SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The man accused of breaking into former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s San Francisco home, bludgeoning her husband with a hammer and seeking to kidnap her goes on trial Thursday.
Opening statements are scheduled in the federal trial of David DePape who prosecutors say assaulted then-82-year-old Paul Pelosi, sending shockwaves through the political world just days before last year’s midterm elections. The attack in the early hours of Oct. 28, 2022, also highlighted how conspiracy theories and misinformation that spread online can fuel political violence.
DePape pleaded not guilty to attempted kidnapping of a federal official and assault on the immediate family member of a federal official. Paul Pelosi is expected to testify next week.
DePape posted rants on a blog and an online forum about aliens, communists, religious minorities, and global elites. He questioned the results of the 2020 election and echoed the baseless, right-wing QAnon conspiracy theory that claims the U.S. government is run by a cabal of devil-worshipping pedophiles. The websites were taken down shortly after his arrest.
A Canadian citizen, DePape moved to the United States more than 20 years ago after falling in love with Gypsy Taub, a Berkeley pro-nudity activist well-known in the Bay Area, his stepfather, Gene DePape said. In recent years, David DePape had been homeless and struggling with drug abuse and mental illness, Taub told local media.
Federal prosecutors say DePape smashed his shoulder through a glass panel on a door in the back of the Pelosis’ Pacific Heights mansion and confronted a sleeping Paul Pelosi, who was wearing boxer shorts and a pajama top.
“Where’s Nancy? Where’s Nancy?” DePape asked, standing over Paul Pelosi around 2 a.m. holding a hammer and zip ties, according to court records. Nancy Pelosi was in Washington and under the protection of her security detail, which does not extend to family members.
Paul Pelosi called 911 and two San Francisco Police officers showed up and witnessed DePape strike Paul Pelosi in the head with a hammer, knocking him unconscious, court records showed.
Nancy Pelosi’s husband of 60 years later underwent surgery to repair a skull fracture and injuries to his right arm and hands.
After his arrest, DePape, 43, allegedly told a San Francisco detective that he wanted to hold Nancy Pelosi hostage. He said that if she told him the truth, he would let her go and if she lied, he was going to “break her kneecaps” to show other members of Congress there were “consequences to actions,” according to prosecutors.
A backpack DePape was carrying had tape and a rope, in addition to zip ties, according to police.
The assault was captured on the officers’ body cameras. U.S. District Judge Jacqueline Scott Corley ruled last month that the jury will be allowed to see footage that shows Paul Pelosi in a pool of his own blood struggling to breathe and the police officers trying to stop the bleeding. Angela Chuang, one of DePape’s federal public defenders, had argued that the shocking footage would be prejudicial to her client.
Corley also ruled jurors can listen to portions of a 5-minute call DePape made in January to a television reporter in which he repeated conspiracy theories.
“Freedom and liberty isn’t dying, it’s being killed systematically and deliberately,” he said.
“The tree of liberty needs watering. He needs men of valor, patriots willing to put their own lives on the line to stand in opposition to tyranny,” he added.
Katherine Keneally, a senior researcher at the nonprofit Institute for Strategic Dialogue, said the attack is an example of increasing online hate, conspiracies and false narratives influencing political violence.
“This didn’t occur in a vacuum,” Keneally said.
Keneally said people who commit such conspiracy-fueled acts of violence often are struggling with mental health or other life crises, such as the death of a family member or a divorce.
“I can’t think of a single case where someone engaged in violent behavior where they were solely influenced by the conspiracy theory,” she said.
DePape, who lived in a garage in the Bay Area city of Richmond and had been doing odd carpentry jobs to support himself, allegedly told authorities he had other targets, including a women’s and queer studies professor, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, actor Tom Hanks and President Joe Biden’s son Hunter.
One of those targets is included in the defense’s short witness list, though their name has been redacted. The other possible witnesses are DePape, Nancy Pelosi’s chief of staff, Daniel Bernal, extremism and antisemitism researcher Elizabeth Yates, and federal public defender Catherine Goulet.
The prosecution’s list of potential witnesses contains 15 names, including the surgeon who operated on Paul Pelosi, federal agents, San Francisco police officers and several first responders.
If convicted, DePape faces life in prison. He was also charged in state court with attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon, elder abuse, residential burglary and other felonies. He pleaded not guilty to those charges. A state trial has not been scheduled.