Allan Mestel watched the Jan. 6 attack on Congress unfold on television. The next day, a news photo that caught his attention showed a man in a Trump hat, grinning from ear to ear, as he toted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s lectern through the halls of the Capitol.
It looked like Adam Johnson, who lived in the same town as Mr. Mestel. They weren’t friends, but they had crossed paths enough that Mr. Mestel said he had no doubt.
He called authorities.
“He felt absolutely entitled to be doing what he’s doing, and when I saw that, I had no second thoughts about assisting,” Mr. Mestel told The Washington Times.
He was not alone.
They were former lovers and Facebook friends, work colleagues, casual acquaintances, a probation officer and, in one case, a defense lawyer.
In some cases, they didn’t know the people they were tracking down but saw something on social media and went to work. In at least one case, someone happened to be in the right place at the right time and overheard an admission.
Eager to help identify people who were part of the attack, they called the FBI. It became a sort of national cleansing.
“The book value of that lectern is $1,000, but its symbolism is priceless,” Mr. Mestel said. “And this [expletive] is walking it through the Capitol with that stupid smile like he’s carrying a sack of potatoes through Whole Foods.”
The Washington Times analyzed 160 criminal cases filed from the assault as of this weekend, and more than 100 of them included the help of a tipster or cooperating witness. In most instances, the tipster was the one who put the FBI on the trail.
Tips started rolling in while the Capitol was under siege.
At 4:18 p.m. on Jan. 6, the FBI got a tip from an acquaintance of Andrew Hatley, who provided a photo of Mr. Hatley inside the Capitol. Investigators said it was easy to place Mr. Hatley because he was standing in front of the John Calhoun statue. It also helped that Mr. Hatley was sharing his geolocation with friends via an app. One of them reported the information to the FBI, and agents tracked down those records, too.
A couple of hours later, a former work colleague reported Joshua Lollar to the FBI. He said he and Mr. Lollar were Facebook “friends” and he saw Mr. Lollar posting photos of himself amid the chaos at the Capitol. The former colleague helpfully took screenshots.
Among other cases:
• Chad Jones was arrested after a family member called the FBI to identify him as the man with the red jacket and gray cap who used a rolled-up Trump flag to smash through the window leading to the Speaker’s Lobby, where rioter Ashli Babbitt was killed.
• Edward Lang was tagged in Instagram photos and posted several pictures to Facebook. The FBI said “multiple” tipsters captured and forwarded the photos as screenshots. Mr. Lang made it easy by drawing a large yellow hand and “THIS IS ME” on one photo, confirming where he was during the assault.
• Robert Packer, who won infamy for wearing a “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirt, was identified by media, but investigators said they confirmed his identity thanks to a store in Newport News, Virginia, where employees knew the man as a customer. They even dug up surveillance footage from December showing Mr. Packer in the Auschwitz sweatshirt, the FBI said.
• In one case, a tipster claimed to have identified the person responsible for striking the Capitol Police officer who died from injuries sustained during the riot. The tipster said the assailant used a hockey stick. The FBI said a hockey stick did not appear to be the weapon, but agents managed to track the stick-wielder anyway.
“I think what happened on Jan. 6 was so shocking, so horrifying and so dangerous that a lot of people just feel a transcendent obligation to have accountability,” said Larry Diamond, a sociologist and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.
“I think that some of these people have probably been for a long time recognized by friends, family, spouses, former lovers and peers to perhaps have dangerous tendencies that they were worried about,” he said. “But since there’s never been an event like this before, there’s never been a focal gathering that gave them the opportunity or perhaps the invitation or inspiration to act out on their conspiracy theories and their anger, maybe they didn’t take is so seriously.”
Early on, most of the cases stemmed from police arrests at the scene or cases that grew out of police encounters. Some were pieced together after agents studied press photos and videos.
Three weeks into the investigation, nearly all of the new cases involve tipsters.
Many are reporting anonymously.
Screenshots of Facebook posts were sent to the FBI via Twitter, with the bureau’s office in Texas tagged to make sure agents saw it.
Rioters’ eagerness to post their doings online has made the search much easier, effectively crowdsourcing the investigation.
The FBI is thrilled with the help.
Steven M. D’Antuono, assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Washington field office, told reporters that the investigation had received more than 140,000 photos and videos from the public and that the tipsters were playing “a critical role” in arrests.
The FBI has built a database of all the tips. Bureau agents and analysts are able to search the database to compare photos and try to place people, according to court documents.
“For those of you who took part in the violence, there is something you should know: Every FBI field office in the country is looking for you. As a matter of fact, even your friends and family are tipping us off. So you might want to consider turning yourself in instead of wondering when we are going to come knocking on your door because we will,” he said.
A few have surrendered under pressure of friends or family.
Others were more resistant.
Guy Reffitt threatened to shoot his children if they turned him in, the FBI said in an affidavit. His son was only too happy to give all the dirty details when investigators showed up. He reported that his father bragged about having “stormed the Capitol” and recorded it on his GoPro camera.
Lewis Schiliro, a former head of the FBI’s New York field office, said he wasn’t surprised by the outpouring. He also said the rioters made investigations easy by being brazen and plastering their activities across social media.
“There was no attempt to hide,” he said. “It’s not just the ex-wife who knows, but it’s every neighbor, co-worker and friend. In some of those cases, it was inevitable that people came forward.”
He said the saturation press coverage helped.
“In the old days, we had to put these pictures in the post office for people to look at,” he said. “We don’t have to do that anymore. It’s a whole new ballgame. You can put it on CNN, and people are going to call the FBI.”
In addition to media coverage, the old-fashioned method of posting “Be on the lookout” posters has generated some tips. Authorities have splashed alerts across bus shelters in the D.C. area that have helped build more than a half-dozen cases.
Mr. Schiliro, recalling his time working drug cases, said family members were often the first to come forward because they didn’t want the stigma of being associated with a dealer. He said the same dynamic is likely at play in the assault on the Capitol.
“In some cases, I think the relatives are saying, ‘I’m not sympathetic to what you did. You embarrassed yourself, and you embarrassed our family,” he said.
The FBI has been scrupulous about protecting the identities of tipsters and witnesses in court filings, including neutering gender pronouns.
But some of the tipsters have suffered consequences for coming forward.
Mr. Mestel said his personal information has been published online and he has received death threats. One of the threats mentioned his two children by name and warned him not to open any packages mailed to his photography studio. Negative fake business reviews started popping up online, he said.
Mr. Mestel, a professional photographer, moved to the U.S. from Canada in 2014 and spent part of the past four years photographing Trump rallies.
He planned to be in Washington for the Jan. 6 rally and had a flight booked, but his wife urged him to cancel because of fears that events would not turn out well.
He was watching television when he spotted his fellow townsman, Mr. Johnson.
“It was an act of patriotism for my adopted country,” he said. “It’s the most patriotic thing I’ve done since I’ve been in the United States.”