From inside the home, several German shepherds snarled and barked at the sound of strangers arriving on the doorstep. The house, on a quiet street of low-slung brick residences just outside the Panhandle town of Borger, was otherwise quiet. Its garage door had been left open, revealing an array of carpentry tools hung against the back wall. Nothing unusual distinguished the place, except that the windows were lined with black plastic garbage bags and one of the panes bore a two-word message scrawled in red and blue paint. It said: “Trump Won.”
The dogs became even more animated after the doorbell rang. Half a minute passed, then the door opened. Standing there, with a hand still on the knob, was a wiry man in his fifties, with close-cropped hair and a thatch of gray stubble on his chin. “Hi! How are you?” Tom Munn said. His smile—somewhat asymmetrical, owing to the absence of several front teeth—was nervous but genial.
That members of the news media had shown up on his doorstep was perhaps surprising only because it had been several months since his family had done anything to warrant interest. This was January 8, 2022. The case of USA v. Munn et al., one of roughly nine hundred to result from the attack on the U.S. Capitol 367 days earlier, was moving slowly through the federal courts. Though it seemed likely that prosecutors would offer a plea deal by which the Munns could avoid lengthy jail time, nothing had yet materialized. “Everyone’s kind of in a wait-and-see pattern,” Munn said. “I don’t know how the system works, anyway. It’s completely foreign to me.”
A teenage girl emerged from behind his right shoulder, then smiled shyly and disappeared. “I was there that day too,” I said to Munn. “At the Capitol.” Munn offered an unsteady grin. A network of year-old impressions seemed to flicker across his gaze before he added, “It was—something!”
Then the photographer accompanying me, James Evans, spoke up, saying that he would like to take a portrait of the Munn family. It seemed appropriate, he said, to memorialize their togetherness, in a way that would be more humane than, for example, the stark mug shots that hit the wires the day the FBI showed up on this very doorstep six months after the Capitol riot.
The Munn patriarch listened, politely noncommittal. What had not been said was nonetheless understood. The Munns had become something of a national curiosity. After all, there had been married couples at the Capitol on January 6, as well as fathers and sons. No other family this size was known to have participated in the invasion, however. How had six members of the same family—Tom and his wife, Dawn, along with four of their eight children—become so swept up in Donald Trump’s baseless claims about the 2020 election that they drove 1,600 miles from a small Texas town to help disrupt the peaceful transfer of power? It was, as the federal judge who presided over their case would later say with stoic understatement, “a puzzle.”
Evans added that he was from Marathon, a small town like Borger in far West Texas. “Oh, okay!” Munn replied, his eyes lighting up. “See, I like small towns!”
“You lived in Sparta before this,” I said. The Wisconsin hamlet, with a population of around 10,000, is roughly the same size as Borger.
“Yeah,” Munn said, betraying no surprise that I knew this. He explained that they had moved from Wisconsin to Texas in 2017 for his eight children. “It literally came down to schools,” he claimed. He had done his research, he said. The Borger public school system was highly rated. Not that Sparta’s wasn’t. But, Munn went on, “What was happening in Wisconsin wasn’t good. They started adding multigender bathrooms. And I was like, ‘Whoa—I’ve got too many daughters!’ ”
There were no such concerns in Borger, he said. “We love it here.”
Few in town had condemned the Munns, certainly not publicly. In the wake of the family’s arrest, there had been no local outcry, no denunciations from the local authorities, no negative reporting from the local news media. If anything, a sense persisted that the Munns had been unjustly singled out for their conservative beliefs. As their landlord, a Republican activist named Dora Snyder, would tell me, “The Munns are a stellar family, and they do not deserve to be politically persecuted.”
The history books will properly cast January 6, 2021, as a day of infamy, a horrific attempt on the part of rogue Americans to overturn a lawful presidential election by force. I happened to be there that day, a witness to federal police being beaten and pepper-sprayed, the kind of scene I might have expected to see in failed states but not in my native country. The spectacle of U.S. citizens busting their way into the U.S. Capitol—some chanting that Vice President Mike Pence should be hanged, others bludgeoning law enforcement officers—was an indictment of its own. Like the photograph of the white women taunting Elizabeth Eckford, one of the nine Black students who were attempting to integrate Little Rock Central High School in 1957, the wide-angle imagery articulates an ugliness that can never be explained away.
