In the bizarre world of QAnon conspiracy theorists, 29-year-old Austin Steinbart was a rising star. A segment of the pro-Trump conspiracy theory group believed he was the mysterious “Q,” the anonymous internet figure whose clues have convinced a portion of the president’s base that Donald Trump is engaged in a shadowy war against pedophile-cannibals in the Democratic Party.
Steinbart—dubbed “Baby Q” by his fans—claimed he could get away with anything because he was a super-spy for Trump. In online arguments, Steinbart insisted he should have been arrested “100 times over” for his actions. And the fact that he hadn’t been arrested for, say, threatening to kill the Queen of Denmark was proof that Trump had given him immunity from prosecution.
“Seems like I should have been ARRESTED by now, eh?” Steinbart tweeted to one of his foes in late March, adding a sarcastic thinking-face emoji.
A few days later, FBI agents arrested him.
Steinbart now faces an extortion charge over his online antics, all apparently committed in an attempt to convince gullible online conspiracy theorists that he’s an all-powerful intelligence agent. As part of his attempts at self-promotion, Steinbart allegedly posted the confidential brain scans and medical files of former professional football players online—images he was able to obtain while allegedly getting a scan of his own.
Steinbart’s arrest marks just the latest time a QAnon believer has been charged with a crime. Two others have been charged with murder, including one accused of murdering the head of the Gambino crime family. The conspiracy theory has also surfaced in two child kidnapping plots, and a 2018 terrorist incident near the Hoover Dam.
Online, Steinbart had amassed nearly 20,000 Twitter followers and 23,000 YouTube subscribers, even as he infuriated more established QAnon hucksters with his brash attitude. In rambling YouTube videos, Steinbart claimed that he was “Q,” was somehow in communication with a time-traveling version of himself, and would soon be appointed to run Trump’s Space Force — a nonsensical narrative that nevertheless won him the devotion of a number of QAnon believers.
But prosecutors and the FBI paint another picture of Steinbart in court documents, describing a young man with "unaddressed behavior or mental health issues" willing to commit crimes to build up his profile in the online conspiracy theory world.
Steinbart first came to law enforcement attention in mid-March, when he posted footage he had shot at a Los Angeles mental health clinic on YouTube. While getting a brain scan at the clinic at his parents’ request, according to prosecutors, Steinbart gained access to a computer and started filming the screen as he went through other patients’ records.
"Steinbart gained unauthorized access to protected patient information on the clinic's computer and recorded the patient information in a video," prosecutors wrote in a court record.
Those files included a folder marked “NFL,” which contained entries about dozens of former professional football players. Steinbart filmed himself going through doctor’s notes and a brain scan for football commentator and former player Terry Bradshaw before posting the video on YouTube.
“You tell me whether or not I’d be in huge trouble for hacking these famous people’s medical records if I wasn’t Q,” Steinbart said in the video, before describing another player’s brain as a “little hole-y.”
The clinic confirmed to the FBI that the patient records were genuine, according to an affidavit. Court documents don’t name the clinic, but Steinbart claims in his video that he was at a branch of Amen Clinics, a chain of medical offices that performs brain imaging.
Amen Clinics founder Daniel Amen has commented frequently on brain injuries suffered by NFL players. The company didn’t respond to a request for comment. The video was removed from YouTube on Tuesday, replaced by a notice saying it was deleted because of a “privacy claim.”
After clinic staff asked Steinbart and his parents to take down the video, he allegedly threatened them with "NUCLEAR ARMAGEDDON" if they contacted his parents again.
When FBI agents met him at his Chandler, Arizona house on March 19, according to the FBI, Steinbart allegedly answered the door carrying a Desert Eagle handgun and said he had to deal with a “lot of psychos.”
Steinbart allegedly admitted to accessing the patient records, describing it as “not hard,” and claiming that he was doing “outrageous” things to prove to his online fans that he was a spy. Posting the private medical records, Steinbart allegedly claimed, was meant to "just show people that I won't get in trouble."
The would-be conspiracy theory star kept up his outlandish activity even after the visit from FBI agents. Two days later, on March 21, Steinbart posted a YouTube video urging his followers in the “Q-Army” to harass employees of Datto, a tech company that had taken down some of his files on copyright grounds.
Datto was quickly deluged with bogus support requests on its customer service line from Steinbart’s fans, according to the FBI. In an effort to save its “overwhelmed” systems, Datto spent nearly $11,000 on new customer service lines. Some of Steinbart’s devotees would take up to ten minutes of a customer service’s reps time posing as a legitimate customer, before demanding the company restore Steinbart’s files.
Steinbart allegedly kept up the pressure himself, sending Datto’s CEO threatening messages on Twitter.
“I am running a military intelligence operation for the Defense Intelligence Agency called Operation QAnon,” Steinbart wrote in direct messages, according to the FBI. "There is a VERY good chance I will send some PSYCHOS to come see you in person!"
Around the same time, the FBI affidavit notes, Steinbart posted a video of himself waving around a gun and a container of Tannerite explosive material. Steinbart claimed he had rigged his home with traps filled with the explosive charges.
Steinbart was arrested on March 31 on an extortion charge related to his video about the tech company, and released from jail on Friday pending further hearings. It’s not clear whether he’ll face future charges over posting the NFL players’ medical records.
For his rival QAnon promoters, Steinbart’s arrest was an occasion for celebration, as his central argument — that he could never be arrested — appeared to be conclusively proven false.
“Onto the next chapter,” tweeted rival figure Jordan Sather, who has urged his own followers to drink bleach to cure diseases.
Steinbart can continue to use the internet under the terms of his release — as long as he submits to court-ordered monitoring.