It was just after 1 p.m., and Babbitt was in a rush to join the throngs of rioters already gathered by the steps of the Capitol.
“Her and her friends from California said they were on a mission to get the ballot boxes,” Tompach told Insider. “And they would do whatever it takes to get them.”
Incited by President Donald Trump’s “Save America” rally earlier that morning, in which the president called on his “patriots” to “stop the steal,” Babbitt was speaking “a mile a minute” about her hatred for Democrats, especially California Gov. Gavin Newsom, and telling Tompach, a fellow Trump supporter, she wanted her messages heard.
After Babbitt reached the steps, hundreds of rioters pushed through the metal barricades keeping them at bay. Babbitt, with a Trump 2020 flag draped around her neck, bolted toward the entrance. “She was too fast to keep up with,” said Tompach, who had met Babbitt that day. “She was right in the thick of it.”
He watched her disappear into a sea of unmasked white nationalists, conspiracy theorists, and Trump zealots and thought to himself, “That woman likes trouble.”
An hour later Babbitt was dead.
‘The storm is here’
Ashli Babbitt, a petite brunette with a big, toothy grin, has become one of the country’s most controversial figures, her death encapsulating the divide that has plagued the nation for the past four years. To some, she’s a martyr who gave her life defending America. To others, she’s a thug whose actions were un-American and illegal — terroristic even.
But former classmates, friends, and service members who spoke with Insider said Babbitt’s transformation from Obama-voting soldier to red-faced Trump supporter was complicated. Babbitt, after all, was someone who had led her life with unbridled passion. And when she fell prey to a dark web of MAGA conspiracy theories, Babbitt had so fully given herself to the cause that she was willing to do anything — even risk her life — to stand up for what she believed to be right.
Babbitt had started her career on the other side of the barricades. In 2013, she had worked security for Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration as part of the Security Forces Squadron of the DC Air National Guard, protecting the leader of the political party she would soon come to despise.
Eirik Blackwolf, a sergeant in the same squadron, was on duty with Babbitt that day. As he recalled, she drove a military van that responded to calls for assistance, which involved delivering hot food and drinks to her fellow service members.
Though Babbitt wasn’t vocal about her support for Obama at the inauguration, she later sang his praises. “I think Obama did great things,” she tweeted on November 15, 2018. “I think he jacked some shit up … but I think he did do a lot of good … at a time where we needed him. I voted for him!”
But between 2018 and 2020, Babbitt’s views shifted radically. Augustine Luna, Babbitt’s close friend and a fellow service member, said Babbitt voted for Trump in the 2016 election because he wasn’t a career politician. She began calling Democrats “commies,” became a staunch anti-masker and coronavirus denier, and spewed hateful rants in person and online at anyone who dared to disagree with her.
The shift corresponded with Babbitt’s indoctrination into one of the country’s most notorious conspiracy theories to date: QAnon, or simply Q. Adherents believe that a global child-sex-trafficking ring run by a secret cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophile Democrats was plotting against Trump. In 2019, at the same time Babbitt was joining the far-right cult, QAnon was classified as a “dangerous extremist group” by the FBI.
Babbitt’s interest in QAnon ramped up during the pandemic. QAnon hashtags, such as “Q” and “WWG1WGA” (“Where We Go One, We Go All”), dominated her Twitter feed. In a photo she posted in September at a Trump boat parade in San Diego, her hometown, Babbitt is wearing a T-shirt with the motto “We Are Q.” She started educating her friends about the conspiracy, sharing links with them every time a child sex trafficker was arrested.
To Babbitt, “it really meant that there was a movement against evil in the world,” Luna recalled. “She felt strongly against those who are ‘elite,’ and was willing to stand up and use her voice for those who can’t.”
For weeks leading up to the insurrection, disciples of QAnon perpetuated claims that the election was fraudulent and alluded to a plan to carry out forceful acts on January 6. The day before the insurrection, Babbitt ended a tweet with a QAnon catchphrase: “Nothing will stop us. They can try and try and try but the storm is here and it is descending upon DC in less than 24 hours … dark to light!”
Babbitt kept true to her promise.
She boarded a flight from San Diego to Washington, DC, and reassured a worried friend by text that she’d watch her “6,” military slang for “watch my back.”
“Tons of trump supporters on my plane!!!!!” she wrote in another text. She also sent a photo of herself sitting in an airplane seat with a Trump 2020 mask on.
On the ground in DC, Babbitt pushed through cops and crowds of rioters to the ornate doors of the Speaker’s Lobby. Two men hauled her up to a punched-out window, and she stuck her head through the hole and tried to crawl through.
