By Scott Glover, CNN
Updated: Fri, 18 Jun 2021 12:11:17 GMT
On a sunny morning in February, as a bagpipe rendition of "Amazing Grace" filled the salt air, Ashli Babbitt's family and friends scattered her ashes into the Pacific Ocean off San Diego.
The ceremony, aboard a chartered boat, was supposed to be a final goodbye for the 35-year-old Air Force veteran and fervent Donald Trump supporter who was fatally shot in the US Capitol on Jan. 6.
Babbitt was shot once in the shoulder by an unidentified Capitol police lieutenant while attempting to crawl through a broken window leading to the Speaker's Lobby outside the US House of Representatives' chamber. The shooting was captured on video and went viral for the world to see. The lieutenant has been cleared of criminal wrongdoing.
But nearly six months after she was slain, Babbitt's memory not only lives on, it has become as polarizing and as politicized as the day itself.
To some Americans on the right, she's a patriot who died a martyr's death. To others on the left, she's a domestic terrorist who got what she deserved -- a sentiment conveyed with its own Twitter hashtag, #SheWasATerrorist.
"She is the tragedy of the modern Republican voter personified," liberal political commentator Bill Maher proclaimed in January. "She died for a second Trump term even though that would have solved exactly none of her problems."
Her image adorns a black "martyr flag" with the Capitol in the background that is being circulated on right-wing social media and appears in a painting reminiscent of the revolutionary war era entitled "Daughter of Liberty."
"She is going to be used for many, many years," said Simon Purdue, a fellow at the UK-based Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right, who last month wrote an article on the significance of Babbitt's supposed martyrdom as a recruiting tool. "The more they mention her, the more dangerous her story is going to be."
In interviews with CNN, Babbitt's mother and brother, Michelle and Roger Witthoeft, spoke openly about her life before the shooting, their perspectives on what led her to the Capitol that day and their contention that she did not deserve to be shot.
To her family, the life Babbitt lived for 35 years was suddenly eclipsed by what they see as a distorted portrait that has emerged following her death, based in part on her own social media postings and videos in which she rants about her conservative political views and support of Donald Trump.
Because of this and her high-profile role on Jan. 6, they say, the death of an unarmed woman who spent more than a decade in service to her country and who had no previous criminal convictions has been met with a collective shrug by the government and mainstream media.
Politics aside, "she was a person," her mother said, her voice cracking with emotion.
As for the videos, Roger Witthoeft said, "you're getting two minutes of 35 years. You don't know what she was like."
"So many people either love my sister or they hate her," he said. "Most of them have never met her."
Ashli Elizabeth Babbitt grew up a tomboy in a suburb of San Diego. She kept pace with four brothers and their friends, riding bikes, jumping them over ramps, skateboarding and "playing in the dirt," Witthoeft recalled.
"She just did boy things," he said. "Me and my sister were best friends."
Babbitt excelled at water polo in high school. Despite her small stature, she was a hard-charging player, earning her the nickname "The Enforcer." She signed up for the Air Force at age 17. Her parents had to accompany her to the recruiting office do so.
"She was brave. She came out that way. Always was that way," her mother said. "She always wanted to go into the military. 9-11 strengthened her conviction."
Babbitt spent four years on active duty, from 2004 through 2008, achieving the rank of senior airman. She went on to serve as an Air Force reservist from 2008 to 2010 and in the Air National Guard from 2010 to 2016, according to records released by the Air Force Personnel Center. Her service included deployments to Afghanistan in 2005, Iraq in 2006, and the United Arab Emirates in 2012 and 2014, according to an Air Force spokesperson. While with the Air National Guard, she was a member of the 113th Security Forces Squadron of the DC Air National Guard based at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. The unit, whose mission is to protect the DC area during periods of civil unrest, is nicknamed the Capital Guardians.
Witthoeft said his sister never let distance get in the way of her relationship with family members, whom she developed a habit of surprising with unannounced visits from across the country or around the world.
"You'd hear your dog barking at 2:30 in the morning and you'd open the door and it would be Ashli," her brother recalled "Caught a flight home!" she'd say.
He recalled one episode when he was feeling particularly down and called his sister, who was living in Maryland, to vent.
When he got home from work the next day, she was waiting at his front door.
"She's probably running around packing her bags as I'm on the phone with her," he recalled. "Ashli was just always there in the time of need."
Witthoeft said he doesn't recall his sister always being so consumed by politics. Years ago, he said, she voted for Barack Obama.
"She just would do her research and whoever she thought was the best candidate was the best candidate," he said. "In her opinion Obama was the better person at the time."
In 2017, after more than a decade away, Babbitt returned to Southern California. She bought a pool service company that she ran with her brother Roger and her future husband, Aaron, who did not respond to multiple requests to be interviewed for this article.
A shift to the right
Babbitt's politics, meanwhile, had shifted to the right from her days as an Obama supporter, according to a pair of videos from 2018.
