Capitol police protected democracy on Jan. 6; their scars keep the day's memory ever-present

Erin Mansfield, USA TODAY

On Jan. 6, Sgt. Aquilino Gonell stood in a tunnel near a basement entrance to the U.S. Capitol.

A team of Capitol Police officers Gonell supervised was assembled near the entrance, where they vowed to hold the line. Gonell looked at his watch: 1:13 p.m. “Where is the help?” he asked himself. He called on the radio for backup. It felt as if nobody was responding to his distress call.

By this time thousands of people had traveled from in front of the White House to the west side of the Capitol. Some walked straight up to officers and punched them to get through the bicycle rack barricades. A pipe bomb had been found at the Democratic National Committee headquarters.

Police officers suffered some of the most brutal assaults of the day at that Lower West Terrace entrance, including an officer who screamed in pain as rioters crushed him in a doorway. Attackers sprayed, threw and jabbed whatever they could find and tag-teamed with one another to weaken the police line.

“It’s a struggle every day,” Gonell said. “Every aspect of my life has been affected by the injuries I sustained that day. So every day it’s different but yet the same for me because I’m still living through the results of that horrific day. ...  For a lot of people it was just a day or eight hours or however long Jan. 6 lasted. For me it has been ongoing."

Timeline:How the storming of the U.S. Capitol unfolded on Jan. 6

Time has passed; the scars remain

More than 700 people have been arrested and charged for their roles in the Jan. 6 insurrection, at least two dozen of whom are charged with assaulting police officers at the Lower West Terrace. About 140 officers were injured in the attack, and four died by suicide in the weeks that followed. Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund submitted his resignation on Jan. 7. Congress approved money for the Capitol Police in July to help cover overtime expenses related to that day, but long-term funding remains tied up in budget negotiations.

A year later, Gonell and other officers are still carrying the scars. 

U.S. Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn testifies before the House Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol in a hearing July 27.

Harry Dunn, a Capitol Police officer who helped decontaminate officers that day, said the confined nature of the tunnel around the entrance helped lead to hand-to-hand fighting. “It was really bad,” he said. 

Another reason for the violence: The officers would not retreat. Other than fellow law enforcement, the only two people they allowed inside were rioters who needed medical attention, Gonell said.

While they were fighting in the tunnel, Gonell was unaware of breaches elsewhere and thought this was the only weak spot. He said police held the line because help wasn’t showing up.

“That’s why we stood there,” Gonell said. “That’s why we made our stand. That’s why we fought like hell to keep those people from coming through those doors. Nobody else was coming.”

Trump supporters clash with police and security forces as they storm the Capitol in Washington  on Jan. 6.

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Aquilino Gonell and Harry Dunn

Gonell, 43, came to the United States from the Dominican Republic at 14, intent on bettering himself in the land of opportunity. He wanted a career that was different from what most Dominican immigrants he knew were doing: driving taxis, running bodegas, working in factories.

So he went to college at Long Island University in Brooklyn, New York. He joined the Army just before turning 21. He married and had a son, now 10. He retired from the Army and joined the Capitol Police. In 2018 he made sergeant and is now studying to become a lieutenant.

Gonell has had two surgeries since Jan. 6. One was to fuse bones in his toes that were sticking out in opposite directions. The other was to repair muscle and cartilage in his shoulder. He took 10 months off from work to recover from his injuries and returned to limited duty in November. He also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

U.S. Capitol Police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell testifies before the House select committee hearing on the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol Hill in hearings on July 27.

“I want them to pay,” Gonell said of the rioters.  "My entire life has been changed because of what they did to me. I struggle with my mental health. I struggle with my physical injuries.” 

Dunn, 38, grew up in the D.C. suburbs in Maryland and saw policing as a cool career, a way to help people. He played football at James Madison University in Virginia and joined the Capitol Police in 2008. He has a 9-year-old daughter.

Dunn also played a role on Jan. 6. That night he took a big glass of bourbon into the shower with him when he got home after midnight; any other physical injuries went away with ibuprofen. He has used mental health counseling sessions to address how the day affected him.

In July, Dunn, who is Black, testified in front of the House committee investigating the attack about his experience, including when rioters called him racial slurs. But he says that doesn’t tell the whole story of how he experienced the day.

