LINDSTROM, MINN. – This small town feels like an island.
Surrounded by a chain of lakes, with an idyllic main street and neighborhoods of neatly kept homes and churches, it presents a classic portrait of Americana.
But that tranquil image was shattered twice last year by armored SWAT vehicles and squads of FBI agents bursting through one family's doors with guns drawn.
By October, four men from one Lindstrom family had joined the still-growing list of Americans indicted on charges of storming into the U.S. Capitol last Jan. 6.
A fervent belief that the 2020 presidential election had been stolen and what one relative has since described as a divine responsibility to protest the vote inspired the Westbury family to be there that day. As Congress tried to certify the presidential election results, they joined a crush of Donald Trump supporters. The mob taunted police and shouted "Treason!" as they heaved past the shattered windows of the U.S. Capitol building, its security alarms blaring.
“We made it.
This is our house.
We got pepper sprayed,
got abused ...”
"Watching our country being destroyed by our own people is the saddest thing I've ever seen," read one Facebook post later shared by Robert Westbury, the family's 62-year-old patriarch. He was referring not to what he saw inside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, which he described in other posts as a "peaceful protest." Depictions to the contrary, he would write, were liberal lies.
The Westburys are among the millions of Americans being swept along in a raging current of falsehoods: The election was stolen. COVID-19 vaccines are dangerous. Climate change is hype.
The deluge of disinformation is soaking social media and being endorsed by prominent voices in media and government and candidates for public office. And as it spreads and deepens, the consequences are getting more severe.
The four family members facing federal criminal charges are Robert, Jonah and Isaac Westbury and Aaron James. Their defense — and a related crowdfunding effort launched by Robert's wife Rosemarie Westbury, who has not been charged — is now unfolding along a similarly polarized interpretation of reality. With her family members charged with a litany of crimes related to the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, Rosemarie Westbury has blasted the government as "tyrannical" and called it a "domestic threat."
Thanks to support from a Republican state lawmaker and multiple right-wing internet personalities accused of spreading conspiracy theories — including false claims about Jan. 6 — the family has since raised roughly $37,000 to pay for its legal defense.
"When you take a deeper look at it, a lot of these folks truly bought into this idea that they were on the right side of history," said Jon Lewis, a research fellow at the George Washington University Program on Extremism, referring to the thousands of people who converged on the Capitol that day. "That they were the patriots, that they were the ones who were doing the right thing."
Fears form online
About 40 miles northeast of the Twin Cities, Lindstrom is best known for the double-dot umlaut on its welcome sign, an ornate coffeepot-shaped water tower and a devotion to its Swedish heritage that is expressed in the artwork and baked goods found along the town's main drag.
Mayor Kevin Stenson, who has lived here for 30 years and once served as its police chief, said the conservative-leaning city holds tight to a culture of respecting one another's opinions and privacy.
The Westbury case "came as a surprise, I think, to most people," Stenson said. "To not just have one but to have several people arrested."
"We are a local unit of government that puts its heart and soul in democracy and in processing and counting votes to see who wins the elections," he added. "No members of the council and [very few] members of the community would do anything to disrupt that."
But online, months before Election Day 2020, Robert Westbury was sounding the alarm about an alleged Democratic plot to steal the election. Westbury, who lists himself as a handyman on neighborhood community forums, shared a September link to news of military mail-in ballots discarded in Pennsylvania: "100% of them were cast for President Trump." But that post shared a link to a statement from federal prosecutors undercutting the conspiratorial premise: that total included just nine ballots, seven of them for Trump.
Since speaking briefly by phone to the Star Tribune in October, Rosemarie Westbury, along with the rest of the family, has not responded to requests for comment. Aaron James, 35, identified by Rosemarie as her oldest son, told a reporter to leave the property at their Lindstrom home later that month.
"To say that the institutions that we have in place right now are fair and equitable is absolutely false," Rosemarie Westbury told the Star Tribune. "Private citizens should be protected from the tyrannical system and threats both foreign and domestic. Right now we have domestic threats. This is a domestic threat. The government that we have in place is a domestic threat as far as I'm concerned."
She now writes occasional dispatches about her family's case on a Christian crowdfunding webpage she manages, attracting donations and comments from supporters who believe the family is fighting back against injustice.