In one video, which appears to be shot in her kitchen, Babbitt speaks in an animated tone about homelessness and border security and calls out Democratic politicians for "refusing to acknowledge or even admit that we do need the wall."
"The border is an absolute shit show," she said. "There's riots, there's arrests, there's rapes, there's drugs ... there are tons of issues."
"I want my politicians to start coming down here and telling me that my reality is a lie," she said.
She recorded another video around the same time from her car. She seems agitated, her voice impassioned, as she calls out then-Sen. Kamala Harris and fellow Democrats for failing to deal with homelessness, drugs and illegal immigration.
"Where is Kamala? Where is Kamala?" Babbitt says, sounding exasperated. "You guys refuse to choose America over your stupid political party."
"This is absolutely insane," she says moments later, her eyes darting back and forth between the camera and the road. "This is crazy."
She became an ardent supporter of Donald Trump, proudly wearing a bright red Make America Great Again hat and attending as many of his rallies as she could, her brother said. She was prolific on Twitter, using the name @CommonAshSense, where she spread QAnon theories, attacked the credibility of the mainstream media and, after the pandemic hit, railed against Covid-19 restrictions.
By 2019, her pool service company appeared to be struggling financially and was hit with a $70,000 judgment following a lawsuit by a company that provided a cash advance in exchange for a cut of future earnings.
Witthoeft said the financial situation for the company was not dire and that Babbitt remained positive about the future of the company.
"The financial stuff will pass," he quoted her as saying. "It's just a hiccup. Nothing lasts forever."
Earlier this year, a sign on the door of the pool supply company proclaimed, "mask free autonomous zone, better known as America," according to a photo published by The Associated Press.
Witthoeft, who spends his off hours surfing and working out, said he does not pay attention to social media and was largely oblivious to the increasing intensity of his sister's political views before Jan. 6.
"That whole world ain't my game," he said.
He had no idea his sister was bound for Washington, DC in early January, he said.
'Nothing will stop us'
On her flight to Washington, Babbitt took a selfie in which she's wearing a Trump 2020 mask.
"Tons of Trump supporters on my plane!!!!" she wrote in a text to her husband.
"Be safe," he replied. "I cannot lose you."
"Nothing will stop us," Babbitt Tweeted on Jan. 5. "They can try and try and try but the storm is here and it is descending upon DC in less than 24 hours."
She ended the Tweet with the words "dark to light!" a phrase commonly associated with the QAnon conspiracy theory regarding an ongoing battle between good and evil.
On the afternoon of the 6th, Babbitt filmed herself amid a throng of fellow Trump supporters walking toward the capitol.
"There's an estimated over three million people here today," she said, "so despite what the media tells you, boots on ground definitely say something different."
The size of the crowd was actually a small fraction of Babbitt's estimate, likely in the tens of thousands at most based on various projections and protest permit applications.
A short time later, around 2:45 p.m., she is captured on cell phone video attempting to climb through the window into the Speaker's Lobby, a Trump flag around her like a cape.
There is a loud bang and she falls backward into the crowd of people behind her.
Witthoeft was at work with his younger brother when they got a panicked call from their father.
"Your sister's been shot in DC," he told them.
"It was one of only two times I've ever seen my father cry -- I mean, go down to your knees, sobbing like a kid, cry," Witthoeft said.
A day or so later a pair of FBI agents knocked on the door of the bungalow he shares with two of his brothers a few blocks from the beach.
They were asking questions about Babbitt, Witthoeft recalled, and seemed skeptical that she'd traveled to DC all on her own and managed to find herself at the center of the mele without any help or planning.
Witthoeft chuckled as he recalled the episode. He said he told the agents he was unaware of his sister conspiring with anyone and doubted she had.
"You don't know my sister," he said. "That is exactly something she would do. That's who she was."
Ever since they were kids, he said, she'd exhibited extraordinary determination and discipline when it came to something she cared about, obstacles be damned. Her motto for when the going got tough, he said, was "hydrate and press on."
"She was invincible," Witthoeft said. "That's the way I looked at her."
Michelle Witthoeft said answers were hard to come by in the days and weeks following her daughter's death. She was repeatedly brushed off by the Capitol police and various politicians, she said. In some cases, people were "downright rude."
In February, Babbitt's family scattered her ashes in the Pacific Ocean off Point Loma, not too far from where she and her husband used to walk their three dogs.
At the time, they held out hope that the officer who shot her would be held accountable.
But federal prosecutors announced in April that they found "insufficient evidence to support a criminal prosecution" of the officer who shot Babbitt.
Officer's actions 'nothing short of heroic'
A press release from the US Attorney's office in Washington, DC said investigators examined video footage posted on social media and considered the statements of the officer who fired the fatal shot, other officers and witnesses at the scene, as well as physical evidence and the findings of an autopsy.