“It really bothers me that everything is about my race,” he said. “There’s so much more bad (stuff) that happened to me that day than just being called the N-word. I also testified about getting my ass whupped.”

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Dunn helped his fellow officers

Dunn had been standing in an overwatch post on the east side of the Capitol early that afternoon, where he watched peaceful protesters pray, sing and chant “U-S-A.” “It was just a weird vibe, but it wasn’t violence,” he said. It was a stark contrast to what he kept hearing on the radio from the west side. 

“You could hear the fear in the officer’s voice and the seriousness,” he said. “It was frantic screams and yelling.”

When he heard someone on the radio say a second pipe bomb was found at the Republican National Committee headquarters, he asked a colleague to stand in his post and sprinted north, around the Senate portion of the building, to the west side. He gulped when he saw thousands of people walking from the White House to the Capitol, obscuring the grass he would usually see when he looked toward Pennsylvania Avenue and the National Mall.

Supporters of President Donald Trump march on Pennsylvania Avenue toward the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

He assessed the crowd, ordered people to stand back and added to the chorus of voices on the radio asking for help. At 6-foot-7, with an M-4 rifle in his hands, he realized he was a target. “If I’m them, I’m gonna want to take me out first,” he said. He knew he couldn’t fight hand to hand because rioters would take his weapon, and it would be a bloodbath. He tried to breathe, but the air was thick with pepper spray and chemicals. Every breath he took, he inhaled more.

He decided to station himself on the inauguration stage being set up for Joe Biden. Even though rioters had breached the original perimeter, they hadn’t breached the stage yet. He saw officers walking up the stairs, looking for help. They could barely open their eyes because of the pepper spray burning them, so he met them halfway down to guide them to safety. He flushed their eyes with bottled water and gave them more water to drink. He used rags to wipe the blood off their faces.  

“At one point we were ordered into the building, anyone who had a rifle,” Dunn said. “Their concern was they didn’t want our rifles to be grabbed by the rioters and be taken. We said no, and we continued to stay outside and help the officers who were incapacitated.”

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Gonell fought for his life

Gonell and his colleagues spent hours fighting for their lives at the Lower West Terrace. Over and over, he thought he would not make it home alive that night.

Court documents  describe much of the rest.

In the police line, many of Gonell’s colleagues had no shields because rioters ripped them out of their hands. One rioter, Jonathan Pollock, slammed a riot shield into the line of officers and blocked officers from getting out of the tunnel, court documents say. While Pollock was holding them back, Thomas Ballard picked up a tabletop and threw it at the officers. Timothy Desjardins, 35, of Rhode Island hit the officers with a leg from the same table. 

Gonell stayed at the front of the line for much of the hours-long battle because he still had his shield to help him fend off rioters wielding flagpoles and lumber. Gonell clenched his shield while both of his hands bled on it. The rioters dragged at the shield, ripping his shoulder cartilage and tearing his rotator cuff. He knew losing the shield would be worse.

Rioters scale the west wall of the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6.

At one point, rioter Nicholas Brockhoff scaled the stage scaffolding. He set off a fire extinguisher toward the crowd below. A white cloud spread across the archway and obscured the entrance. Unable to see, some officers left the line for help. Aiden Bilyard, 19, pointed a golden canister toward the officers and fired off orange bear deterrent spray. 

Gonell had managed to make his way closer to the back of the line – the best place for him to call for backup – when a rioter picked up a speaker from the inauguration sound system and threw it. The speaker hit another person, ricocheted and landed on Gonell’s foot. He stayed in the line and kept pushing away the rioters, leveraging weight on his broken toes. 

Patrick McCaughey used a stolen riot shield to pin Daniel Hodges, one of the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department officers helping the Capitol Police that day. Stuck between the shield and the door, Hodges screamed and called for help. Gonell heard the screaming but didn’t know who it was at the time. Then rioter Stephen Cappuccio tore off Hodges’s gas mask, exposing his bloody mouth. Hodges kept screaming. More rioters joined McCaughey and Cappuccio, adding weight to the shield to further pin Hodges. The force also added weight to Gonell’s broken toes.

