Georgia Today: Why Family Says Conspiracy Theories Led to Ga. Woman’s Death In Jan. 6 Insurrection
How did a Kennesaw woman with strong family ties and hopes for the future end up dead on the steps of the United States Capitol? Rosanne Boyland’s family blames QAnon and other political conspiracy theories for leading her to her death at the pro-Trump insurrection in Washington on Jan. 6. On the latest Georgia Today podcast, New York Times reporter Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs shares what he learned about Boyland’s life, her death, and her journey into the shadowy world of QAnon.
Steve Fennessy: Authorities continue to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. The violence by pro-Trump mobs injured dozens of people and left five others dead. Among them was a 34-year-old woman named Rosanne Boyland from Kennesaw, Ga. In the months since the unprecedented attack, new details are emerging about Boyland and what drove her to participate in the insurrection, and what led her to get swept up in ever-more bizarre conspiracies like the ones pushed by followers of QAnon.
Washington Post national technology reporter Craig Timberg: "That prominent Democrats and Hollywood celebrities are pedophiles, that they traffic in children for sex and they also eat those children and that they are working together to undermine the U.S. government and take control of essentially the whole world."
Steve Fennessy: In this week's episode of Georgia Today, I'm joined by Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, a New York Times reporter who examined the life and death of Rosanne Boyland and what's next for Democratic-led efforts to investigate the insurrection. So tell us a little bit about Rosanne Boyland.
Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs: Rosanne is one of three sisters. She is the middle sister. Her younger sister said she saw her as kind of a role model because of how outgoing and confident she was, in her opinion. She was someone who was quite assertive even from a young age about knowing how they felt about something and — and not wanting to back down from an argument. In July 2014, she learned that her older sister was going to have a child for the first time, and she was incredibly excited about that. She said, “I want to be the cool aunt. I want to be the the aunt who my nieces can talk to if they don't want to talk to their parents.” And her older sister gave birth to the first daughter in early 2015. And right away, Roseanne was there documenting things, you know, she would write down when the — her niece had a first step or said her first word or things like that. As the children grew older, she would pick them up from school. She would really just kind of be a friend and aunt who was there for them. She grew up in Kennesaw and she had a hard time starting in high school and was arrested several times for drug offenses. She ended up dropping out of high school and went to a rehabilitation facility and she found a lot of meaning in that experience. What her friends and family have told me extensively is that she really started to help others a lot. And that was something that she really enjoyed doing. At one point, she was studying to hopefully become a counselor for people who were addicted to drugs herself. And then, towards January of this year, began to get more and more into pro-Trump conspiracy theories. And they eventually led her to be one of the people who joined the Capitol protest and what turned into the Capitol riot.
Steve Fennessy: Was she an especially political person? Was she interested in politics and current events?
Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs: So, for much of her life, the answer is no. And none of her friends or family who I spoke to ever really remembered her talking much about politics at all. She did not vote until the 2020 election.
Steve Fennessy: Situate us at the beginning of the pandemic in early 2020 in the life of Rosanne Boyland. Where was she and what was she up to at that point?
Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs: She was living at home with her parents and she wasn't working. And so when when the quarantine began, I think it became very isolating for someone who only had so many outside kind of stimuli to keep them active and keep them on the right path. Around summer of last year, 2020, she began to get really into QAnon-related conspiracy theories.
Craig Timberg: "That there is a person who goes by the pseudonym Q who is supposedly a top-secret official in the U.S. government dribbling out the truth about what's really happening in the world."
Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs: She started texting friends about Pizzagate, which is the kind of wild conspiracy that Democrats are trafficking children in the basement of a pizza shop, things like that. You know, a lot of people begin to get kind of concerned with how much time she seemed to be spending watching these things.
Steve Fennessy: Did her friends or family provide any insight to you as to what it was about these outlandish theories that kind of sucked her in?
Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs: Her siblings said that even when she was younger, she enjoyed conspiracy theories, but that they were the kind of average types of conspiracy theories like, “Is this a UFO?” or maybe the JFK assassination. What she got out of these conspiracy theories is perhaps a kind of community of people who really kind of rallied around this idea that there was a secret person in the government who was sending out clues that they could follow. This is kind of the basis of the QAnon conspiracy. I think she really just became convinced by all of it.
Craig Timberg: "These ideas have been dribbled out on a forum called 8kun. And people who believe in this, you know, have sort of become a community of fellow travelers in this. Stuff that seems so crazy to many of us actually is a really animating force in a lot of people's lives and has been for years."
Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs: There were a lot of people who certainly were trying to push back on these influences in her life. But it would have been impossible to know at the time that these things would eventually draw her to where she died. Rosanne's best friends told me that her main focus was keeping children safe. She loved children. She loved her nieces. She was really quite afraid of this idea that there was a ring of Democrats and pedophiles who were trafficking children, and she was really afraid of that and really wanted to put a stop to that.
News tape: The Guardian: There was a very effective kind of rebranding effort with the hashtag "Save Our Children," "Save The Children." This is a very concerted effort using that kind of as a pipeline to draw people down the rabbit hole into the more esoteric part of this conspiracy theory.
Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs: That's really what brought her into it.
Steve Fennessy: Do we know what led her to decide that she would go to Washington, D.C., for the, I guess it was the “Stop the Steal” rally, which is what it was initially called on Jan. 6. What prompted her to — to actually make that decision to go?
Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs: She said she was going somewhere, but she wouldn't tell her older sister where it was. And her older sister texted her and said, “Why won't you tell me where you're going?” And she responded, “OK, fine, I'm going to D.C. I don't know all the details yet.” Over the coming days, in advance of Jan. 6, she learned about the Stop the Steal rally, which was basically centered on these false claims of voter fraud. They knew that there was not much use in arguing with Rosanne. They knew that she was very stubborn and a set-in-her ways person, and that what they could mostly do is just say, “OK, be safe.” And she assured them that she would stay on the — stay on the sidelines and just be there to see Donald Trump speak. But her family had very little idea, as I think much of the country did, about what the scenes would be like on Jan. 6.
[News tape] MSNBC: The day Donald Trump incited a mob to attack the U.S. seat of government and prevent the peaceful transfer of power. They descended, hunting for the vice president and the speaker of the House, intending to capture and assassinate elected officials. They built a gallows and chanted, “Hang Mike Pence.”
Steve Fennessy: Stay with us. Up next on Georgia Today, we'll hear more about what video footage from the Capitol insurrection reveals about the circumstances of Kennesaw native Rosanne Boyland's death and how Republicans in Washington have blocked efforts to uncover more about the insurrection and its organizers. I'm Steve Fennessy.
Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today; I'm Steve Fennessy. I'm joined by Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs from The New York Times. Nicholas has reported extensively on a woman named Rosanne Boyland from Kennesaw and why she followed dangerous conspiracy theories, including those pushed by followers of QAnon, and what radicalized her to participate in the Capitol insurrection that shocked the world on Jan. 6. When we talk about conspiracy theories and specifically QAnon, a lot of Americans contemplate these things and they go, “That is absolutely insane.” But there is sort of a base level of belief. And do we have any idea to what degree the American people might subscribe to some of these outlandish beliefs?
Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs: Yeah, there was a somewhat startling survey about a month ago.
[News tape] PBS NewsHour: Released by the Public Religion Research Institute found 15% of Americans believe the false QAnon idea that the government is controlled by a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles. And just one in five Republicans fully reject the QAnon conspiracy theory.
Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs: I think there is a lot of distrust among many people about the most powerful in society. There is a kind of readiness from a lot of people to believe that major companies, major celebrities, powerful people are doing some of the worst things secretly and are able to hide it. And I think there's an appetite for exposing that. And I think it's easy to say that "QAnon is far away and I don't — I don't know anyone who believes that" or "Only crazy people believe that." But a lot of people, especially during quarantine, find them quite convincing. And they can be. They paint a kind of narrative that is easy to follow.
Steve Fennessy: How did the story of Rosanne Boyland come to your attention? Specifically, what drew you to it?
Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs: In the wake of the rally, when we were kind of learning about its toll in those initial hours and days afterwards, everyone started to learn that that several people had — had died at the rally. There was a lot of confusion about how those people had died. There was obviously one Trump supporter named Ashli Babbitt, who was shot and killed by a Capitol police officer in the building.
[News tape] CBS8: A woman inside this violent mob at the Capitol building on Jan. 6 was 35-year-old Ashli Babbitt. She can be seen here climbing through a broken window about to enter the speaker's lobby. And you see a Capitol police officer fire. Babbitt falls backwards and dies.
Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs: It was quite difficult to know how the other people who had died that day had passed. And so my colleague began to sift through a bunch of Facebook Live videos that people had taken while they were there — body camera videos, everything that you can imagine — and pinpoint where Rosanne was at different times.
[News tape] CBS News: Supporters of former President Donald Trump stormed to the building as members of both the House and Senate met to count electoral ballots from the 2020 presidential election. Videos and photos from that day show rioters fighting with and assaulting police officers.
Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs: And what he found is she had collapsed at some point as a crush of Trump supporters and rallygoers were starting to try to basically take over the Capitol and move into the Capitol. She collapsed on a set of stairs next to a door and tunnel that are usually used by presidents when they emerge for their inauguration. It seemed like people were walking all around her and maybe on top of her.
Steve Fennessy: So at any point did EMTs attend to her or did she receive critical care?
Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs: Her friends and the bystanders there were able to bring her to the police and the police were able to get her help. But it took a while and she was eventually taken to a hospital and was pronounced dead.
Steve Fennessy: I'm trying to sort of imagine the scene of this woman who's collapsed onto the steps of the Capitol.
Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs: The videos are just really harrowing because you realize the desperate state that Rosanne is in and just how hard it was to get her the help that she needed.
Steve Fennessy: And what did the medical examiner's findings show about what caused her death?
Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs: So the D.C. medical examiner's office ruled her death an acute amphetamine intoxication, which basically means that an overdose on amphetamine or an amphetamine-caused death. But her family was very concerned and upset by this ruling. They felt like it was implying that she was using drugs again. And they pointed out that she had a prescription for Adderall — which is essentially an amphetamine — and that that may have been the only drug in her system, was her prescription Adderall. I talked to quite a few experts about the autopsy report and their ultimate opinion is that it's certainly possible that this was an amphetamine overdose. She likely took more than her prescribed dose, but it's also a combination of her health factors. She had heart disease. She was obese and she had diabetes. All of these things and in combination with the really raucous scene in which people are shouting, people are pushing forward, and all of those certainly could combine to stop her heart, which is eventually what happened.
Steve Fennessy: Nicholas, how was her family notified that she had died at the insurrection? And what was the reaction?
Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs: Several hours after she had collapsed, her older sister had still heard nothing and texted her and said, “Are you good?” She never got a response. It was not until much later that night that their mom called Rosanne's older sister and said that Rosanne had died and that she had just gotten off the phone with a detective. It was, I think, of course, just incredibly hard for the family and really compounded by the fact that the next day, as soon as the name was released, reporters just started flooding the neighborhood that her parents lived in. The phone was ringing off the hook. And I think the family just really has not had a chance to fully grieve in a normal way.
Steve Fennessy: What is it that they're hoping for? Is there some resolution that they're hoping to find?
Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs: They really want the message to get out there that these conspiracy theories are not just harmless, that they can really lead people to lose friendships. And what they initially viewed as, you know, a kind of ridiculous set of conspiracies or beliefs actually was what sent Rosanne down this chain of events that led to her death on Jan. 6.
Steve Fennessy: Nicholas, that brings up a good question. When we talk about the people participating in the insurrection and the degree to which the outlandish conspiracy theories, you know, that are part of QAnon, animated their actions that day. I mean, to what degree was Rosanne Boyland representative of sort of the crowd at large there?
Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs: Right, I think there were a lot of people who were very much engaged with these set of conspiracy theories. You saw QAnon posters or flags. There were people who discussed QAnon before going. I know that that's come out in some of the court cases for people who were charged in the Capitol siege. Her story certainly kind of grabbed us because it did feel like it was such a sudden change for her from not being political, not ever voting before voting for Trump in 2020 and then driving 10 hours overnight to go to D.C. to rally for him.
Steve Fennessy: In recent weeks, we've seen that that Republicans — in the Senate, especially — have stymied efforts to create a bipartisan commission that would look into the causes of the Jan. 6 insurrection.
[News tape] ABC News: Tonight, a blistering bipartisan report revealing massive security failures at every level of government leading up to Jan. 6. (chants: "U.S.A.!) Renewed calls from Democrats and some Republicans to investigate what led to this, even after efforts for a Jan. 6 commission failed, blocked by Republicans — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell telling me it's a nonstarter.
Steve Fennessy: What's been the reaction of Rosanne Boyland's family to that news?
Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs: I texted Rosanne's older sister the day that Senate Republicans had — had blocked the effort to establish an investigation. When she sent me back was, quote, “Why anyone would not want to find out what happened, even just to prevent it from happening again is beyond me.” It's interesting because Rosanne's older sister, she's — she's also really not political. She's never been super interested in elections. She really see that both sides, at times when it's useful to them, will use Rosanne's death to score some political points. She really finds that to be upsetting.
Steve Fennessy: One of the things that struck me about the death of Rosanne Boyland is that it didn't elicit much in the way of sympathy among a lot of people.
Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs: Her family got so much hate, they said, from — from all sides. Messages on social media, phone calls from Democrats saying, “I'm glad she's dead.” And from Republicans, they got angry calls because Rosanne's brother-in-law had said after her death that he thought that President Trump should be removed from office.
Steve Fennessy: Nicholas, the feds are pursuing cases against hundreds of people. But for those who died in the — in the uprising, like Rosanne Boyland, is there any kind of investigation that's ongoing into — into the cause or into anything that led her to that moment?
Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs: As far as I know, there is no significant investigation into her motivation for going to the Capitol that day.
Steve Fennessy: What do you think the — the story of Rosanne Boyland tells us about the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol?
Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs: It's somewhat clear what happened that day on a large scale, right? We all saw the images of people entering the Capitol and et cetera. But I think when you kind of zero in on any one story, you find out that a woman, who became a Trump fanatic and was there to support a president who she loved, had never voted before two months prior. That's certainly never something I expected to learn. And I think everyone's story is more complicated than the story as a whole.
Steve Fennessy: My thanks to New York Times reporter Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs. While Senate Republicans successfully fought off efforts to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has launched her own investigation. The House recently voted to establish a special bipartisan commission that would include both Democrats and Republicans. Longtime Trump loyalist and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is hand selecting the list of GOP House members for the high-profile posts. For more Georgia Today, go to GPB.org. I'm Steve Fennessy. Georgia Today is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Subscribe to our show anywhere you get podcasts and don't forget to leave us a rating and review on Apple. Jess Mador is our producer. Our engineer is Jesse Nighswonger. Thanks for listening. We'll see you next week.