It would be easy to view the insurrection only in its aggregate form and overlook the jolting peculiarities of that day. There was an Arizona man named Jake Angeli parading around in the Capitol shirtless, with bison horns on top of his head and a spear in his hand. Another man, identified as 23-year-old Joseph Brody, from Virginia, sauntered down the Capitol corridors in a suit and tie, as if it were any other workday, except that he allegedly was captured on video entering House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office and destroying equipment after assaulting a police officer. A rapper who went by the name “Bugzie the Don,” also from Virginia, made his way into Statuary Hall, where he posed leisurely for a series of photos. And a 35-year-old Southern California woman in jeans and snow boots named Ashli Babbitt, an Air Force veteran and co-owner of a swimming pool cleaning company, attempted to vault herself through a window leading to the Speaker’s Lobby, only to fall to the ground, shot to death at point-blank range by Capitol Police lieutenant Michael Byrd.
Amid this kaleidoscopic melee, another strange tableau unfolded, one that might have escaped notice but for the Capitol surveillance cameras. It occurred at 2:25 p.m., just twelve minutes after the first rioter breached the building and about twenty minutes before Babbitt was killed. A slender middle-aged man slipped through a broken window into the Senate wing of the Capitol. He wore a red sweatshirt, camouflage pants, and a black knit cap. Though the marble corridor was already crowded with rioters bustling along in both directions, the man lingered by the broken window. He helped a teenage girl wearing a camouflage coat climb through, taking care that she didn’t land on the shattered glass covering the floor. Then the man assisted a second teenage girl who was similarly attired. A third woman followed, slightly older and wearing a Trump flag as a cape. Then came a middle-aged woman, hooded and wearing sunglasses. Finally, a young man clambered through the window. The six of them then proceeded through the U.S. Capitol in tandem, as the American family unit they happened to be.
These were the Munns. Just over an hour earlier, they had stood among tens of thousands of Trump supporters at the Ellipse, watching on the JumboTron as the president had said, “We’re going to walk down to the Capitol,” adding, “Because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong.” They had done exactly that, following other rallygoers all the way to the steps of the Capitol, in an atmosphere that Tom would later describe in an online post as “upbeat and patriotic.” Minutes later, his post continued, “everything suddenly became very ‘dark.’ I do not know how else to describe it. Eventually resulting in our entry of the Capitol Building”—past police barricades, with tear gas swirling and accompanied by a soundtrack of flash-bang grenades, security alarms, and the roar of the mob. Through the broken window, they entered the restricted area of the Capitol while federal legislators were convening to certify the presidential election.
The Munns’ movements over the ensuing 52 minutes were unremarkable. They wandered through the Capitol visitors center. They made their way into a Senate conference room, where the oldest sibling, 28-year-old Kristi, used her phone to record video of rioters confronting police officers. At one point, the father stood and lit a cigarette. At another, an officer who had been shoved by a rioter collided with Dawn, bruising her knee. Finally, at 3:17 p.m., the six Munns exited through a different broken Senate window. Throughout their nearly hour-long excursion, they were surrounded by fellow trespassers as well as police officers yet interacted only with one another. As Tom’s court-appointed attorney would later say, “They stuck together, as a family.”
That evening and into the next day, the Munns memorialized their activities on Facebook. “We went in and stormed capital,” the mother wrote. Declared the father: “I need to tell you all that the media is LYING TO YOU. . . . There was no violence in the capital building, the crowd was NOT out of control . . . they were ANGRY!!!” Maintained their only son, 23-year-old Josh: “It was super cool everything was cool till the cop used tear gas that is when people got mad but still never hurt anyone . . . I am still feeling the tear gas so ya I’m pissed.” Kristi wrote, “I was just thinking . . . tear gas tastes like freedom.” And eighteen-year-old Kayli, four months shy of graduating from high school, was ebullient in a message to one of her sisters in Wisconsin who asked how things were going: “F—ing great! Holy s— we were inside the
Then, on January 7, the Munns piled back into the gray family van and began the long drive back to Borger.
