More than 1,200 Americans have been charged with federal crimes for their roles in the January 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol, but among the marauding hordes, a few faces have left an indelible impression on the American psyche. There is, of course, Jacob Chansley, the bare-chested, bison horn–wearing Arizonan who is better known as the “QAnon Shaman.” Kevin Seefried, a 53-year-old Delaware drywall mechanic, will forever be remembered for marching a Confederate flag through the Capitol. And how could we forget Richard Barnett, the Arkansas window salesman photographed propping his foot up on Nancy Pelosi’s desk?
Then there’s 44-year-old Dallas filmmaker and actor Luke Coffee, a.k.a. the #HighFiveCowboy. Nicknamed for a viral photo of him in which he stretches his hand skyward during the riot, Coffee was involved in a skirmish outside the Capitol entrance. Clad in camouflage and a cowboy hat, the onetime college football player wielded a crutch that he picked up off the ground as a battering ram, slamming it into police officers guarding the doorway. In the days after the riots, as Federal Bureau of Investigation wanted posters with his image began circulating, Coffee retreated to Riven Rock Ranch, a 206-acre Hill Country resort fifty miles northwest of San Antonio. With support from the sympathetic owner, he hid there for roughly six weeks while an FBI agent urged him in text messages to meet “face to face.” Family members pleaded with him to turn himself in to law enforcement—which he finally did, in February 2021.
Almost three years after he surrendered to authorities in Dallas, Coffee’s trial begins Monday in a federal courthouse in Washington, D.C. (Portions of Texas Monthly’s 2021 reporting on Coffee have been cited by prosecutors in documents pertaining to the government’s case). He faces multiple charges, including assault of a federal law enforcement officer with a dangerous weapon, obstructing an official proceeding, unlawfully entering restricted grounds, and engaging in disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds. He has pleaded not guilty to all of the charges. Based on public statements and court documents, his defense seeks to argue that the riot was chaotic and that Coffee was acting in self-defense.
Coffee’s road to the Capitol on January 6 involved personal trauma and a rapid descent into right-wing conspiracy mongering. He spent most of his youth in Highland Park, an upscale enclave north of downtown Dallas. In college, he walked onto the Baylor football team as a defensive back, but upon graduating, he shifted his passion from sports to filmmaking. After landing a job in postproduction on the Warner Bros. lot, he moved to Los Angeles in the early 2000s and tried to break into acting. In 2006 he had a breakthrough: a prime-time television appearance on NBC’s Friday Night Lights. But after his longtime girlfriend was killed by a drunk driver, he changed, according to old friends. His career stalled out.
By the time the COVID-19 pandemic began, more than a decade later, Coffee was once again living in Texas. As businesses shut down to slow the spread of the virus, he lost work and his frustration with the government intensified. Online, he discovered QAnon, the influential conspiracy theory that a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles control the media and politics. Not long after, he began filling his Instagram profile with videos alleging that the world was controlled by an all-powerful cabal of billionaires, politicians, propagandists, and Satanists and that God had anointed Donald Trump to root out evil in the body politic.
The last time I spoke with Coffee, whose lawyer did not respond to an interview request for this story, he was preparing to turn himself in to FBI authorities, who’d identified him from videos and social media postings from the Capitol riot. At the time, he appeared clearheaded and seemed to be steadying himself for a stint in jail. Among the rioters on January 6, there are few cases involving violence that seem more cut-and-dried than Coffee’s. He documented his road trip to D.C. on social media, captioning a Facebook photo “Historic Day for ‘Merica!!” the morning of the riot. He was captured on multiple cameras, including a D.C. police officer’s body cam, battering his crutch into officers. In multiple interviews, he has admitted to physically confronting police.
Now Coffee is telling a different story. He has spent several years claiming he is a political target of a “demonic” mainstream media trying to persecute Christians. Pretrial court documents suggest his defense attorneys plan to argue that Coffee was, in fact, a victim. In his narrative, police officers who were battling rioters in hand-to-hand combat used excessive force when they tear-gassed their attackers. In those conditions, his lawyers argue, Coffee engaged in “reasonable self-defense.”
In a documentary on January 6 released last year by the Epoch Times, which began as a Chinese-language newspaper and has transformed in recent years into a powerful, right-wing media outlet written primarily in English, Coffee goes even further. The premise of the film is the notion that police officers guarding the Capitol were the “villains,” as one speaker in the film labels them, who instigated the violence on January 6. Repeating a widely debunked conspiracy theory, Coffee suggests that the riot was a “false flag operation” orchestrated by law enforcement. He presents himself as a religious patriot who was surrounded by “saints” when he approached the scrum at the heart of the riot. He refers to the scene as “a picturesque experience” and says, “I felt like God gave me a glimpse of heaven; in this chaos and confusion that was going around was this beautiful, peaceful thing happening, which I know was a gift.”
The rioters, the film asserts, were attempting to save one another from the police. At one point in the documentary, Coffee claims he approached the front of the riot because he was trying to help several women who were being crushed by the crowd, including Rosanne Boyland, a rioter who had collapsed to the ground near his feet. In this retelling, Coffee assumes the role of the tragic hero, equating Boyland’s death to the death of the girlfriend he lost to a drunk driver more than a decade earlier. But in my interview with Coffee shortly after the riot, he said he hadn’t realized Boyland was nearby and didn’t spend any time trying to save her. Further, after analyzing video footage of Boyland’s death, New York Times researchers concluded that Coffee’s attack on the police made it “virtually impossible for officers to give her aid, if they were able to notice her at all.”
Coffee now expresses little shame about his participation in the riot, but that wasn’t always the case. When I interviewed him in the weeks after the riot, as he hid from law enforcement, he talked about his actions at the Capitol with a mixture of justification and regret. He maintained then, as he does now, that he acted in self-defense, moving to the front of the riot and fighting back against police because he was trying to save rioters who were choking on tear gas and was called upon by God to take action. But he also worried that he’d brought shame upon his family and feared he’d “be forever known as the Capitol riot guy.”