Model and Capitol riot defendant John Strand at a Teen Choice Awards gift suite on Aug. 9, 2014. Casey Rodgers/Invision for Nestle Crunch Girl Scout Candy Bars/AP Images
Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.On his website, the international underwear model, “influencer,” and January 6 defendant John Strand compares himself to David fighting Goliath in his trial on charges related to storming the US Capitol. “I will not bend the knee to tyranny,” he writes defiantly, while calling the insurrection a “federal entrapment tool” and his prosecution part of an “utterly dishonest and politicized kangaroo court circus.” In a US District Court for the District of Columbia courtroom, a far more subdued Strand blamed his predicament on an older woman—his employer and girlfriend Dr. Simone Gold, an anti-vaccine activist and founder of America’s Frontline Doctors who pleaded guilty to similar charges earlier this year.
Strand claimed to have joined the mob at the Capitol simply as Gold’s “protector,” using his skills as a licensed security professional to keep her safe as she attempted to give a speech about the evils of Covid vaccines and mask mandates. The seven women and five men on the jury weren’t buying it. After about five hours of deliberation, they found him guilty on all five counts in the indictment, including obstructing an official proceeding and aiding and abetting, a felony that carries a maximum 20-year sentence and a $250,000 fine. Strand remained stoic as the jury read out the verdict.
More than 850 people have been arrested in connection with the riot at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. Of those, more than 350 have pleaded guilty to various crimes ranging from basic trespassing to assaulting law enforcement officers. Fewer than 10 have gone to trial so far, and the government has now won every one of those cases. A “stop the steal” activist who had been organizing freedom rallies in Beverly Hills before the riot, Strand was offered a plea deal that would have limited his prison time to about 90 days. Instead, he chose to go to trial, and now faces up to 24 years behind bars because of his conviction on all counts.
Strand had entered the US Capitol on January 6 along with Gold, who was scheduled to speak at a rally near the Capitol that day. The pair had been front and center in the VIP seats for President Donald Trump’s speech at the Ellipse. After Trump called on rallygoers to march to the Capitol and the afternoon speeches were canceled, Gold and Strand made their way to the Capitol with thousands of others. Prosecutors presented hours of video footage showing the pair outside the east Rotunda door, where Strand could be seen standing nearby while a rioter used a flagpole to smash the door’s window, which other rioters eventually opened from the inside, allowing Strand and Gold to stream into the building with the mob.
The footage showed Strand and Gold pushing past U.S. Capitol Police officer Joshua Pollitt, who had been pulled to the ground by someone in the crowd. Pollitt testified at trial that he briefly lost consciousness and feared that his weapon would be used on his fellow officers. Video also showed Strand just outside the door of the House chamber, where an angry mob smashed a glass door trying to break into the room where many members of Congress were donning gas masks and taking cover behind the furniture. Former House parliamentarian Kyle Jones testified about the terror he experienced inside the chamber during the assault—testimony that even Strand’s lawyer admitted was harrowing.
After finally leaving the House chamber hallway, Strand and Gold didn’t exit the building as instructed by police. Instead, Gold went into Statuary Hall and attempted to give a speech—the speech, Strand’s lawyer argued, that is the heart of this case. Officers forced her to leave the hall, but she later went into the Rotunda and climbed on a statue with a bullhorn and continued to address the rioters, with Strand perched right behind her. Prosecutors argued that these actions drew a crowd and prevented the police from clearing the building, a key factor in the felony charge against Strand for obstructing an official proceeding.
Especially damning for Strand was a pile of evidence taken from his phone, including text messages to his family members, touting his storming of the Capitol. In the months before the riot, Strand had been promoting the “stop the steal” movement questioning the results of the 2020 election. He’d sent numerous texts and tweets talking about the coming “civil war.” Shortly after he left the Capitol, he sent a text declaring, “We stormed the Capitol. It was insane.” He wrote message to his brother saying, “Simone and I were with the first dozen patriots to breach the Capitol. We literally made history.” In another text, he wrote, “I don’t think the US Capitol building has been stormed and breached like that and it caused Pence to delay the certification,” which, he concluded, was a historic event.
A tweet John Strand sent after exiting the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.
While Gold has reportedly raised hundreds of thousands of dollars off her time as an alleged “political prisoner,” an issue that came up during her sentencing, Strand’s fundraising on his website is apparently not as robust. He is being represented by a court-appointed attorney who offered no defense witness other than Strand himself, who testified for several hours on Friday.
Strand was an unusually fashionable defendant. His hair was gelled to perfection and his earring twinkled in the klieg lights as he recounted some personal history, as casually as if he were giving just another OAN interview. Born in California, he said he moved with his family to Colorado as a child. His father, a Navy officer, nicknamed him “Maverick,” which is why Strand adopted the hashtag #TruthMaverick to refer to himself on social media once he got into politics. He was homeschooled until he went to junior college during his last year of high school to study business administration. Strand never earned a college degree, dropping out of school to work in music production. He was the lead singer and keyboard player in a band. “I loved music and fashion and the arts,” he explained. Later he moved to Los Angeles to model and act, and he worked as a security guard in swanky restaurants to help make ends meet. (The jury saw a photo of his uniform and badge.) He testified that before he met Gold, he had struggled financially and had spent some time couch surfing.