Like many places its size, the Panhandle town that took in the Munns when they first arrived in 2017 views itself as a community of traditional virtues—honesty, industry, patriotism, faith—rather than one that is defined by politics. As Steven Watson, who grew up in Borger and now serves as its high school debate coach, told me, “There’s a general air of respect and understanding where two people who don’t share the same opinions can actually sit down and disagree with each other and, at the end of it, shake hands and still be friends. It might be a little anachronistic, but for the most part, I think that it’s a place that concerns itself more with the quality of a man than with his opinions.”
Borger is an oil town: topographically barren, rough-hewn, and libertarian by nature, with a rowdy history of bordellos and bootleggers and even a brief period of martial law, in 1929, when Governor Dan Moody dispatched the Texas National Guard following the assassination of the local district attorney. The wildcatter ethos is nearly a century dead now. Still, said Sheriff Blaik Kemp, “People here are extremely down-to-earth and caring. But at the same time, don’t mess with our stuff, or we’ll shoot your ass.”
The conservatism that characterizes the Panhandle intensifies noticeably once the region’s few urban centers give way to the rural plains. Trump in 2020 won a whopping 68 percent of the vote in Amarillo-dominated Potter County. That share shot up to 88 percent in Hutchinson County, where Borger is the largest town. In Hutchinson, no Democratic candidate for any local office appeared on the 2020 ballot; it tests the memory of some to recall when a Democrat last ran for any local office. Two Borger Democratic voters, who did not know each other, told me separately that some Democrats were wary of openly discussing their party affiliation, as doing so might put their jobs at risk.
When Tom and Dawn Munn sought out a home here for their family in 2017, they answered a rental ad from Snyder, who was president of the Hutchinson County Republican Women. Snyder liked what she saw of her new tenants, who had been part of a small evangelical Protestant church in Sparta. “Well, I knew they were conservative,” she told me. “They’re Christian, and you know they live their life with rules and morals.”
Much of Tom’s biography was elusive to folks in Borger. Some were told that his jagged teeth were the result of an IED blast he had survived during an Army deployment in Afghanistan. But Tom didn’t fight in Afghanistan—his one overseas deployment had been in the early nineties, during Operation Desert Storm, and he had not seen combat. Others heard that Tom possessed a master’s degree and that he wasn’t receiving Veterans Affairs benefits because his military records had been lost. Neither of these assertions appear to be true.
Tom’s trajectory to Borger and then to the Capitol was inauspicious from the start. His father, Harvey Munn, was an Army soldier who fought in Europe during World War II. According to one of the Munn relatives, Harvey’s first wife did not share his preference for an open marriage, so they divorced and swapped spouses with two friends. Harvey’s second wife gave birth to Tom in 1967, in San Diego. (Decades later, Harvey remarried his first wife.) According to the relative, when Harvey was in his late fifties and working in construction, it frustrated him to see his teenage son fall in with a bad crowd and commit a series of petty juvenile offenses. Tom was sent from California to live with Harvey’s sister, who resided in Sparta.
In this new atmosphere, Tom did well enough. He graduated in 1986 from Sparta High School, where he met Dawn Marie Cooke. They married on the Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, Army base in 1988, while Tom was serving in the National Guard. Two years later, he was deployed to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, to serve with an Army maintenance unit during Desert Storm. He returned home and graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Mount Senario College, in Ladysmith, Wisconsin. In 1992, their first child, Kristi, was born. Dawn worked steadily as a nurse while Tom took odd jobs as a carpenter.
Two intertwining threads came to define the Munns over the years. One was their insularity. The eight children, who uniformly share their father’s gaunt appearance, lived under strict rules. For years, observing Halloween was forbidden. At one point, some of them were pulled out of public schools and enrolled in a small Christian school.