A US Capitol Police lieutenant, positioned inside the lobby, pointed a gun at Babbitt’s head and fired a single round into her neck. Babbitt fell to the ground, landing on her American-flag-printed backpack.
“I saw the light fade from her eyes,” John Sullivan, who had been standing next to Babbitt and had recorded the incident, told Insider. “Then she stopped blinking.”
Police officers screamed for rioters to “get the fuck back” as medics fought to get through the crowd, but it was too late.
“I called her number as soon as I found out, and her husband answered the phone,” Tompach said. He had exchanged phone numbers and social-media information with Babbitt earlier that day. “He said the news knew about her death before he did.”
‘Small but mighty’
Ashli Babbitt grew up middle class in the small town of Lakeside, situated on the western base of the Cuyamaca Mountains, just northeast of San Diego.
Her mother, Michelle Witthoeft, worked in childcare, and her father, Roger “Rocky” Witthoeft, worked in the rug-installation business. He was a conservative who liked to spend his days outside tinkering with old car engines.
Babbitt was the older sister to four brothers and learned from an early age how to stand out.
As a teenager at El Capitan High School, she wasn’t part of the popular crowd, but “if you had classes with her, you would remember her due to her disruptive nature,” a former classmate said.
Loud and opinionated, Babbitt often hung around with the water-polo crowd and liked to be considered “one of the guys,” the classmate said. She always wore her straight brown hair pulled back in a ponytail and wasn’t one for makeup.
In 2003, Babbitt graduated from high school and enlisted in the Air Force. From 2004 to 2008, she served in active duty. In 2005, she was deployed to Afghanistan, and then to Iraq in 2006, an Air Force spokesperson told Insider. By 2014, she had been deployed eight times.
While on active duty, she met her first husband, Timothy McEntee, whom she married in 2005. The pair stayed together for the next 14 years.
About a year into their marriage, Babbitt suffered irreparable internal damage to her uterus after a mortar knocked her into a foxhole. She landed hard on a pile of debris, Luna said. And the injury left her unable to conceive children, but she rarely discussed the incident, friends told Insider.
“She was small but mighty,” Luna said of the 5-foot-2, 115-pound Babbitt, adding that she wasn’t afraid of speaking up to superiors while serving, especially if there were sudden changes to missions or if she and her fellow airmen weren’t given proper military gear.
In one instance in Iraq, the highest-ranking officer ordered Babbitt’s team to build a more secure compound out of raw materials because there wasn’t enough space to keep detainees in their holding cells.
“She put her hand up and stepped out of formation to speak with our commanding officer,” Luna said, explaining that most soldiers were too scared to ever speak up. “Then she pointed out better and more strategic placements for where the posts should go.”
Two Air Force members who served with Babbitt in the 113th Security Forces Squadron of the DC Air National Guard, where she worked from 2010 to 2016, remembered instances where Babbitt’s brash personality rubbed higher-ups the wrong way. Her outspoken attitude and propensity for challenging authority ultimately stunted her career, they said. Two airmen who served with her told The Washington Post that she had been demoted at least once.
“Ashli was headstrong and impulsive,” Blackwolf, the sergeant from Babbitt’s squadron, said. “She didn’t hold back on her opinion to anyone, no matter their rank, especially if she thought they were wrong or behaving unethically.”
‘I was fearful she would attempt to physically harm me’
After serving in the military for 12 years, Babbitt left the Air Force in 2016 as a senior airman.
She picked up a job as a security guard at Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Plant, in Maryland. By then, Babbitt and McEntee had already separated. The two officially divorced in 2019, court documents showed.
At the nuclear plant, Babbitt met her future husband, Aaron Babbitt. The relationship started off rocky — and showed Babbitt’s combative side.
In July 2016, Babbitt rear-ended Aaron’s ex-girlfriend Celeste Norris three times, a protection order filed by Norris said. Norris had been driving at a shopping center in Annapolis, Maryland, she said, when Babbitt swerved her Ford Explorer into oncoming traffic just to catch up with Norris, and was “waving her arms and yelling in my direction in a threatening manner,” the filing said.
“I was fearful she would attempt to physically harm me,” Norris said in court papers. Babbitt was charged with reckless endangerment, negligent driving, and malicious property damage over the incident, but was later absolved, according to court documents.
In a second complaint filed by Norris, she accused Babbitt of filing “malicious” and “false” reports with the police in a continued “effort to disrupt” her life. She said that Babbitt chose to “fabricate her stories as it fits the situation” and was “capable of doing bodily harm.” Norris was granted the restraining order.