Rosemarie said her family's decision to travel across the country and protest the 2020 election's outcome on Jan. 6 was at the request of Trump, but also out of a sense of religious duty. She says their "political activism" ceased once Congress certified the election, and that the FBI is now retaliating against her family. On the crowdfunding page, she offers up descriptions of early morning arrest operations featuring FBI agents breaking down her door with guns drawn.
Siege streamed live
Jonah Westbury, a 26-year-old former collegiate wrestler at the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D., became the first in the family to be charged in connection with participating in the U.S. Capitol riot when his own prolific social media activity became his undoing. Federal authorities arrested him in April, months after a former high school classmate recognized him from videos he posted on TikTok, Snapchat and Twitter showing himself walking around inside the Capitol after breaking in on Jan. 6, according to charging documents.
A separate video shared on YouTube two days after the insurrection briefly shows three members of the family — Robert, Jonah and Isaac Westbury, 19 — with a pro-Trump mob that entered the Capitol. Some people in the crowd shattered windows and mockingly tugged on a Capitol Police officer's face shield as they pressed their way inside.
"Take his helmet off! Get him! Get him!" an unidentified person can be heard yelling in the YouTube video.
Other videos — including newly released footage from the Justice Department of a violent clash on the Capitol steps — appear to show Isaac Westbury and Aaron James using law enforcement shields to try to charge past police guarding a tunnel entrance.
Days later, Robert Westbury resumed posting to a Facebook page that had gone quiet for several days during the family's trip to Washington, D.C.
One of his first posts back home was to cast doubt on the circumstances in which the mob entered the U.S. Capitol: "Perhaps, though, they were ALLOWED in. Get curious. Step back from the narrative your [sic] being fed from the media and ask questions."
"There was NO Riot in Washington, D.C.," he wrote a day later. "It was a peaceful protest, I was there. Liberals are lying to ALL Americans."
Soon after President Joe Biden's inauguration, Westbury shared this post: "The 2020 election was stolen! I don't need Trump to tell me that [sic] I saw it with my own eyes!"
Isaac Westbury and Aaron James are accused of using a law enforcement shield to "forcibly assault, resist, oppose, impede, intimidate and interfere" with an officer and with carrying a dangerous weapon into the Capitol as they allegedly tried to "impede the orderly conduct of government business and official functions." Both are felonies, but most of the charges leveled against the four men are misdemeanor offenses that include parading, demonstrating and picketing in the U.S. Capitol building, civil disorder and disorderly and disruptive conduct in a restricted building or grounds.
State Sen. Mark Koran, a North Branch Republican whose district includes Lindstrom, briefly promoted the Westbury family's crowdfunding website in a post on his own Facebook page that encouraged others to contribute to their legal costs: "Here's a local family in Lindstrom who can use some help."
"They attended the Jan 6th Rally and have been accused and charged with a variety of crimes. Some very serious and some which seem to be just to punish opposing views," Koran wrote. "All I'm asking is that they need assistance to mount a fair defense from an over bearing Dept of Justice. They are a good family!"
Koran later deleted the post after receiving a volley of negative responses. He declined to comment for this article.
The biggest boon to the family's fundraising effort came when the Gateway Pundit, banned from Twitter and flagged by Facebook for repeatedly sharing false information, published a story about the family's case that featured three links to the crowdfunding page. The website's founder also operates a fundraising project called American Gulag in support of what it describes as "political prisoners" arrested for storming the Capitol.
"We really felt a strong pull, I suppose we were there for President Donald Trump — but it was more than that," Rosemarie Westbury told the Gateway Pundit in November. "I felt the call of God to bring us there."
Within hours of the story's publication, donations more than tripled. Rosemarie, who has not been charged with a crime, told the site that she did not enter the Capitol building that day.
Her four family members are now being represented by Los Angeles-based attorney John Pierce, a prominent conservative lawyer who has made national headlines for representing nearly 30 Jan. 6 defendants. He spent most of his career as a civil litigator, but in 2020 he joined the defense team of Kyle Rittenhouse, who was charged and later acquitted after killing two people during civil unrest in Kenosha, Wis.