Gonell remembers hearing another officer get hit in the head, in what they would later learn caused a concussion. His arms were pinned for much of the time, so he couldn’t reach for his weapon. Even if he could grab his weapon, he knew that the mob would try to grab it from him and use it against him. He didn’t want a massacre.

A memorial for U.S. Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick is erected near the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 10.

The officers were so overwhelmed that two officers who had been trying to arrest Mark Ponder for running into the police line with a red, white and blue pole released him to return to crowd control. And it took two Metropolitan Police Department officers to hold back rioter Luke Coffee when he grabbed a crutch, raised it over his head, then lowered it to chest height to push the line of officers. 

Lawyers for Ballard, Bilyard and Ponder declined to comment. Lawyers for Brockhoff, Cappuccio, Coffee and Desjardins did not respond to messages seeking comment. There was no lawyer listed for Pollock, who remains at large. Lindy Urso, a lawyer for McCaughey, said "Mr. McCaughey is a great kid who made a poor decision in getting too close to the action that day, but unfortunately he has been caught up in the largest political witch-hunt in DOJ history." 

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Dunn had standoff with the Oath Keepers

When Dunn went inside, rioters had breached other parts of the Capitol but not the inauguration stage. Behind the Lower West Terrace door, officers were flushing out their eyes and decontaminating themselves.

Dunn and a colleague walked up a set of stairs toward the crypt, a circular, stone room with low ceilings and columns supporting the rotunda directly above it. “Shots fired,” the radio said.

“We weren’t given any information who shot, who was shot,” Dunn said. “Was it us that shot? Was it them? We weren’t given any information. It just came over the radio as that.”

The pair looked at each other. They decided the colleague would run toward the shots while Dunn stayed back. Hundreds of people were walking around inside the crypt, and unless Dunn stood there, all a rioter had to do was walk down the stairwell to find a clear view of officers in compromised positions.

“I said, ‘I’m not giving this up,’” Dunn said.

A group of people dressed in military-style gear, including one wearing an Oath Keepers patch, stood in front of Dunn hoping to get by. ‘Y’all not coming down here,” he told them. A handful of them started directing their fellow rioters to go to other parts of the Capitol. “Go patriots, continue on,” Dunn recalled them saying. “Let's go patriots.”

A group of men, some of whom are wearing Oath Keepers insignia, gathers as rioters storm the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6.

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A man who appeared drunk insisted on getting by, Dunn said. “He reached around and grabbed my shoulder, and as soon as he touched my shoulder, I punched him right in the face, as hard as I could, right in his jaw,” Dunn said.

A group of backup officers in riot gear arrived to take over and protect the officers below. Dunn left to catch up with the colleague who had run toward the shots.

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Gonell went home

Gonell got the OK from supervisors to head home around 3 a.m. When he pulled in the driveway, his wife walked out the door to hug him and saw bruises all over his body. “Are you OK?" she asked, tears falling into her hands. She asked to hug him, but his uniform was still covered in chemicals that could harm her, and he thought for sure rioters had exposed him to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.  

She cleaned the blood from his hands, and he walked to the washing machine to drop off his uniform. He went to the bathroom to take a shower, but the water dripping down his body reactivated the chemical spray, burning his skin. He called for his wife to get him milk, or moisturizer, or anything that could help him with the pain, but it only got worse. The pain was so bad he couldn’t dry his body.

He finally wrapped himself in a bedsheet and found his way back to her arms and stayed there sobbing. “I can’t believe what happened,” he told her. “Here in America.” He told her the year he spent in Iraq was not this bad. Then he woke his 10-year-old to hug him. 

Gonell sat down to eat the dinner his wife prepared while she called relative after relative to tell them Aquilino made it home. He tried to get to sleep, but the chemicals were still burning his body, so he tossed and turned. He slept for only 2½ hours.  

“Go to the emergency room,” Gonell's wife told him as he got dressed for his next shift. He refused. He needed to protect the Capitol, to guard democracy, to make sure his wife and son could have a good future. He got to work by 9 a.m.  

Gonell worked for 15 days straight, through Biden’s inauguration. Finally, on Jan. 21, limping, he told his supervisor he needed to see a doctor about his foot.  

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