Soon after the order was granted, Babbitt moved back to San Diego with Aaron.
The two lived together in a two-bedroom rental triplex on a quiet, well-to-do street in Ocean Beach, a five-minute walk from the Pacific Ocean.
They spent their afternoons strolling with their three ex-military working dogs, including a German shepherd named Kenai, on Dog Beach and grabbing a pint of their favorite dunkelweizen at the OB Brewery.
The couple visited the brewery almost every day when the bar was still open, and Babbitt — sometimes wearing her red MAGA hat — would strike up a conversation with Jim Millea, the head brewer.
“A lot of times she’d come in after work, and she’d just be kind of fired up about things. She’d get fired up about just about anything,” Millea said. He remembered her as a “spunky little spitfire of a girl.”
“She was definitely an avid supporter of Trump,” he said. “She would get fired up about how she really liked him as president, and she would be passionate about it.”
OB Brewery was also where Babbitt and Aaron met their girlfriend, Kayla Joyce, 29, who was working there as a bartender. Millea found out that the three were dating in the fall of 2019.
“I never saw them be romantic in the brewery, even when I knew they were in a relationship. They were pretty chill about it,” Millea said. “They were just friendly.”
Babbitt and her husband took over a local business called Fowler’s Pool Services & Supply Inc. when they moved back to California.
But entrepreneurship proved difficult for Babbitt. In 2019, the money lender EBF Partners sued Babbitt after she stopped making payments on a $65,000 loan, documents obtained by Insider showed. On July 1, 2019, a judge ordered her to pay back the money plus interest.
She also sold her parents’ home of nearly two decades, in 2019, after her grandfather Anthony Mazziott transferred the deed to her, according to documents obtained by Insider. The $297,000 sale was to help fund her company, but it put a strain on her relationship with her parents, a former neighbor said.
“They definitely believed they were kicked out of their own home,” the neighbor said. “Now they live on a boat.”
Mazziott told Insider that he had instructed Babbitt to sell the house, but he declined to provide details.
While living in San Diego, Babbitt felt targeted for her political beliefs.
“Lost a client because I am a Trump supporter,” she tweeted in December 2019.
“Bye! have fun with your feel the bern approach. I’ll hit you up after the election and ask how that plan worked out for you. The left is such a joke,” she added.
Another pool customer told CBS 8 San Diego that he had fired Babbitt after she “absolutely went off” on a rant about politics.
“She just started talking about people who oppose Trump and about Nancy Pelosi and Schumer and homeless people. She said, ‘I’m not going to have any homeless people crapping in my front yard.’ A lot of it didn’t even make any sense. It literally went on for about a minute and a half,” the customer said.
But Babbitt didn’t seem to care. When the coronavirus hit, she was outraged by the statewide mask mandate put in place by Gov. Gavin Newsom (whom she referred to as a “commie” in several tweets) and plastered an anti-mask sign on the front door of Fowler’s.
“Mask free autonomous zone better known as America,” the sign read. She also tweeted “COVID IS A FUCKING JOKE!”
“Nobody is killing grandma with COVID anymore than anything on any given day of any other year,” she wrote in another tweet.
When Babbitt was forced to close her business for months during the mandatory COVID-19 lockdown last spring, her anger toward Democrats only amplified.
“She personally felt wronged by the shutdown,” Luna said. “She attended anti-COVID-shutdown rallies. She was vocal about that because small businesses were forced to close while big businesses were kept open.”
‘She felt Trump was the only president to truly care’
For years leading up to the 2016 election, Babbitt had billed herself to friends and military colleagues as a libertarian with a conservative bent. She loudly condemned tax raises and abhorred what she saw as unnecessary government overreach, but she always defended democracy and the Constitution.
“She was, like most people, complicated and not defined by a single ideology,” Blackwolf said. “She believed strongly in the founding ideals of this country and was quintessentially American. But above all, she always did what she considered to be the right thing.”
So when she was first introduced to QAnon, it was the endangerment of children that alarmed her most.
“She was actively doing research to find the truth about kids going missing every six minutes,” Luna said, adding that Babbitt spent hours each week reading about it.
Preying on people’s innate desire to help children is nothing new, and has long been a strategy used to promote propaganda in the past, said Don Haider-Markel, a professor at the University of Kansas who studies political extremism. The idea can be traced back to an old antisemitic trope that portrayed Jewish people as using the lifeblood of children to take over the world.
QAnon blossomed throughout 2020 as people searched for a way to quell their fears amid the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests in the summer, Haider-Markel said.
