It’s one of those ubiquitous images burned into the American psyche, a scene shown over and over again following the Jan. 6 riot in Washington:
A man sits with a foot propped up on a desk in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, a zealot among the frenzied mob that stormed the Capitol in a surreal siege that killed five people and injured dozens of others.
The man at Pelosi’s desk, Richard Barnett, has become an emblem of the fear and confusion now gripping the nation as it prepares for President-elect Joe Biden to take the oath of office.
Any study of Barnett, 60, a self-described “patriot’’ and Second Amendment activist who often totes an assault-styled rifle to rallies, must include Memphis, where he was born and raised and where he worked for a time as a firefighter before leaving for the hills of Western Arkansas, where he’s lived for the past two decades.
“I just can’t understand how somebody evolves (into) that,’’ said Jim Cunningham, a retired firefighter who was an instructor at the Memphis Fire Department Training Academy in 1983 when Barnett went through the program.
Cunningham said Barnett, who grew up in the working-class neighborhoods of Memphis’ Grahamwood-Highland Heights area and attended Christian Brothers and Kingsbury high schools, was an enigma even then. Though city of Memphis officials said they’ve been unable to locate records of Barnett’s employment with the Fire Department, former firefighters who recall him said he didn’t last long, abandoning what they considered a golden opportunity.
“For this guy to throw it all away, somebody like that, I just had no use for. I’m sorry,’’ Cunningham said.
“He was not cut out to be a tough fireman. I don’t know if he’s doing all this years later to prove that he’s a tough guy.”
Barnett, who allegedly broke into Pelosi’s office carrying an American flag and toting a Taser-like stun gun in his pocket, faces three federal charges including entering a restricted area while carrying a dangerous weapon. If convicted, he could be sentenced to more than 11 years in prison.
Barnett remains in custody following his Jan. 8 arrest.
He’s hired Anthony J. “Tony” Siano, a White Plains, New York-based attorney specializing in criminal defense and commercial and business law.
“I don’t try cases in the press,’’ Siano said Monday, declining comment.
Retired firefighters weren’t alone in trying to reconcile the bright-eyed, wavy-haired man they once knew with the balding, menacing version of Barnett who appeared on television screens across the nation. In one video Barnett spews venom as he describes how he took an addressed envelope from Pelosi’s office, and in another – shot in the months before the siege – he’s armed with a rifle and a pistol, telling a cameraman at an Arkansas rally, “I ain’t playing.’’
Barnett still has family in Memphis, but none of his relatives agreed to talk on the record.
“We live in different worlds,’’ one family member said last week from his front stoop, asking not to be identified for fear of reprisals from people who would deem him guilty “by association.’’
“I just don’t want to get involved.’’
According to a report by Capitol Police, Barnett traveled to President Donald Trump’s “Stop the Steal’’ rally earlier this month armed with a ZAP brand “Hike ‘n Strike’’ high-voltage stun gun he’d recently purchased.
The discovery came after Internet researchers tipped off government investigators: In photos taken of Barnett in Pelosi’s office, a stun gun can be seen jutting out from his left coat pocket. Law enforcement hasn’t recovered the stun gun but located its packaging days after the siege while conducting a search of Barnett’s Gravette, Arkansas, home, according to a Statement of Facts attached to the criminal complaint against Barnett.
The seven-page Statement of Facts includes a picture of the packaging along with various photos of Barnett lounging inside Pelosi’s office and walking away with an envelope addressed to Congressman Billy Long, R-Missouri. The envelope bears Pelosi’s digital signature.
The Statement of Facts also quotes Barnett from a now-viral video shot moments after he left the Capitol. As he displays the envelope, Barnett, who answers to the nickname Bigo (pronounced bee-go), says:
“I did not steal it. I bled on it because they were Macing me and I couldn’t (obscenity) see, so I figured, I am in her office. I got blood on her office. I put a quarter on her desk even though she ain’t (obscenity) worth it. And I left her a note on her desk that says ‘Nancy, Bigo was here, you (obscenity).’ ”
The images disturbed Brother Joel McGraw, a now-retired educator at Christian Brothers High School, the Catholic prep school that Barnett attended in the mid-1970s.
“It distressed me so much. I was just very unhappy because that’s just not what we teach at school,’’ McGraw said.
Christian Brothers yearbooks show Barnett attended there as a sophomore in 1975-76 and again as a junior in 1976-77. He evidently kept a low profile. He doesn’t appear in any of the yearbooks’ recorded activities. Former classmates at the boys-only school either couldn’t recall Barnett or declined comment.
Even Brother Joel McGraw, who taught for a half-century at the school and is known for his recall of its students – fondly referred to as Brothers’ Boys – said he was a bit fuzzy.
“We were sitting watching the news (of the Capitol riot) and (another brother) said, ‘You know, he’s a Brothers’ Boy.’ I said, what?’ And I looked up the alumni records. But, see, he did not graduate.’’
Though clouded by foggy memories and reticent relatives, the story of why Barnett left Christian Brothers, and how he came to work at the Fire Department and marry and divorce twice before leaving Memphis for good in the 1990s, is told through a trail of public records and the not-for-attribution comments of a couple close associates.
He was born Richard Morris Barnett in May 1960 at now-defunct St. Joseph Hospital, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would be pronounced dead eight years later after he was shot by a sniper here in 1968.