The other constant was the parents’ tendency to spend and borrow beyond their means and then leave others holding the bag. In May of 1996, Tom and Dawn filed for bankruptcy, listing creditors that included J. C. Penney, Sears, and the Wisconsin Department of Revenue. Thirteen years later, in 2009, the Munns again filed for Chapter 7, after both Tom and Dawn had formed individual private construction companies, secured bank loans, and subsequently failed to make payments. Their liabilities totaled $168,001. Their debts included $6,569 in rent that the Munns had failed to pay their landlord in 2008.
During the 2009 bankruptcy proceeding, Tom declared his income as zero. By 2010, he had stopped working altogether. Dawn supported the family on her nursing income, with assistance from Tom’s father, Harvey. Despite their meager resources, in 2012 the Munns moved into a six-bedroom rental home out in the country, a few miles from Sparta, near the town of Cataract. The owner of the house, Don Crandall, did not see anything that aroused concern. Apart from the spent bullet casings littering the yard from family target practice and the fact that the children owned an alpaca named Q-tip that occasionally defiled the interior of the house, Crandall regarded them as decent tenants. Dawn faithfully deposited a $1,175 rent payment on the first and fifteenth of every month. But one day in 2016, Crandall received an alarming phone call.
The caller was Laura Bolden, the caretaker of Harvey, who was then living in Sparta and in his nineties, widowed and recovering from a debilitating stroke the previous year. When Crandall told Bolden that the Munns had been paying their rent on time, the caretaker warned that this would likely soon change. She explained that Tom and Dawn, who’d taken control of Harvey’s finances after his stroke, had moved almost all of the elderly Munn’s money out of his retirement account and into a checking account they had opened under his name. Where there had once been approximately $200,000, now there was only $700. Belatedly, Harvey closed the account and confronted Tom in the presence of Bolden. Tom didn’t deny he’d taken his father’s money. Instead, the son asked for more so that he could make next month’s rent. (The Munns were never charged with a crime over this, though Bolden said an investigator with the sheriff’s department suggested that Harvey hire an attorney and pursue his son in civil court. He chose not to.)
Sure enough, the Munns stopped paying their landlord. The family promptly held a yard sale made up of items that were in fact owned by Crandall. When the landlord arrived and asked what was going on, Tom first said he thought the objects were his. Then, according to Crandall, Tom said, “Well, you’re the one evicting us. We’ve got to raise money to get out of here.”
Crandall showed up near the end of that year and found his place at last vacant but in a state of disarray. A stack of mattresses and other items belonging to him had been burned in the yard. The skeleton of a horse lay in the grass. Inside, the walls had been painted in garish shades of lime and violet and bedecked with random graffiti. Dozens of screws and nails had been drilled into the walls. Spilled paint covered the carpets. Camouflage duct tape had despoiled the door trims. The stove and refrigerator were gone. One of the toilets had been knocked loose, causing a leak that ruined the bathroom floor. The total damage exceeded $21,000.
The Munns had told Crandall they were heading to Arizona to live with Tom’s sister. In fact, Tom has no sister, and his three cousins who did live in Arizona at the time were aware that he had drained Harvey’s bank account. It does appear, however, that the Munns took brief refuge in the state, as the parents posted photographs on Facebook of the family visiting the Grand Canyon.
Eventually, they made it to Texas. Despite being unable to pay their rent in Sparta, the Munns somehow managed to cut a security deposit check to cover their new rental home in Borger. In February 2018 Tom and Dawn purchased and moved into the house across the street, which had been vacant since the previous owner, a local lineman and taxidermist, had shot himself to death inside of it. Some of the girls continued to live in the rental and attend Borger High School. Kristi and Josh took classes at a local community college, and Dawn later landed a job as a traveling nurse.
Tom became a prolific political commentator on Facebook, gaining a following of 4,900. He was a fervent Trump supporter and alluded to the far-right political conspiracy theory QAnon, ending some of his posts with the QAnon hashtag #WWG1WGA (“Where We Go One, We Go All”). On election night in November 2020, when the key states of Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin swung for Joe Biden, the Munns hardly stood alone in their incredulity. As Gerald Cantrell, perhaps Borger’s most prominent Republican activist, told me, “Biden didn’t win them states. They cheated like a son of a bitch. It’s obvious. That was the biggest conspiracy in American history.”
