Ray Epps, the man at the center of a widespread conspiracy theory about the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, filed a lawsuit on Wednesday accusing Fox News and its former host Tucker Carlson of defamation for promoting a “fantastical story” that Mr. Epps was an undercover government agent who instigated the violence at the Capitol as a way to disparage then-President Trump and his supporters.
The complaint was filed in Superior Court in Delaware, where Fox recently agreed to a $787.5 million settlement in a separate defamation case brought against the network by Dominion Voting Systems to combat claims that the company had helped to rig the 2020 election against Mr. Trump.
“Just as Fox had focused on voting machine companies when falsely claiming a rigged election, Fox knew it needed a scapegoat for January 6th,” the complaint says. “It settled on Ray Epps and began promoting the lie that Epps was a federal agent who incited the attack on the Capitol.”
Fox News did not immediately respond when asked for comment. But the network moved quickly to have the venue changed to Federal District Court in Wilmington, Del.
The suit is the latest legal complication for Fox News, which has been fighting lawsuits on a number of fronts related to its coverage of the 2020 election and Mr. Trump’s false insistence that he was cheated of victory. They include a $2.7 billion suit from a second voting technology company, Smartmatic, and two separate claims by Fox Corporation shareholders. Another lawsuit from a former producer for Mr. Carlson, which Fox settled on June 30 for $12 million, alleged that he condoned and encouraged a toxic workplace.
Mr. Epps is seeking an unspecified amount in damages.
After the unfounded accusations about Mr. Epps were aired on Mr. Carlson’s show, they quickly spread to online communities of Trump supporters and to the political world as Republican members of Congress tried to link Mr. Epps to a fictitious conspiracy theory that he was involved in planning the Jan. 6 attack. They included Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Representative Thomas Massie of Kentucky, both of whom made Mr. Epps — a two-time Trump voter — a focus of concern at public hearings.
The publicity had damaging consequences for Mr. Epps and his wife, Robyn, who received numerous death threats and were forced to sell their five-acre ranch and wedding business in Arizona and move into a 350-square-foot mobile home parked at a remote trailer park in the mountains of Utah. Online retailers began selling T-shirts that said “Arrest Ray Epps.” Some people even recorded songs about him and posted them on YouTube, the complaint states, adding how he had been reduced “into a character in a cartoonish conspiracy theory.”
Mr. Epps was in the Marine Corps but said under oath in his deposition before the Jan. 6 committee that he had otherwise never worked for law enforcement or spoke with anyone at various government agencies, including the F.B.I., C.I.A. and N.S.A. Through his lawyer, Michael Teter, Mr. Epps demanded in March that Fox and Mr. Carlson retract its stories about him and his purported role in the Capitol riot and issue an on-air apology. Neither the network nor Mr. Carlson, whose prime-time show has since been canceled, responded.
“Ray is taking the next steps to vindicate his rights by seeking accountability for Fox’s lies that have caused him and Robyn so much harm.” Mr. Teter said in a statement on Wednesday.
The suit paints a picture of Mr. Epps as a loyal Fox viewer who was duped by Fox’s coverage and convinced that he needed to attend the pro-Trump demonstrations on and around Jan. 6.
“When Fox, through its on-air personalities and guests, told its audience that the 2020 election had been stolen, Epps was listening,” the complaint says. “He believed Fox. And when Epps kept hearing that Trump supporters should let their views be known on Jan. 6 in Washington D.C., Epps took that to heart.”
The conspiracy theories about Mr. Epps have lived on in large part because the Justice Department has never charged him for his actions on Jan. 6 and the night before. Mr. Epps can be seen on video encouraging demonstrators to march with him and enter the Capitol at one point. At another point, however, he pleads for restraint once it becomes clear the situation is turning violent. He also pushes past a police barricade into a restricted part of the Capitol grounds.
But in May, the lawsuit says, the Justice Department notified Mr. Epps that it was planning to file criminal charges against him related to his role in the Capitol attack. Details about the charges remain unknown, but the fact that they are being filed undermines the notion that Mr. Epps was being protected because of his role as a supposed covert agent, the suit says.
The attacks on Mr. Epps began in mid-2021, largely after a video surfaced online showing him on the night before the Capitol attack, encouraging a crowd on a street in Washington to join in “peacefully” entering the Capitol. Some in the crowd begin chanting “Fed! Fed! Fed!” at him, implying he was a government agent trying to goad Trump supporters into committing a crime.
He is also seen on the day of the attack whispering into a man’s ear just moments before the man and other rioters overcome police officers and breach the security perimeter. It is difficult to hear what Mr. Epps says in the video. But promoters of the conspiracy theories about him have used that moment to accuse him of uttering some kind of command.
Law enforcement immediately took note of Mr. Epps’s suspicious behavior and put a picture of him on an online wanted list. Mr. Epps has said he called the F.B.I.’s National Threat Operations Center shortly after the alert went up, and his phone records show he spoke to agents there for nearly an hour.
In March 2021, Mr. Epps was formally interviewed by the F.B.I. By that summer, the bureau had removed him from the list of wanted suspects.
“That should have been the end of the matter for Epps,” the complaint said.
Instead, the complaint claimed, Mr. Carlson and Fox settled on Mr. Epps as a “villain” who could serve as a distraction from the network’s own “culpability for stoking the fire that led to the events of January 6th.” Mr. Carlson, it said, became “fixated on Epps” and began the promoting the idea that Mr. Epps and the federal government were responsible for the Capitol riots.
The complaint spells out how over the next several months, Mr. Carlson referred to Mr. Epps repeatedly on air, saying that he was “the central figure” in the Capitol attack and claiming that he had “helped stage-manage the insurrection.”
On several occasions, Mr. Carlson brought on to his show Darren Beattie, the proprietor of a right-wing website called Revolver News, whom the complaint describes as “the principal person driving the false story that Epps was a federal agent planted as a provocateur to trigger the Capitol violence on January 6th.”
And Mr. Carlson continued to spread unfounded accusations about Mr. Epps outside of Fox, the complaint says. As recently as March, the host appeared on a podcast and told the former Fox News personality Clayton Morris, “Ray Epps clearly was working for somebody. He was not a pure civilian.”