WASHINGTON -- The 19-year old victim of the fatal stabbing in Utah's park last July told police that he believed he was already on the FBI radar for having flashed a gun during the Capitol Riot.
"I was at the D.C. Riots. Salt Lake City police claimed John Emanuel Banuelos had told them seven months earlier, shortly after he was taken into custody in Liberty Park following the July 4th killing. He said that he was the one in the video with a gun right here. According to police, his description of video appeared to match a viral Vice News video which showed a man wearing a weapon in his waistband outside the U.S. Capitol.
Online investigators whose work helped to identify and arrest multiple rioters said to NBC News that they first gave Banuelos’ name to the FBI on February 20, 2021.
Police records regarding the July 4th killing , obtained by KSL in Utah, and shared with NBC News, may be able to confirm what citizen investigators claim they told the FBI more than a year ago. That Banuelos, 37 years old, was seen holding a gun in his waistband among the crowd of supporters of Donald Trump rioting outside of the Capitol Building on January 6, 2021.
According to police records, Banuelos told police that the FBI had not "come and got me yet." Banuelos confessed to the July 4th killing, but claimed self-defense. However, local district attorney's records show that they decided not to pursue the case. The FBI has not yet questioned Banuelos in connection to the riot.
The FBI does not comment on criminal investigations ongoing, but declined to comment about the investigation into Banuelos.
Pro-Trump rioters, incited by false claims of election fraud by the former president, broke through security barriers to enter the Capitol building during a joint session Congress, which was celebrating Joe Biden's victory.
Salt Lake City police reported that Banuelos claimed he had "went inside" Capitol. However, online sleuths did not find any evidence. Banuelos said that he had "probably" a warrant from the FBI for his participation in the Jan. 6 attack.
According to a police transcript, he said, "Man, should you just tell FBI to come get me?" He soon added that he was "just having fun."
It is unclear whether officers believed all that Banuelos told them during questioning regarding the fatal stabbing. Police records show that he said many things that don't make sense.
Online sleuths who investigated the Jan.6 attack and have identified hundreds of rioters including dozens yet to be arrested -- brought Banuelos’ identity to the attention NBC News. A group of citizen investigators, part of a larger "sedition hunters," community that is investigating Capitol suspects, claim they have been haunted since the attack in Salt Lake City.
This case is a reminder of the difficulties the FBI faces in its manhunt for Jan.6 rioters. Federal authorities describe it as the largest criminal investigation in American History, in terms of both the number of suspects involved and the amount of evidence.
In the first few weeks following the Jan. 6 attacks, the bureau received more then 200,000 tips from its public tipline and tens to thousands more via its National Threat Operations Center. Volume was 75% higher than normal.
More than 725 arrests have been made by the bureau out of over 2,500 people were caught on video violating the law that day. The FBI's website has photos of over 350 people it is interested in, but they have yet to be arrested. The federal court docket is jammed in D.C. despite hundreds of cases still to be filed -- and Guy Reffitt (another alleged rioter) set to go on trial this month.
The FBI still faces uncomfortable questions over a year following the riot about why it did not do more in advance of the Capitol attack. People close to the victim say that the fatal stabbing at Liberty Park on July 4, raised another question: could further violence have been prevented if the tip from the online investigators hadn't fallen through the cracks?
Victoria Thomas said to NBC News that she was "not surprised" by the fact that the man accused of stabbing her foster son, Christopher Thomas Senn (19), told police he was a participant in the Capitol riot and called Banuelos a "wicked individual."
She said, "I'm devastated." "We are disappointed in the justice system... He should have been detained. ... He is going to do it to someone else."
Randal Thomas, Victoria’s husband and Senn’s foster father, wondered if Banuelos, a homeless man, would have been able to travel to Washington. He also said that he was troubled by the possibility that the FBI had received information about him last year.
Randal Thomas stated, "That's horrible." "I don’t know what he’s done since, but the stabbing of Chris was so absurd."
Banuelos is not known where he is currently located. He did not respond to a Facebook message that was sent to him from two of the phone numbers he had previously been associated with.
It appears that the killing occurred in the aftermath of a dispute over money. Banuelos, along with other witnesses, told police that Senn was stabbed by another man using a skateboard to hit Banuelos' head. According to his police interview transcript, Banuelos said that someone had accused him stealing $150. He also stated that he believed he was involved in a "life-or-death" fight.
The federal investigation has been greatly assisted by online investigators from all walks. They have been recognized by the FBI many times. During a congressional hearing, Attorney General Merrick Garland even acknowledged their role as "citizen investigators across the nation". However, the average citizen who has helped the probe is concerned that crucial tips might still be getting lost in the system. Online sleuths have developed strong relationships with FBI agents. However, bureau employees are restricted in their ability to tell them about ongoing investigations.