Two weeks after the election, the Munns hung a replica of the “Come and Take It” flag in front of their house. In late December, Dawn reposted on Facebook a photograph of a bullet accompanied by the warning “By Bullet or Ballot, Restoration of the Republic Is Coming!” On December 28 Tom reminded his followers that President Trump had recently beckoned supporters to Washington for a rally in his infamous “will be wild” tweet. Wrote Tom, “Our President has only asked two things from us, so far . . . #1 Vote #2 January 6, 2021.”
The Munn parents and their eldest daughter, Kristi, decided to take the family’s two high school seniors, eighteen-year-old Kayli and seventeen-year-old Kassi, to Washington. Kayli, a National Honor Society student and skilled debater, needed no persuasion; as she would later acknowledge in a courtroom, “We thought we were dealing with a monster.” Their son, Josh, was another matter. He was planning to move back to Sparta and had been working in a Borger hamburger joint to raise money for the relocation. But his parents assured him that a family outing to the nation’s capital would cost him nothing: they had just received a federal stimulus check. Josh relented. The two youngest children stayed in Borger; two others were in Wisconsin at the time.
On the morning of January 4, the Munns loaded into the parents’ gray van and began their 1,600-mile pilgrimage, which Dawn memorialized by posting a photo of Kayli and Kassi grinning together in the van: “Seniors class trip to Washington DC . . . fight for your rights!!!”
Two mornings later, on January 6, the mother posted a very different photograph of herself and her children, presumably at their hotel inside the
Beltway. They all wore camouflage gear and hard expressions, and each flashed the three-fingered gesture common to Three Percenters, an extremist anti-government militia movement.
After the Capitol rioters were finally routed from the building and Biden’s victory was formally certified on the evening of January 6, a bitter and fearful despondency fell over much of the rural Panhandle. In the town of Fritch, thirteen miles west of Borger, Blaik Kemp, who had just been elected as Hutchinson County’s sheriff, convened a town hall. Kemp intended to discuss local law enforcement issues with his constituents. Instead, Kemp recalled, “I stood for maybe an hour and a half and just answered questions about not really local problems. ‘What’s going to happen at the border now? Are they going to come take all our guns?’ ”
Tom Munn was also consumed with discontent. On Facebook, he posted a photograph of two bare-chested men hugging, both ostensibly gay and one bearing a resemblance to Trump’s former vice president. “I’m still trying to figure out why Pence, would turn on President Trump?” he wrote. “Anyone got any ideas??” For months, he repeatedly told his followers that Biden was an illegitimate president and that Trump would be restored to his office. He also hinted at civil war.
Facebook eventually identified him as a serial misinformer, and his account was permanently shut down. He took over the account of one of his younger daughters and unleashed a torrent of conspiracy theories, suggesting that one of the Capitol police officers who was attacked on January 6 had also posed as a rioter, and that the so-called New World Order, supposedly led by the Rockefeller family, might be responsible for the three 5G cell towers that had recently been erected in Borger. He wrote, “I really have to admit . . . I am really wishing we could see something, anything . . . I’M READY, JUST DO IT!!!” He responded to a follower’s approving comment with a photo of a man in a suit wearing a necktie shaped like a noose, writing, “Treason has a penalty.”
On June 30, roughly six months after storming the Capitol, the Munns again loaded into the gray van. This time, Tom, Dawn, and their five youngest daughters drove to the border town of Pharr, which Trump was visiting to support Governor Greg Abbott’s effort to complete the border wall. The photo op quickly took the form of a MAGA rally. Trump’s 22-minute monologue included greatest-hits references to Russia, Hillary Clinton, the “fake news media,” and the “fake election.” The Munns later posted photos of themselves in Trump regalia, hoisting flags and QAnon signs.
Unbeknownst to them, the Department of Justice was preparing to arrest them. The investigation of the Munns had begun just three days after the riot, when the FBI received a tip from a relative who had seen the family’s social media posts from the Capitol. Kristi had already taken down her Facebook page, but FBI special agent David Bolyard, who worked out of the Amarillo office, located the still-active accounts of the others. A few weeks later, on January 26, Bolyard called Kristi. She acknowledged expressing her First Amendment rights in Washington but denied that she had been inside the Capitol.
