run from the FBI, but during his six-plus weeks at the resort, which is not being identified as a condition of our meeting there, he kept hearing from the bureau. He says one agent from the Dallas field office urged him to return to that city to meet “face to face.” “You need to understand,” the man wrote in a text shared with Texas Monthly, “that this situation is not getting better.” Coffee responded with defiance and hoped to stay at the resort indefinitely. Weeks later, however, the gravity of his situation would finally set in, and Coffee would turn himself in to authorities and face a litany of charges.

There was little doubt about why the FBI was eager to sit down with Coffee. Footage recorded by journalists and attendees of the rally captures him near the top of the stairs leading to the building’s entrance, fewer than twenty seconds after rioters dragged D.C. police officer Michael Fanone out of a police line and into their midst and repeatedly assaulted him. In one clip, Coffee passes within several feet of a rioter beating the officer with an American flag and another who appears to pick Fanone’s black helmet off the ground and place it atop his own head.

Coffee told me that he never saw officer Fanone in distress, and that he went to the head of the crowd to try to de-escalate the situation. On video, Coffee can be seen lingering in the battle zone and at one point appears to yell at rioters to “stop.” But moments after, he picks up a crutch another protester had been wielding and holds it above his head, before lowering his shoulders and ramming into multiple officers.

Video footage analyzed by the New York Times also shows that, seconds before Coffee charges the officers, rioter Rosanne Boyland lies collapsed on the ground near his feet. The paper concluded that a protester holding a crutch—a man Texas Monthly can identify as Coffee—made it “virtually impossible for officers to give her aid, if they were able to notice her at all.” Coffee later told me he noticed a woman resembling Boyland who was trapped beneath the crowd at one point, but insisted he was unable to calm those around him enough to rescue her. By the time he pushed into police, he said, neither he nor the officers were aware of Boyland’s exact location. “If I had known she was nearby I would’ve grabbed them and said, ‘Let’s help this woman,’” he said. “But it was just confusion and chaos.”

Friends and family wonder how Coffee ended up in the middle of the violent scrum at the Capitol. Relatives have scolded him via text for trading his career, his family’s happiness, and potentially his freedom for the sake of his extreme political beliefs. Though Coffee’s circumstances are somewhat unique from other rioters—he spent his youth in a prosperous Dallas enclave and achieved modest celebrity as a TV actor—his story provides insight into how a Texan who had no previous interest in extremist politics could be pulled into the hall of mirrors of QAnon conspiracy theories and election deniers. It shows the key role that scholars who study extremist movements say is often played by personal misfortune: in Coffee’s case, a tragic hit-and-run accident, and the gutting of his business by the pandemic.

When we talked at the resort, Coffee obsessively rationalized and excused his actions on January 6, when he said he found himself “in the middle of a storm.” “I didn’t do anything wrong,” Coffee told me during a rambling six-hour interview. He insisted he wasn’t so much in hiding at the resort—“if the FBI wants me I’m sure they can easily find me,” he said—as on an extended vacation. But like all vacations, it eventually had to come to an end. On February 25, Coffee turned himself into authorities at the Earle Cabell federal courthouse in Dallas. A day later he was charged on numerous counts, including assaulting a federal law enforcement officer with a dangerous weapon, interfering with a law enforcement officer during a civil disorder, obstructing an official proceeding, unlawfully entering onto restricted grounds, and engaging in disorderly conduct in the Capitol. For the first time after months of retreating into an online echo chamber, Coffee was forced to contend with the consequences of his extreme beliefs and actions.

capitol riots fugitive
Luke Coffee. Peter Holley

The Justice Department has charged more than three hundred “Stop the Steal” rally attendees for their participation in the riot, according to Reuters. At least twenty of the charged rioters are Texans, a significant chunk of whom arrived from the Dallas–Fort Worth area. They include Paul Davis and Jenna Ryan, a lawyer and a real estate broker, respectively, from Frisco, and Larry Rendell Brock Jr., a retired Air Force officer from Grapevine. Like so many of his fellow rioters, Coffee is middle-aged and upper middle-class, a business owner lacking prior ties to far-right extremist movements but with a radical, grievance-filled outlook on the world around him.

Coffee spent most of his youth in Highland Park, one of the most affluent enclaves in Texas, located just north of downtown Dallas. His father worked in real estate and later as a full-time prison minister and missionary in Cuba. His mother taught preschool before becoming a stay-at-home parent. The family was one generation removed from something approaching Texas royalty. One of Luke’s grandfathers, Russell Coffee, served as an assistant University of Texas football coach to Darrell Royal from 1959 to 1967. Luke’s grandmother, Wynelle Watson Coffee, was married to longtime politician John C. White, who served as Texas agriculture commissioner, and later as U.S. deputy secretary of agriculture and chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Asked to provide insight into Coffee and his decision to riot at the Capitol, multiple family members and friends defended Coffee privately but declined to comment on him publicly.

Growing up, Coffee played football and eventually walked onto the Baylor football team as a defensive back his sophomore year of college, but he found himself drawn to filmmaking. After graduating, Coffee landed a job in postproduction on the Warner Bros. lot in Hollywood, and made a prime-time television appearance on an NBC drama. He began dating a fellow Dallasite and, after a few years, planned on marrying her. But early one Sunday morning in November 2006, while crossing the street as they left a Hollywood bar, the two were hit by a driver who fled the scene. Coffee’s girlfriend was killed instantly. Recovering in the hospital from eleven broken ribs, two collapsed lungs, a broken leg, and a torn ACL, he wasn’t able to attend her funeral.