One online investigator working to identify Banuelos said that while we understand that the system is overwhelmed and was not designed to handle such a large number of cases and prosecutions it was meant to handle. However, the fact that he actually murdered someone who was almost a child was a significant motivator to make sure that the information was made public. The person speaking anonymously, like many citizens who were investigating the Jan. 6 attack on their homes, was not subject to harassment.
There have been times when the FBI's tip-line has come under scrutiny. In 2018, before a teenager gunman killed 17 people at Parkland High School in Florida, a tipter called the FBI tip line with concerns over the shooter's "gun ownership and desire to kill people, disruptive social media posts as well as the possibility of him conducting school shootings." The bureau never followed-up. Chris Wray, FBI Director, stated that the bureau regrets the "additional pain” the news caused to "all those who were affected by this terrible tragedy" and that the FBI would investigate the circumstances. The families of Parkland victims settled an action against the FBI for more than $127 millions last year.
A citizen sleuth stated that, while Jan. 6's investigation was massive and bound to make mistakes, it was alarming that tips about violent suspects are not always given the attention they deserve.
This person stated that one of their concerns was the failure to quickly arrest violent people who have assaulted officers or brought weapons. "It's important to prioritise arrests of violent perpetrators before any other person is hurt or killed."
The man with the gun was who added to the FBI’s Capitol Violence "Seeking Information” gallery on February 3, 2021. This was just as the webpage was going through a overhaul to make the site more user-friendly and browseable.
The FBI had already given the suspect 200–AOM a nickname. Online sleuths used hashtags to track down and recall suspects. He was nicknamed #Cowpoke because of his cowboy hat with American flag stickers and "Stop the Steal!" stickers.
The lead was right at the bat. The man, who was captured on video and photographed flashing his gun in his waistband for the Lawndale 5K race in 2019, was wearing a blue T shirt that suggested he had connections to Chicago.
"Cowpoke" was also featured on the eve the Capitol attack. A livestream from another Trump supporter gave sleuths an image of his unmasked visage, clues about his identity, and insight into his mental state.
During the stream, which was later uploaded to YouTube, the man stated that "It's war, man." "Let's do the right thing. Let Trump win. We know the facts. We know what's going on." He cited a few YouTube personalities that had influenced him. He said, "Thank you, God for Jordan B. Peterson. Thank you, God for Dennis Prager."
He also spoke what sounded almost like a personal mantra: God first, think twice and move once. To be aware is being alive.
Several investigative threads were connected at the same time. Searches for variations of the man's motto led to links to social media accounts which appear to be linked to Banuelos. Facial recognition searches have led to leads that have been used by sleuths to build FBI cases. They also revealed old mugshots of Banuelos from before his face tattoos had been removed, according to sleuths. (NBC News didn't conduct these searches and can't vouch for their accuracy.
One of the sleuths claimed they had sent a tip via the bureau's online portal on February 20, 2021 just as the FBI was overwhelmed by new information from members of the public. Sleuths kept digging.
They claim they have learned a lot from him.
Banuelos, like many rioters, had a long arrest record. This included a prior felony drug offense that was not prosecuted. There were also a variety of other charges including one involving a guilty plea to fleeing and eluding officers. (Last week, Matthew Beddingfield was arrested by the FBI. He was being held on bail for attempted first-degree criminal murder.
Like many Trump supporters, Banuelos' social media accounts were linked to Banuelos. They engaged with pages on Facebook that shared conspiratorial content that claimed the election was stolen. According to sleuths, a Facebook account with Banuelos' name contains videos by Trump Jr. and conservative commentator Ben Shapiro.
KSL reported that Banuelos was arrested at least twice after the July stabbing. Police claim that he attacked a woman in August and then struck a woman and interfered in an arrest in September.
Authorities credited his self-defense claims in the stabbing. An Aug. 5 Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office letter stated that an official had said that they were "unable" to continue with the case against Banuelos.
The letter stated that the office would be happy to review the matter if more information was available to support the prosecution of the accused. KSL was informed by a spokesperson for Salt Lake County DA's Office that safety is their top priority and that they only file cases based upon the evidence available.
Randall Thomas and Victoria later met with Sim Gill, the District Attorney, about the case and still hope that Banuelos is brought to justice in relation to their foster son's murder.
Banuelos spoke with an investigator from Salt Lake Police Department for several weeks after being released from custody. According to police records, he claimed he was high and drunk. He had heard of a tax refund and wondered where it was. He stated that he was a conservative Republican. He brought up Jan. 6, again.
Banuelos, as the officer wrote, "talked to going where Donald Trump sent me."