Bolyard quickly determined she was lying. Multiple Capitol surveillance cameras captured the Munns. An anonymous tipster also provided Bolyard with a video shot inside the Capitol that one of them had posted on Parler. Bolyard then made the fifty-mile drive up to Borger, where he showed up at the homes of three teachers who’d had the Munn children in class. Each identified screenshots of the children and their parents. Bolyard then obtained a federal search warrant and scoured the Munns’ social media accounts, including their private messages. Taken together, the posts provided a detailed, self-incriminating road map of the family’s activities at the Capitol. On the morning of July 12, Bolyard filed his complaint and request for a warrant to arrest Tom, Dawn, Kristi, Josh, and Kayli. Exempted from the warrant was Kassi, a seventeen-year-old minor at the time of the offense, who was identified in the complaint only as MC1, or “minor child.”
It was still dark the following morning when several black SUVs rolled up the street where the Munns lived. Federal agents carrying assault rifles and a battering ram assumed tactical positions around both houses. Then they hammered on the front doors. Once inside the main residence, they were confronted by several German shepherds. The Munns subdued their animals and did not resist. Tom was led in his underwear into the middle of the street. The female Munns were assembled on the driveway. A few miles away, at her fiancé’s house, Kristi was arrested. So was Josh, at his residence near Sparta.
During the Munns’ detainment that day, FBI agents interviewed them separately. Kayli insisted that the only disruptive activity she witnessed involved Capitol police leaving trash on the floor. She also maintained that she had seen members of an antifa, or anti-fascist, group enter the building, though when the agent asked her to describe the identifying characteristics of an antifa activist, she was unable to do so.
If Kayli fell somewhat short of contrite, her parents seemed almost belligerent. Tom insisted that he had done nothing wrong—that he had exercised his First Amendment rights in a public building during business hours. Dawn was asked if she would still have entered the Capitol, given an opportunity to do the day over again. “Most definitely,” she said.
The following morning, all five were released on their own recognizance. The family then resumed life as normal. Three months later, for Halloween, the Munn girls carved pumpkins and set them out along the street. One of the pumpkins bore a familiar message: “TRUMP WON.” Another pumpkin, carved by Kassi, carried a more obscure emblem, one that the average trick-or-treater would not have comprehended. It consisted of two letters and a numeral, “MC1,” her official designation by the Department of Justice—and now, apparently, her badge of honor.
“American Family Needing Help,” blared the title of the GiveSendGo account established by one of the Munn daughters in the summer of 2022. The web page included a lengthy elucidation by Tom of how he had tried to instill in his children his deep commitment to the Constitution, often focusing on the First Amendment. He wrote that the 2020 election results had left him doubting the process. Following what he termed “a frustrating display of political maneuvering, to obstruct the verification of the vote,” Tom “felt compelled to let my voice be heard and obligated to demonstrate to my children, the vital importance of doing so.” He described a Gestapo-like raid by armor-clad federal agents on his peaceful home. He said that his family had lost friends and now struggled to find work.
Tom’s synopsis of the family’s legal predicament was misleading at best. “Having no other ‘real’ recourse, we accepted the ‘plea deal’ offered by the prosecution,” he wrote. In truth, each of the Munns were provided free legal counsel from the federal public defender’s office. The children, beginning with Josh, eventually indicated their willingness to plead guilty. Though Tom and Dawn waited ten months to acknowledge their guilt, they offered no legal challenge to their indictment at any point.
When the GiveSendGo page went live, Tom lamented that the Munns lacked the means to travel to Washington for their sentencing hearing in October, and as a result, “we are greatly fearing being held in contempt of court,” he wrote. This appeal, which raised the Munns more than $33,000 in donations, evoked a familiar trope, that of a patriotic and Trump-loving American family suffering under the bootheel of a deeply partisan criminal justice system. That sentiment was echoed by Clay Renick, the Borger-based director of the Hutchinson County Historical Museum. Renick is no fan of the Munns and doesn’t believe they’re at all representative of Borger, but a few days before their sentencing trial, he wrote in an email to me that “Justice in America today, isn’t much more than a fleeting concept under the liberal definition, and I feel certain that the punishment the Munns receive will be severe—just to make yet another point about the residents of ‘flyover’ country.”