The two-page release contained a brief summary of the incident which painted a tense scene in which Capitol police officers had constructed a makeshift barrier of furniture to block a mob from forcing entry into the Speaker's Lobby and chamber of the House of Representatives from which members of Congress were being evacuated.
"Members of the mob attempted to break through the doors by striking them and breaking the glass with their hands, flagpoles, helmets and other objects," the release states. "Ms. Babbitt attempted to climb through one of the doors where glass was broken out. An officer inside the Speaker's Lobby fired one round from his service pistol, striking Ms. Babbitt in the left shoulder," the release said. She died a short time later at a local hospital.
Prosecutors said their probe was focused on whether the officer violated Babbitt's civil rights by willfully using excessive force against her. "The investigation revealed no evidence," the US attorneys' office wrote, "that the officer did not reasonably believe he was acting in self-defense, or in defense of the Members of Congress and others evacuating the House Chamber."
The release did not specify the shooting officer's stated reason for pulling the trigger, nor did it say why other officers present did not shoot.
Terry Roberts, a Maryland attorney retained by Babbitt's family, said in a recent interview with CNN that he intends to file a civil rights lawsuit alleging that she was a victim of excessive force.
Roberts said there was no indication that the lieutenant issued a warning before opening fire and that if he had, Babbitt, a former military police officer, would have heeded that warning. "He didn't need a bullet to stop her," Roberts said in a brief telephone interview with CNN. "It was excessive."
Roberts said he filed a claim that is a precursor to a lawsuit with the Capitol Police in April. He declined to provide a timetable for when the anticipated case would be filed.
Attorney Mark Schamel, who represents the Capitol police lieutenant who shot Babbitt, said in a statement issued after the DOJ announcement that the officer "saved the lives of countless members of Congress" by stopping the rioters from gaining entry to the Speaker's Lobby.
"His bravery on January 6 was nothing short of heroic," Schamel said.
Last month, Arizona Republican Congressman Paul Gosar, a vocal Trump supporter who backed efforts to overturn the election, sought to undermine the notion that Babbitt was killed in an act of self-defense.
He did so during a House oversight committee hearing in which he questioned a former Justice Department official about the events of Jan. 6.
"Who executed Ashli Babbitt?" Gosar asked.
"A woman, a veteran, was killed in the U.S. Capitol and her family and country deserve answers," the Congressman tweeted a week later. "Say her name."
Purdue, the fellow from the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right, drew parallels between the rhetoric surrounding Babbitt's death and that of Vicki Weaver.
Weaver was the wife of White separatist Randy Weaver who was fatally shot by an FBI sniper during a standoff with federal agents at Ruby Ridge, Idaho in 1992. The Weavers' teenage son was also killed a day earlier as was a US marshal.
Vicki Weaver's "perceived status as an innocent, white, female victim of 'state aggression' instantly placed her on a pedestal," Purdue wrote. Her death in particular became a rallying cry and recruiting tool on the far right and helped inspire Oklahoma City bombers Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols.
"We're seeing similarities in the way Ashli Babbitt is being treated," Purdue said in an interview with CNN. "They're talking about the death of Ashli Babbitt as proof that the state has gone too far. It's proof that a revolution is necessary."
'Trump rallied his troops'
Roger Witthoeft has since replayed the final moments of his sister's life countless times on the internet.
"One of the hardest parts about seeing the video is you want to grab her and shake her and be like damn it, Ashli. Why'd you have to do that?" he said. "What the hell were you thinking?"
That does not mean Witthoeft thinks his sister deserved to get shot -- he does not.
The muscular weightlifter says he'd like five minutes alone in a room with the officer that shot her. Not to hurt him, he said, but to hear what was going through his mind when he pulled the trigger.
"I don't agree with the decision, and I'm angry as a brother," he said. "But I don't think anyone wakes up in the morning and goes, 'I want to go take a life today,' so I'd be interested to talk to him."
Witthoeft said he understood that his sister's political messaging online and in her videos may "have been a little heated and delivered wrong," but that didn't mean she wasn't entitled to her opinion.
He said she'd spent most of her adult life in the military defending the freedom of others to speak their minds.
"I feel like she went to the Capitol because she felt like her voice wasn't being heard," he said.
Michelle Witthoeft bristled at the notion that her daughter was an insurrectionist.
"To have to defend my daughter's patriotism blows my mind, because she loved this country more than anybody I know," she said. "She was there to express her First Amendment right and to answer the call of a still sitting president."
Though she, too, had been a Trump supporter, Michelle Witthoeft said she didn't appreciate the way the former President has behaved in the wake of her daughter's death.
"Donald Trump rallied his troops and Ashli was definitely [one of] his troops," she said. "I think he could have intervened and spoken out on my daughter's behalf just one little iota as much as she touted for him every single day all day long."
She makes no apologies for her daughter's conduct and said she takes comfort in the fact that she was "in her moment" up until the second she was shot.
She called her daughter "a true patriot, in every sense of the word."
"She walked the walk," her mother said. "She didn't just talk the talk."