Barnett’s parents, Richard L. and Mary Barnett, both now deceased, lived then with Mary’s mother in a well-to-do neighborhood near Galloway Golf Course. But as the young couple cut out on their own, they found more modest accommodations in the Grahamwood-Highland Heights area where they would raise four children.
Richard L. Barnett had worked for a time as a loan officer for Leader Federal Savings & Loan, but left for a series of jobs, running a real estate office in the mid-1960s on Summer Avenue. The family attended nearby St. Michael Catholic Church.
Their world shattered in 1975 when Mary Barnett suddenly died, reportedly of an aneurysm. She was 42. Son Richard was 14. One family friend attributes the strain of Mary’s death on Barnett’s departure from Christian Brothers. He was said to have transferred to Kingsbury High in 1978, his senior year, though yearbooks there make no mention of him.
Barnett becomes a firefighter
By 1983, Barnett decided to become a firefighter, studying at the Memphis Fire Department Training Academy as a cadet in its Probationary Class No. 58. A program from the class’ March 24, 1983, commencement lists him as one of 28 graduates.
Again, he seems to have made a minimal impression.
“I lost track of him,’’ said classmate Bobby Renfro, 72, who retired in 2005 after 22 years, following injuries he suffered battling fires.
In a widely circulated video following the Capitol attack, Barnett says, “I’m a retired firefighter out of Memphis, Tennessee, living in northwest Arkansas now.”
However, pension records make no mention of him. Fire Department spokesman Wayne Cooke said in an email last week, “We do not have any records in our system that confirms his employment with MFD.’’ A formal public records request was filed, but the fire department has not responded.
Firefighters who remember Barnett believe he stayed with the department for only three to five years at most. Several recalled he had a problem getting to work on time.
City directories still listed Barnett as a firefighter as late as 1989. But by then his life was unraveling. He pleaded guilty to drunken driving that year and again in 1992 after a second divorce.
“I haven’t seen or heard of him until now,’’ one ex-wife who asked not to be named said in a text message. “I’m not sure I want to be involved. … I don’t know who he may have connections with that can do me harm.’’
It’s unclear precisely when Barnett left Memphis for Northwest Arkansas, but his recent resurfacing on the news troubled people who’d known him.
“I’m just surprised it was him,’’ said fire academy classmate Renfro. “He didn’t seem at that time that he was into that stuff.’’
Former training academy instructor Cunningham said he couldn’t figure it out either. “I don’t know if he got over there and just got hardcore into conservatism,’’ he said.
Cunningham said it’s one thing to support conservative candidates and another altogether to descend into violence and extremism.
“He took that next step. And what causes that? I don’t know. But I’m telling you, a guy like him would be easily influenced. He was easily influenced the first year he was on the fire department. And he ran and ran and ran (with a partying crowd) and lost his job. So, who knows? Evidently, he’s not a leader.’’
By 1999, Barnett was living in Benton County, Arkansas. He filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 2005, listing $11,300 in assets and $26,996 in liabilities.
The image of Barnett as an intimidating character emerged last fall as he showed up at gatherings wearing a pistol in a side holster and carrying an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.
“The silent majority has been silent long enough. And we’re standing up,’’ Barnett says on a video shot last October during a rally in Bella Vista, Arkansas. “And I don’t know if you panned out to show what I’m carrying right now,’’ he says, nodding to his rifle, “but I’m not playing.’’
Barnett formed an organization called 2A NWA Stand that he describes as a Second Amendment rights and pro-police group. A photo of Barnett and 15 others – all white and armed – appeared last fall on a Western Arkansas news site. The participants are wearing T-shirts that say, “Save Our Children,’’ and one is holding a sign that reads, “Dead pedophiles don’t reoffend.’’
The people in the photo could not be reached, but the sign’s message resembles the rhetoric of QAnon, a far-right movement that embraces the unfounded theory that the government is laced with Satan-worshipping pedophiles opposed to President Trump.
In the October video, Barnett discusses a fight of “good versus evil’’ and a “new world order.’’ In an apparent reference to the Black Lives Matter movement, he says “domestic terrorist groups’’ are “destroying America.’’
“We have to take this snake off at the head,’’ he says.
Academics label this brand of thinking the “insurrectionist mindset’’ and they trace its roots to the 1970s when the National Rifle Association’s militant gun-rights positions led many supporters to believe that gun ownership is necessary to defend against government tyranny.
That mindset played out last year when openly armed protesters gathered on the state capitol grounds in Michigan and again at Trump’s Jan. 6 rally in Washington, where many supporters carried a variety of weapons.
The dangers of continued escalation are evident.
“If we have a scenario in the future where the people who mobilize with guns have a bigger voice than the ones who respect a peaceful political process, then we are at the end of American democracy,’’ Duke University law professor Darrell Miller recently told The Trace, a national news organization that investigates gun violence.
As for Barnett, a federal judge in Fayetteville, Arkansas, ordered him released last week and placed under house arrest only to be reversed by Beryl Howell, the chief U.S. District Court judge in Washington. Howell ordered Barnett to be transferred to Washington, where he faces another hearing this week.
“I pray for that boy,’’ said McGraw, the retired Christian Brothers educator. “I pray for him, and the whole group, that they will get to their senses. It’s just so sad.’’
This story first appeared at www.dailymemphian.com under exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.