The opposite turned out to be true. Among the more than two thousand attackers who illegally flooded into the Capitol on January 6, even those like the Munns who did not participate in the violence had, by their physical presence, become part of a mob that the police could not control and that constituted a threat, both to law enforcement and to the other lawful inhabitants of the Capitol that day. Approximately nine hundred suspects have thus far been identified and indicted. The flood of January 6–related cases overwhelmed the federal judicial system, in much the same way that the Capitol had been inundated. Faced with this deluge, officials at the Department of Justice soon came to a compromise, according to sources familiar with the calculations. They decided to pursue, except in a few extreme cases, the misdemeanor charge of “parading, demonstrating or picketing in a Capitol building” against defendants such as the Munns. DOJ officials believed that a lesser charge would induce more guilty pleas from suspects who wished to avoid a felony record (with the loss of privileges that such a record might entail, including the right to lawfully possess firearms). This in turn would mean speedier trials, fewer juries to convene, and a lighter burden on the federal prison system.
But this arrangement had unintended consequences. It opened the door to accusations that the Biden administration was harassing Trump supporters who were guilty of only the pettiest of offenses. More insidiously, it meant that the DOJ would not use its finite resources to investigate small-time defendants. As a result, in many cases federal judges have had limited information to help guide their sentencing decisions.
This was the backdrop when the Munns showed up on October 12 for their sentencing hearing in the federal courtroom of chief U.S. district judge Beryl Howell, who had already presided over numerous January 6–related cases. The family’s sojourn to the nation’s capital had been quite different from their previous one. Thanks to their haul from GiveSendGo, they left Borger in a fifteen-passenger white van and checked into a sleek hotel within walking distance of the courthouse. In addition to the five Munn defendants, Kassi (“MC1”) and another daughter also made the trip. Their entourage included several notable nonrelatives, including two who took on the appearance of security guards and drove a pickup with Texas plates. Others included Randy Ireland, the head of a New York–based chapter of the Proud Boys and cofounder of the January 6 support group Americans for Justice; and Nicole Reffitt, a Wylie resident whose husband, Guy, was a convicted January 6 insurrectionist. Guy had been sentenced to more than seven years in prison, and ever since, Nicole had become an unofficial spokesperson for others facing charges.
The federal prosecutors apparently were unaware of the family’s GiveSendGo page and therefore did not provide Judge Howell with information about the Munns’ recent financial windfall. They did not introduce into court Tom’s claim on the fund-raising page that, far from acknowledging wrongdoing, he and the other Munns agreed to plead guilty only because they had “no other recourse.” The judge was also unaware that they had taken nearly all of Harvey Munn’s savings, that they had left their Wisconsin landlord to deal with costly damage to his property, and that they had managed to purchase a home in Borger a year after asserting an inability to pay rent. The judge did not know about Tom’s defiant, conspiracy-
laden posts on his daughter’s social media account in the weeks and months after he was indicted. Nor was Howell aware that three months earlier the entire family had traveled to Springfield, Missouri, over the Fourth of July weekend. There they met with several prominent defenders of the January 6 attack, including New Mexico–based conspiracy theorist David Clements as well as Ireland and Reffitt, both of whom now sat in the back row of the judge’s courtroom.
Howell nonetheless appraised each of the five defendants that Wednesday morning with degrees of skepticism and disapproval. Their defense was a familiar one. The Munns had traveled to Washington merely to show support for a defeated president. They engaged in no violence. Still, they understood that what they had done violated the law. If they did not show remorse in the immediate aftermath of the riot, it was because the gravity of their misdeeds took some time to sink in. And so now they returned to the nation’s capital in a posture of regret and with a plea for mercy in the form of probation.
“It’s one of those puzzles that will stick with me for the rest of my life,” the judge mused aloud, seeming to use the Munns as proxies for the many January 6 defendants she had come to meet in court. “What were they thinking?”