Family members say Coffee became distant after the accident and that it made him more withdrawn, unleashing a years-long struggle with symptoms resembling post-traumatic stress disorder that Coffee has acknowledged battling. “Luke wasn’t the same Luke after the wreck,” a close relative, speaking on the condition of anonymity, recalled. “He became withdrawn and depressed and was never entirely himself again.” Wracked by survivor’s guilt, Coffee said, he planned to visit his girlfriend’s grave before hanging himself at his family’s ranch in Central Texas. He didn’t follow through and today is making a movie about the traumatic experience, Texas Angel. Though it’s framed as an uplifting tale about the world testing one man’s faith, the experience hardened Coffee’s outlook. “We live in a world that is not a fair world and it’s a rigged system,” he said. “We’re living in a broken, fallen place, and there are people that get away with evil.”

After the accident, Coffee returned to Texas to work as an actor—appearing as a right-wing extremist on NBC’s Chase and later as a heavily accented, over-the-top Texan in a series of commercials for Amarillo National Bank. He also launched a studio, Coffee Productions, which he said has done commercial work for Doritos, Gold’s Gym, and the YMCA. Coffee said his business was thriving until last March, when the pandemic struck and commercial work dried up almost overnight.

Though conservative, Coffee had never been a die-hard supporter of Donald Trump, whose bullying demeanor he found off-putting. But that changed as his livelihood felt more and more threatened. He began to believe that shutdowns—which Trump opposed—were oppressive. He grew particularly distrustful of Dr. Anthony Fauci after the immunologist walked back his statements from late February advising against mask-wearing, and he became disgusted watching leaders, such as California governor Gavin Newsom, violate the orders meant to prevent the spread of COVID that they put in place. But Coffee’s views on the virus seem to shift according to convenience. Though he regularly posts anti-mask memes on Instagram and suggests that fears of the virus are greatly exaggerated, he texted an FBI agent that he would not even consider meeting up until the agent had been “covid cleared.”

Several months into the lockdown, Coffee found himself isolated, unable to work, and with lots of time to conduct deep dives on the dark web. He encountered QAnon, or as he puts it, “They found me.” Relatives, who have limited contact with Coffee these days, say he quickly became “brainwashed” and began to refuse to engage with those who contradicted his new worldview.

In September Coffee began actively posting about QAnon conspiracies and releasing Instagram videos alleging the world was controlled by an all-powerful cabal of politicians, billionaires, propagandists, and Satanists‚ and that God had anointed Donald Trump to root out evil in the body politic. He often posted that there was a vast, child-trafficking ring run by pedophilic global elites. It’s a belief that he traces all the way back to his own experience working in the Los Angeles entertainment industry years earlier, where he told me he was subjected to sexual harassment regularly, met many young actors who claimed to be preyed upon, and witnessed grooming of potential victims by sexual predators. “One thing I discovered early on was that elites play by different rules in Hollywood,” Coffee said. “It was eye-opening.” Coffee also grew to believe another conspiracy—that the election had been stolen from Donald Trump—despite the lack of any evidence of fraud and the fact that courts repeatedly dismissed lawsuits challenging the validity of Joe Biden’s win.

 

Coffee told me he went to D.C. in early January to “be part of history,” to fight human trafficking, and to “bring all of this criminal behavior to light.” But as he drove from Dallas to Washington with a friend, he told his followers—who number more than 3,300 on Instagram—that he was “not a serious person.” When we met, he told me the Stop the Steal rally didn’t feel entirely serious either. Early on, Coffee said the gathering had a celebratory, festival-like atmosphere. He spent his time several hundred yards from the Capitol, bouncing from person to person, filming, taking photos for Facebook, and connecting with others.

He says he only stormed the building when he overheard an older man asking for reinforcements to “hold the line” near the front of the crowd, where rioters were attempting to overwhelm police on a second-level promenade by collectively pushing against them like a human battering ram. In Coffee’s telling, he innocently moved toward the front of the crowd, where some rioters were choking on tear gas and being trampled, to help “patriots” being victimized by police. Coffee told me he tried to de-escalate the situation by reciting Abraham Lincoln’s words: “A house divided against itself cannot stand!”

“There were people that were getting smothered,” he recalled thinking at the time. “The cops were moving forward and throwing tear gas and we needed to hold them back so we could get people out of there.” He added, “I kept saying, ‘Stop, we’re all Americans,’ and the cops kept beating me with their batons. I had a fight-or-flight response.”

In the days immediately after the riot, Coffee struck a proud tone about the crowd, posting videos on his Facebook account boasting about his experience at the Capitol. (Soon after, he was banned from the platform.) While in hiding, he also made multiple appearances on a YouTube talk show, Conspiracy Castle, and continued to post on Instagram—where his account remains active—about the incoming “QStorm” and his frustration with “cancel culture.”

In recent weeks, Coffee began to worry about his future, even though he called his actions at the Capitol “self-defense.” He hired a lawyer, and while he wished to stay longer at the resort, he grew to believe he would soon be arrested and charged. Reached by phone the night before he was planning to turn himself into authorities, Coffee said he’d been back in Dallas for about a week. He tried to sound confident but seemed noticeably shaken. Prison didn’t seem to be his primary concern. He’d accompanied his father as he ministered to inmates on at least four occasions and had some sense of what a future behind bars held; he even told me he’d accept a sentence, if it comes, as God’s will. Instead, Coffee worried, voice quivering, that he had “brought shame” to his family. “I have liberal friends who think that I’ve lost it and that I’m a right-wing extremist, which is not the case.”

It echoed a sentiment he’d shared in a rare moment of remorse when we met in person in late January and chatted behind his quaint, one-bedroom cottage. “I just don’t want to be forever known as the Capitol riot guy.”