Pierce left Rittenhouse's legal team amid a dispute over how he managed money raised for the defense. His focus turned to Capitol riot cases, Pierce has since launched the National Constitutional Law Union, a foil to the American Civil Liberties Union that's being billed as a "nonprofit social welfare organization." Its website said "it is anticipated that a substantial amount of the funds" raised by the group will go to his law firm to help defend clients like James and the Westburys. Pierce did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Four other Minnesotans have so far been charged by federal prosecutors in Washington, D.C., with crimes related to the Jan. 6 siege. Most cases are still pending trial. Jordan Kenneth Stotts, 32, of Bemidji, became the first Minnesotan to be sentenced in November when he received 60 days of home confinement and two years of probation after pleading guilty.
Lewis, the George Washington University scholar, is among those closely watching the more than 700 federal criminal cases related to Jan. 6. He said crowdfunding efforts for defendants have emerged as a "prevalent trend" in these cases, and they rely heavily on the narrative of an overzealous government crackdown on ideology.
Lewis is among those worried that elected officials and tech companies alike are still not adequately countering the spread of disinformation, which he said could pose grave challenges this election year and as the 2024 presidential election grows nearer.
"It is not clear immediately to me that this threat is really being taken seriously," Lewis said. "There hasn't really been good answers and you haven't seen progress made on addressing disinformation in a serious way. That's a hugely significant problem here."
Erosion of trust
A Minnesota Poll last year found that about half of the state's voters outside of Hennepin and Ramsey counties either did not accept or had doubts about the legitimacy of the 2020 election. A similar share of voters did not consider the deadly U.S. Capitol siege to be an act of insurrection. Among Republicans, nearly half said Biden did not legitimately win the election.
Rosemarie Westbury partly attributed Trump's encouragement for her family's decision to travel to Washington, D.C., to rally against Biden's election. The U.S. House voted to impeach the former president based on statements at a rally telling the crowd to march down to the U.S. Capitol. Some defendants charged in connection with the riot have since tried to argue that they were simply following the president's orders.
Trump, in recent public statements, now calls the 2020 election itself the real act of insurrection and contends that the events of Jan. 6 were best described as a protest over a "fraudulent election." Federal law enforcement, intelligence and election officials have concluded that the 2020 election was among the most secure in history. State audits conducted in the past year, including some by Trump allies, have not found fraud at any scale that would have tipped the vote.
In Minnesota, GOP doubts over the outcome of the 2020 presidential election are already playing a prominent role in this year's contests for governor, secretary of state and other offices.
None of the five leading Republican candidates for governor, when asked at a debate last month if they believed Biden won the 2020 election, directly answered. Some instead made unfounded claims of wrongdoing.
Former state Sen. Scott Jensen cited, without evidence, "abuses" involving absentee mail-in ballots and dead voters. State Sen. Paul Gazelka added, "I don't think the election was fair but I do think we have the results that we have." State Sen. Michelle Benson, when pressed by the moderator, came the closest to answering when she conceded that Biden was "certified by Congress as having won the Electoral College."
False claims that Trump lost because of a rigged process have already undercut faith in elections that have yet to take place: A November 2021 NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist national poll found that only a third of Republicans said they would trust the 2024 presidential election's results if their preferred candidate lost.
"Part of it is about the information that people are exposed to and are willing to believe, but it's not just about sources of news or sources of alternative information," said Benjamin Toff, a University of Minnesota journalism professor and senior research fellow for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford.
"It is also about a number of political leaders that both continue to perpetuate a number of lies about the counting of votes and many others who have just remained silent in the face of a lot of misinformation about what happened," said Toff.
'There's a battle happening'
Stew Peters, an ex-bounty hunter from Minnesota turned high-profile conspiratorial internet show host, is the latest far-right media personality to take up the Westbury family's cause. Peters, who often promotes false claims about COVID-19 and human trafficking, likened the Justice Department's treatment of the family to the Nazi regime's extermination of Jews during World War II when he interviewed Rosemarie Westbury for a segment last month.
Westbury called the case against her family "illegitimate" and nodded along as Peters displayed a chyron along the bottom of the screen: "Garland's Oath-Breaking Nazis. FBI: 'Just Following Orders,' Crushing American Families."
Peters introduced her with a monologue that included false allegations that the Jan. 6 riot was started by an FBI "agent provocateur" to provide cover for a mass purge of Trump loyalists.
Within a day of the interview, the family had pulled in another $5,000 in donations.
"For people who don't understand that there is a battle happening in heaven being played out here on earth, they are doomed to a whole lot of confusion, a whole lot of isolation, a whole lot of darkness," Peters said as their interview neared its end.
"Amen," Rosemarie Westbury responded.