PARRISH, Florida – Allan Mestel booked a flight to Washington D.C., to photograph the pro-Trump demonstrations on Jan. 6. But he canceled it after his wife warned him: This will escalate into riots.
For the past four years, the photographer from Southwest Florida has chronicled the Black Lives Matter movement through his Nikon lens. A proud liberal himself, Mestel has attended dozens of BLM street rallies. He’s also crossed the lines into the counterprotests to document the names and faces of President Donald Trump’s supporters.
He was at the protests when the Confederate monument was removed from the local courthouse in Florida’s Manatee County. He has been in the face of screaming Proud Boys and threatened by QAnon conspiracy theorists. Each time, he’s published the photos online and shared them with officials from the Democratic Party. He planned to do the same during the “Stop the Steal” events in Washington.
Instead, like most of America, Mestel was following the attack on the Capitol online. Then he saw the photo: A man in a Trump toque smiled ear to ear as he made off with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's podium.
In the hours after the riot, the internet dubbed him Podium Guy. But Mestel knew his name. Adam Christian Johnson.
The two men from Southwest Florida, on opposite sides of the political spectrum, had crossed paths before. Now, one had become an instant icon for the far right and the other was ready to turn him in.
“It’s weapon-grade stupidity,” Mestel said. “The degree of entitlement he must have felt.”
Capitol riot arrests: See who's been charged across the U.S.
By the time Johnson arrived in the district, he bragged on his Facebook page that he had been drinking alcohol in four different states. His posts show him in airport selfies with other MAGA supporters who hoped to stop the certification of the electoral vote for President-elect Joe Biden, according to a USA TODAY review of his social media posts before they were removed, as well as those included in law enforcement charging documents.
In one of the images, Johnson writes “Going to stay safe in D.C.” as he poses with his face mask covering his eyes instead of his mouth. Alongside him, another Trump supporter is wearing his neck gaiter like a hijab.
From the crowd at the insurrection, Johnson smiled as he raised his hand right in front of a wall of police, captioning the Facebook post with the word “Riot!!!”
As he breached security and entered the Capitol, Johnson posed for another shot, this time smirking next to the sign notifying the public that the building was closed to all tours. His response: “No.”
His trip culminated with someone else posting the photo seen around the world. A widespread search to identify him immediately spun through Twitter.
The image has become a hallmark of the attack on U.S. Capital that left five dead. It joins other viral pictures from that day: a Trump supporter with his feet kicked up on a desk in Pelosi’s office; an Idaho man hanging from the balcony of the Senate floor; another Trump supporter chasing a Black police officer up the stairs of Congress; and a QAnon conspiracy theorist from Arizona wearing a horned hat with fur and face paint.
Both from Manatee County, Mestel and Johnson had mutual friends and attended some of the same social events. Mestel couldn’t forget Johnson’s face or the attacks he launched on liberals from his social media feeds, which have since been taken down. He immediately went to the FBI with a tip.
“He spends all of his time trolling the alt-right websites,” Mestel said. “His social (media) was very much pro-conspiracy theory, anti-Black Lives Matter and anti-liberal. It seemed to be pretty much the focus of what made him tick and took up most of his time.”
From pot charges to stay-at-home dad
Born in the small town of Millington, Tennessee, Johnson has lived most of his life in Southwest Florida. With long, light brown hair and tattoos of crosses on his chest and left arm, he holds a fishing license, makes furniture and went to Baptist church.
USA TODAY used public records, press accounts and social media to piece together Johnson’s story. Nobody answered when a reporter knocked at the door to his home this week. Immediate members of his family could not be reached for comment.
While he was in his late teens and early 20s, police in Manatee County arrested Johnson on two separate misdemeanor marijuana charges. In 2005, he violated probation by failing to submit the required supervision reports, along with proof that he’d completed community service and substance abuse counseling. At the time, he lived at his mother’s home in Bradenton and listed his occupation as a cook, police records show.
Financial problems appear to have strained his marriage to his first wife. The couple was evicted from their apartment in July 2010, with $1,098 past due rent. Their divorce was finalized the following January, according to court records.
Within five months, Johnson remarried to a physician – his current wife – and his fortunes began to turn.
They moved into a home in Parrish together, and by December 2015, the couple sold the house for a nearly $60,000 profit, according to the property deeds.
Off the highway and north of the Manatee River, mobile home parks, fast-food restaurants and green fields line the roads to Parrish, a rural suburb on the outskirts of greater Tampa Bay. Inside a manicured subdivision, where herons roam and families fish the retention ponds, the Johnsons now raise their five boys from a 4,000 square-foot home with a swimming pool and six bedrooms, property records show.
