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On his LinkedIn professional networking page, Brad Bennett offered coaching in several personal-improvement classes, including: “How to Think & Act like a truly Free Person.”
This spring, the Huntersville resident did not follow his own guidance. Instead, according to federal prosecutors, Bennett thought and acted like a man on the run from the FBI.
Which he was.
On March 19, federal prosecutors issued a warrant for Bennett’s arrest in connection with his alleged role in the violent break-in at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
But first the FBI had to find him. Bennett, according to court documents in his case, made that difficult.
On March 23, the 41-year-old eluded arrest in Texas because he had left for North Carolina a little more than a week before. Then, after returning to Charlotte, according to court records, Bennett went off the grid.
He left false trails. He stopped posting on Facebook. He turned off his cellphone. When he went online, he did so only using the free WiFi in fast-food restaurants and other businesses.
In all, prosecutors say, Bennett avoided capture for about three weeks before turning himself in to federal authorities in Charlotte on April 12.
He now faces six charges — a felony and five misdemeanors — all tied to the Jan. 6 violence. That day, hundreds of supporters of former President Donald Trump, fueled by baseless claims of a stolen election, stormed the Capitol to stop congressional certification of Trump’s defeat to now-President Joe Biden. To date, more than 400 arrests have been made.
Bennett’s most serious charge — obstructing a government proceeding — carries up to a 20-year sentence. If convicted, according to court documents, he faces at least 3 1/2 years in prison.
In an email to the Observer this week, Bennett’s attorney, Albert Watkins of St. Louis, said his client, like many others, was swept up in Trump’s lies about widespread voting fraud. A court filing this week indicates that Bennett may argue at his trial that he was only following Trump’s orders when he breached the Capitol.
“Mr. Bennett is a man who loves his country, was not armed or violent or destructive or threatening,” Watkins said. “He, like millions of Americans, are navigating a difficult path from the world of propaganda to the present reality.”
In the coming days Bennett will travel full circle. A federal judge in Washington on Tuesday ordered him released from the Mecklenburg County Jail and placed in the custody of U.S. marshals.
For the first time since the riot, Brad Bennett is headed back to D.C.
Christian or insurrectionist?
In letters to the court, Bennett’s friends from Huntersville and beyond describe him in similar terms: caring, laid-back, spiritual.
‘He’s is a wonderful Christian man and wouldn’t hurt a fly. I have never seen him get angry, let alone violent,” wrote Toni Shuppe of Pittsburgh, who said she’s known Bennett for 18 years and urged the courts to release him. “The charges against him are completely false.”
Federal prosecutors describe Bennett in different terms.
While she acknowledges that Bennett did not take part in the violence at the Capitol that left five people dead and 140 police officers injured, Assistant U.S. Attorney Monica Stump of Washington says Bennett used his social media pages to whip up resistance to the certification of Trump’s defeat.
“FAIR WARNING,” Bennett said in a new caption for his Facebook profile photograph posted in the days leading up to the D.C. rally, according to documents. “IF THIS ELECTION IS STOLEN FOR BIDEN ... PATRIOTS WILL GO TO WAR.”
On Jan. 6, video and photographs from Bennett’s own social media pages place him and his then-girlfriend and current co-defendant, Elizabeth Williams of Kerrville, Texas, at various locations inside the Capitol, including the Senate chamber.
Prosecutors say Bennett climbed some scaffolding to get inside the building. According to court filings, he and Williams left after about 10 minutes.
“TODAY WAS A REVOLUTIONARY MESSAGE,” Bennett boasted afterward online. “WE WON’T GO AWAY. WE WILL FIND VICTORY.”
Any victory for Bennett and like-minded Trump supporters was short-lived. The House and Senate reconvened that night to certify Biden’s win.
Bennett and Williams, a musician, lifestyle coach and essential oils guru, had been living together in the San Antonio area since fall. But their relationship ended in the weeks following their trip to Washington.
On or around March 13, Bennett rented an SUV in Kerrville and headed back to North Carolina, court documents show. He returned the SUV in Pineville the next day.
For Bennett, at least on one level, the breakup was a good thing. On March 23, federal agents arrested Williams in Kerrville. She’s charged with five misdemeanors in connection wit the Capitol break-in.
Two days later and using a search warrant, according to court documents, the FBI began tracking Bennett by his phone.
The game of fugitive hide and seek had begun.
Avoiding capture in Charlotte
Turns out, Bennett promoted some other online classes. One of them was called, “The Ultimate American Preparation Guide.” It appeared on his blog, “Battleborn.live.”
For $27, students would receive an expert training from Bennett “on everything a typical American needs to know to prepare for any form of chaos or emergency in these tumultuous times ... Learn about which foods, shelter, water & weapons work best for surviving and thriving.”
Whether Bennett used any of his own techniques to avoid capture in Charlotte is unclear. But court documents in his case show that the country’s most sophisticated law-enforcement agency had trouble getting a bead on his whereabouts for weeks.
After his return to the Charlotte area, according to prosecutors, Bennett learned of Williams’ arrest “and began taking steps to avoid his detection.”
Bennett spent much of his days in fast-food joints and business areas using free WiFi that was difficult to track, according to court documents. When he used his phone, his conversations were brief, and he relied more and more on Telegraph, an encrypted social messaging app, which he used to contact friends. He stopped posting on Facebook altogether, documents claim.
Prosecutors describe Bennett, at this point, as being “essentially homeless ... a couch jumper.” He bunked with a friend in Fort Mill, S.C., for two weeks in March, prosecutors say. When he decided to leave, prosecutors say, he laid a false trail by saying he would be staying with family in South Carolina. Except, Bennett had no family living in the state.
At some point, Bennett tossed his $1,000 iPhone out of the window as he was traveling on Interstate 77, prosecutors say. He later told authorities he did so because the phone no longer worked.
On March 31, Bennett received a phone call and text from an FBI agent urging him to turn himself in, documents show. He eventually did, but it took 12 more days.
In a filing calling for Bennett to be freed before his trial, Watkins, his defense attorney, maintained that the FBI’s problems in locating his client had more to do with Bennett’s lack of cellphone service during his move back to North Carolina and not from steps Bennett took to elude them.
J.D. Porcelli, a friend in North Carolina, described Bennett in his letter to the court as “one of the kindest, most selfless and generous God-loving men I’ve every known ... He has literally THOUSANDS of people that can vouch for all for all of the above.”
Zeth Anderson, another friend, wrote: “Trust me, he adds far more value to this country when he is ... making an impact in the community.”
Bennett’s freedom before trial came down to a jury of one, U.S. Magistrate Judge G. Michael Harvey of Washington.
In a ruling this week, Harvey noted Bennett’s lack of a criminal record, his support from the community and that Bennett — while he had breached the Capitol — had not participated in the violence. Bennett, the judge noted, had also turned himself in.
Harvey added, however, that Bennett also had given inaccurate statements about his actions at the Capitol. Citing the strength of the government’s evidence and the fact that Bennett faces years in prison makes him a flight risk, Harvey said Bennett was a flight risk.
Besides, the judge said in his order to keep Bennett in custody, the North Carolina man had already shown the ability to disappear.