In particular, Howell seemed at a loss to square the behavior of Kayli with her high-achieving academic record. “She described her time in the Capitol as ‘f—ing great,’ ” the judge noted with evident distaste. “Saying she didn’t see any violence, saying that she saw police spreading trash on the floor of the bathroom, saying that she saw antifa—what am I to make of this young woman? How seriously was she taking this?” Being a debater required reason and common sense, Howell went on. “These are not skills that I saw demonstrated in the videos at the Capitol or in her interview with the FBI.”
The judge reserved her harshest words for the Munn parents, rebuking them for leading their children astray. Recognizing that Josh Munn suffered from transverse myelitis, or inflammation of the spinal cord, she observed tartly, “One wonders about the parents who would put a child with those conditions through these physical challenges.”
When it was the Munns’ turn to speak, the two children who elected to give statements each made a point of defending their parents. (Josh chose not to speak on his own behalf.) “This was not how my parents raised me,” Kristi insisted. “My parents raised me to be a good person and to do what’s right,” Kayli said.
When Tom rose to give his statement, he cast himself as a peaceful protester who became swept up in the passions of the moment. “I’ve never been political before, your Honor,” he claimed. “I just kept watching what was happening on the news.” Though Tom had repeatedly and emphatically insisted on Facebook that the 2020 election had been stolen, he now maintained to the judge that he simply had doubts about whether the votes were accurately counted. And, he said somberly, “Honestly, neither side was answering the question.”
Dawn was far more forceful. “I was looking for someone to show me proof that our election is secure,” she said of her motivation for going to the Capitol, her voice rising. “If we don’t have a secure election, we don’t have a democracy! And nobody has answered my question! And I’m saying, I still have questions!” She went on while the judge stared in disbelief. “We are a great country, under God! And it is the people that makes it that way! And, I’m sorry, I did feel like I had a right to ask if our election is secure!”
“There is no excuse, no question, that can justify disrupting the democratic process,” Howell shot back. Still, the sentences she imposed were relatively light: three years of probation for each; an additional ninety days of home confinement for Tom, Dawn, and Kristi; and fourteen days of incarceration for Tom and Dawn. The judge was willing to let Dawn continue working as a traveling nurse during her home detention, but she warned the mother’s attorney, “She’s not going to Bermuda as a traveling nurse, I can tell you that.”
Afterward, in the corridor just outside of the courtroom, Kayli embraced her mother. “I’m so proud of you,” the daughter murmured through tears. “You were all amazing,” declared Reffitt. “It’s over now.” Dawn broke free of her daughter’s hug. Walking past me, she muttered to no one in particular, “Well, I don’t think I’ve been called a lousy mom so many times in one day.”
That evening, Dawn, Tom, Kristi, and Kassi attended the nightly vigil held outside the D.C. jail for the January 6 defendants still incarcerated while awaiting trial. About two dozen supporters, led by Reffitt and Ireland, greeted them. Ireland beckoned to the four Munns and asked if any of them would like to say a few words. Kristi, the eldest, took the microphone. “I just want to let everyone know how much the support and prayers that went out for our family is what truly got us through all this,” she said. The family had spent the entirety of their drive to Washington reading the messages and Bible verses that had been sent their way, she added. “I really, truly am so proud to be a part of this movement. And I love you all.” The small gathering cheered, then broke out in a chant of “Munns! Munns! Munns! Munns!”
The family returned home four days later at a far more leisurely pace than that of their previous, financially hampered trek. Back in Borger, their front door featured a celebratory message: “THANK GOD FOR THE U.S. CONSTITUTION!!!”
Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, those who had seen another side of the family regarded their light sentence with disgust. “They are habitual offenders and will end up breaking their probation, and may then get some actual justice and punishment they deserve,” said their former landlord Crandall.
For now, the Munns are no longer the inconspicuous bunch they once were. They enjoy the support of the MAGA network, as well as the safe space of a town where many sympathize with their plight. As Snyder, their current landlord, said: “I can tell you one thing—this whole thing is a tragedy.”
This article originally appeared in the January 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Modern Crime Family.” Subscribe today.