Johnson, who attended college at the University of South Florida, is currently unemployed and stays at home with his kids, according to interviews and local media reports. Just days before the insurrection, the family hosted a New Year’s Eve party, where people were seen without masks despite the raging coronavirus pandemic.
Acquaintances who spoke to USA TODAY said the 36-year-old’s passion for Trump and hatred toward the left is well known and evident through his social media.
But Johnson’s voting records don’t always back up his outspoken beliefs. After initially registering in 2002 as a Republican, he’s currently registered as a voter with no party affiliation, switching in November 2019, according to the Supervisor of Elections in Manatee County. Johnson voted in two general elections – 2004 and 2020 – but there are no records of him voting in the 2016 election that drew so many of his fellow loyal followers to Trump.
He’s not active in local GOP circles, either. Until his photo and subsequent arrest went viral, many prominent local Republicans had never heard of him.
Grace Reeves, president of the Manatee County Young Republicans, even went back through old photos to make sure he hadn’t been at any of their events.
“I’ve never seen the guy,” Reeves said. “Until now, I was not aware of him at all, and that’s a good thing … his acts are despicable.”
From Toronto to Florida
When Mestel recognized Johnson in the podium image, he felt it was his patriotic duty to report everything he knew.
Now 57 with tattoos on his arms, Mestel retired to Florida in 2016 from Toronto, where he grew up. He worked as a TV commercial photographer and director in Canada and even directed music videos in the 1980s and 1990s. One of his commercials won a Gold Bessie for the best TV commercial in Canada in 1992.
Mestel now lives in Bradenton with his wife, a personal fitness trainer and gym owner, and his two children. He spends his time photographing street activism – the images of his work can be seen in his gallery. He also hopes to publish a photo book.
For years, he’s faced backlash, threats and hate mail from neo-Nazis and right-wing conspiracy theorists. Online, they flooded his business with fake reviews. The attacks only worsened when he reported Johnson for his role in the attempted coup at the Capitol.
Mestel said he has been called a “rat,” “snitch,” “scum” and every other name in the book. He says CNN’s Cuomo Prime Time asked him to come on. He declined, in part because his family still fears retaliation.
“I think the Trump cult – the conspiracy theory component – goes deeper and beyond any sort of individual Republican Party values,” Mestel said.
The day of the riot, Mestel filled out a form on the FBI website explaining what he knew about Johnson, and by the next morning, he’d heard from an FBI agent. He says he has now spoken to three different federal investigators, including special agent Michael Jeng, who signed the Statement of Facts document that outlines the charges against Johnson in federal court.
He said one of the agents even laughed about how they wished all of their cases were this easy.
“This is a serious case,” federal prosecutor Patrick Scruggs told the judge at Johnson’s first court appearance. “Everyone involved in the storming of the Capitol last week needs to be held accountable for their actions, including Mr. Johnson.”
Consequences for Johnson
His hands cuffed, in a white V-neck shirt, shorts, flip-flops and wearing a dark face mask, Johnson is shown in a booking video as law enforcement officers usher him into an intake area for his mugshot. They then bring him to a standing desk for a pat-down and to finish the paperwork.
Johnson is facing one count of knowingly entering or remaining in any restricted building or grounds without lawful authority, one count of theft of government property and one count of violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. He’s among dozens who have been arrested so far in connection to the riot.
Out on bond, Johnson is restricted from traveling outside the 35 Florida counties that make up the federal court system’s “Middle District,” unless it’s for a court appearance in Washington. The court also ordered a nightly 9 p.m. curfew and drug tests.
Criminal law experts predict he could face between two to three years in prison.
The “case won’t be about guilt or innocence, considering there is photographic evidence of Mr. Johnson’s guilt. It will be about what the appropriate penalty should be,” said Derek Byrd, a Florida criminal defense attorney, who is not representing Johnson and is only providing commentary for this article. “I suspect a federal judge in D.C. is going to want to send a message that breaking into the Capitol building during official proceedings, thereby stopping those proceedings, and allegedly stealing items from the Capitol will not be tolerated.”
David Bigney and Dan Eckhart, the Orlando attorneys who represent Johnson, did not respond to requests for comment from USA TODAY Network reporters. Outside the courthouse after the hearing, they told reporters that Johnson has been getting death threats and publicly acknowledged the viral photo of him with Pelosi’s podium is a problem for their case.
“I’m not a magician, and neither is Mr. Bigney,” Eckhart said. “We’ve got a photograph of our client in what appears to be inside the federal building, inside the Capitol, with government property.”
Johnson is scheduled to go back to Washington for court on Jan. 19 – the day before President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration.
And the podium? It's where it's supposed to be. According to news reports, Pelosi was standing at it Wednesday when she signed the article of impeachment against Trump.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: After Capitol Riot, Florida man turned in Podium Guy to FBI