During a break, onlookers also learned a bit about his eating habits. Judge Christopher Cooper asked Strand if he’d gotten lunch, Strand revealed that he followed the Gen. Stanley McChrystal diet. “I only eat dinner,” he responded. “One meal a day for me.”
On the stand, Strand described meeting Gold in September 2020 at a “freedom rally” he was organizing in Beverly Hills, where Gold had been invited to speak. Soon after he became her assistant, and he claimed the relationship eventually became romantic. When he was arrested on January 18, 2021, he was 37 and living in Gold’s Beverly Hills condo. Strand’s lawyer, Stephen Brennwald, asked him some awkward questions during his testimony about the age difference between him and the now 56-year-old Gold. “Is it fair to say that your relationship involved a fair amount of bullying?” Brennwald asked. Strand agreed that it did. For all the focus on Gold in the trial, she did not testify, and the jury was not told that she had already pleaded guilty to one of the same charges Strand was charged with and sentenced to 60 days in prison.
In defending his actions, Strand testified that he was unaware of what was going on inside the Capitol when the mob pushed him inside. His sole purpose for being there, he said, was to protect his boss and girlfriend. “My responsibility was to keep her safe in a very large crowd,” he testified. It was a story he’d told many times before in interviews with right-wing media over the past year, where he has become a minor celebrity. Aside from Mother Jones, the only other news outlets whose reporters have regularly attended the trial were from the Epoch Times, a publication associated with the Chinese spiritual group Falun Gong that the New York Times has called a “global misinformation machine,” and One America News, a TV network so filled with conspiracy theories that it has been dumped by most of the major telecom providers. (After the verdict, Strand thanked the reporters from those outlets for being there but declined to give an interview.) Prosecutors used an interview Strand did with Rob McCoy, the pastor of his church, Godspeak Calvary Chapel, which became a hotbed of opposition to California public health measures during the pandemic, to contrast his public comments about the riot being peaceful and his admission in court that it was anything but.
One of the highlights of the trial came when Brennwald asked Strand about a video the government had played showing someone pumping a fist to the chants of “stop the steal” while they were outside the Rotunda door. The government suggested the video was proof that Strand was indeed there to protest the election, and not, as he had said, to simply provide security for Gold. When Brennwald asked him how he could be so sure that it wasn’t his fist on the screen, Strand noted that he’d been wearing English Laundry fingerless gloves the whole day. Brennwald entered the gloves into evidence, prompting Judge Christopher Cooper to quip, “No rhymes, please.” A woman in the jury box gave a hearty laugh at the reference to the OJ Simpson trial.
At the same time Strand was testifying on Friday, a jury convicted Doug Jensen, one of the first people to breach the Capitol, on all seven criminal charges, including obstructing an official proceeding. But unlike Jensen, Strand wasn’t charged with any violent crimes, and indeed, once he entered the building, videos show Strand mostly standing around in various parts of the mob looking cool in aviator sunglasses in various locations. Strand’s lawyer repeatedly said that he was not there wearing MAGA gear or tactical uniforms the way many of the other protesters were. “He wasn’t there for war,” Brennwald said, noting that Strand had left the gun he legally carried as a security guard at home. “He was there for a speech.” He tried to minimize Strand’s text messages after the riot, saying that “Mr. Strand was a braggart and a poseur.” He implored the jurors to look at Strand’s actions, not his words or his political views, which he acknowledged might be offensive to many of them. And he again highlighted Gold’s “forceful personality” in influencing Strand’s presence inside the Capitol. “Dr. Gold, when she wants to do something,” he said, “she’s going to do it.”
In her final rebuttal arguments Monday, Assistant US Attorney April Ayres-Perez fired back. “John Strand was a 37-year-old man with his girlfriend,” she told the jury. “He was not being led around the Capitol by his mother.”
Strand was released pending sentencing, which is scheduled for January 12. With no prior record, he’s unlikely to be sentenced to the full 24 years but he probably will receive a far stiffer sentence than Gold, who took the plea. Another Capitol riot defendant, Paul Hodgkins, pleaded guilty to just one count of obstructing an official proceeding and was sentenced this summer to eight months in prison.
Loran Morgan is one of Strand’s former friends who reported him to the FBI. Morgan has known Strand for at least 12 years and had once been close to him before he suddenly threw in with the anti-gay MAGA crowd that was antithetical to the West Hollywood circles they had traveled in. He says for most of the time he knew Strand, he was never political. “He’s always wanted to be famous, and this is the route he took,” he told me, speculating that Strand rejected a plea bargain thinking that a little bit of jail time would only enhance his publicity status. “It saddens me that somebody that I’ve known for that long would go down that road,” Morgan said. “It really came as a shock to me. I thought I knew him after all those years.”