“It’s a combination of seeking answers and seeking solace during uncertain times, but also being online more and more often,” he added.
The GOP quickly latched on to the conspiracy. In 2020, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican from Georgia, became the first open backer of the conspiracy theory to be elected into office. An estimated 30% of self-identified Republicans were found to have a favorable view of QAnon, a poll from YouGov showed. As for Trump, he refused to condemn the conspiracy theory throughout his time in office, retweeting QAnon-conspiracy-linked accounts more than 200 times.
By late 2019, Babbitt had become a full-blown QAnon adherent. She tweeted that “Disney, ABC, CBS, Epstein, the elites,” “Royalty,” and “hollywood” were all “sick twisted” people who were involved with human trafficking. She retweeted the popular Twitter account @Catturd2, which is known for spreading disinformation, multiple times a day.
In a November 2019 tweet, she promoted the debunked Pizzagate theory, which claimed that Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta, had sent emails containing coded messages about politicians involved in a child-sex-trafficking ring that was connected to the pizzeria Comet Ping Pong.
The more immersed in QAnon Babbitt became, the more skeptical she grew of Democrats and the media.
“We both never understood why so much of this news wasn’t reported through the mainstream media,” Luna said. “She felt Trump was the only president to truly care about this issue.” She started to attend local Trump rallies and protests in San Diego, where QAnon believers would convene in person.
After Trump’s defeat in the 2020 election, Babbitt, like most believers in Q, thought the election had been rigged. She retweeted posts with the slogan “stop the steal,” and responded with rancor to Vice President Kamala Harris’s tweet about COVID-19.
“No masks, no you, no Biden the kid raper, no vaccines … sit your fraudulent ass down … we the ppl bitch!” she wrote on December 29.
Trump’s defeat in the election only stoked Babbitt’s rage, especially toward liberal politicians. Online, she swore, made accusations of voter fraud, and continued to vent her passionate hatred for Newsom, replying simply “fuck you” to many of his posts.
But when January came, her tweets took a more hopeful tone. It was almost as though she were relieved that she and her fellow “patriots” would finally have the opportunity to take out their pent-up frustrations.
“I will be in DC on the 6th! God bless America and WWG1WGA,” she wrote in one post, with six American-flag emoji.
‘She never intended to break laws or become a “terrorist”‘
Babbitt was not the only person killed during the riot at the Capitol. Four others, including a police officer, died during the violence that day. But because Babbitt’s death was announced first — and her final moments were so clearly captured on-screen — her story instantly became the emblem of the rioters’ crusade.
Photos of Babbitt’s face were splashed across social media by supporters who called her an angel, a savior, and a hero who was executed by the establishment.
“An unarmed American patriot was murdered in cold blood!” one Twitter user wrote. Buzz Patterson, a Republican congressional candidate from California, wondered why the identity of the officer who had shot Babbitt had yet to be released. “Why don’t we know who shot and killed the unarmed young lady in the Capitol yet?” Patterson wrote. “Say her name. Ashli Babbitt.”
But other people had a different label for Babbitt: terrorist. President Joe Biden, in his January 7 remarks on the attack, said: “They were a riotous mob. Insurrectionists. Domestic terrorists. It’s that basic. It’s that simple.”
Some simply saw Babbitt as a victim of a larger force — her life “lost tragically to QAnon conspiracy theories and extreme rightwing rhetoric,” Babbitt’s Girl Scouts leader, Deavonne Long, wrote in a public Facebook post.
Ashley Vanderbilt, a mom who abandoned her QAnon beliefs after the inauguration, recently told Insider how alluring Q could be.
“It’s easy for anybody to believe it and fall into it, and smart people fall for it, too,” she said. “If you surround yourself with like-minded people, all thinking the same thing, it’s easy to get wrapped up in it all.”
Luna said: “She never intended to break laws or become a ‘terrorist’ like they’re all saying. She just went from the rally into a bad situation.”
In February, Babbitt’s family scattered her ashes along with multicolored rose petals into the Pacific. The only media allowed — a right-wing blog called Gateway Pundit — documented the event.
Her best friend of 22 years, Destinie Condon, raised nearly $10,000 on GoFundMe to help pay for the tribute.
“Ashli Babbitt — Wife, daughter, sister, aunt, niece, friend, veteran, patriot,” Condon wrote on the fundraiser. “These words will forever describe Ashli who tragically lost her life on January 6th supporting a cause she believed in with her whole being.”
Additional reporting by Sandy Coronilla.