“Is there anything you’d like to say about your client?” a reporter shouted at attorney Ethan Corlija on the night last month when he took Emily Hernandez to the FBI office in downtown St. Louis. The 21-year-old from the small town of Sullivan had been identified as one of the rioters who stormed the Capitol in Washington, D.C., in a vain effort to stop Congress from confirming the Electoral College victory of Joe Biden.
In fact, she had been photographed holding a piece of the nameplate that had been torn off the door of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Corlija seemed to consider the question as he looked out at the reporters and camera crews.
“She’s the girl next door,” he said.
I spoke with her Tuesday afternoon at Corlija’s office. She was born in Texas. She has one sibling, an older sister. Her dad is a boilermaker. Emily was 2 years old when the family moved to Sullivan. It is not easy for an old man to get into the mind of a young revolutionary, but I gave it a try. How was high school? Any difficulty making friends?
“I was friends with everybody,” she said cheerfully.
She was on the track team. She was on student council. She was a member of the science club. She said she had several boyfriends, but nothing really serious or long-lasting.
She graduated in 2018 and then earned an associate degree at East Central College in Union. She said she sort of thought of going to Central Methodist University in Fayette, Missouri, to pursue a marketing degree but wasn’t sure how to finance it, and then COVID came along. She got a job delivering pizzas and continued living at home.
How about politics? Sullivan straddles Franklin and Crawford counties. That’s Trump country. In 2020, he carried both counties by more than 70%.
Emily said she was not really interested in politics. She said she didn’t vote in 2020. She had voted in 2018, she said. She said she voted to approve marijuana.
“That’s medical marijuana,” Corlija interjected.
Had she ever been to a Trump rally?
“No,” she said. “I’m not really interested in politics.”
All right. How did an apolitical young woman end up in the U.S. Capitol holding a piece of Nancy Pelosi’s nameplate? And why did she look so gleeful?
She said the day before the rally, two older people, trusted friends of the family, told her they were going to Washington and had room for her if she wanted to go. She said she had never been to Washington so it sounded good. She thought she could see the sights. And the mountains. There’s mountains there, right?
Actually, they passed through mountains on the all-night drive, and then they slept in and got on a train to go to the rally. A woman on the train told them the president had already spoken and had told everybody to head to the Capitol. So they headed to the Capitol.
They arrived at a scene of chaos. The doors had just been breached. They pushed their way into the building. Somebody knocked off the Pelosi nameplate and it shattered. Emily picked up a piece of it to get a photo of herself to post on Snapchat. It was exciting, she said. It was like, you know, history. Afterward, they walked around the building and then drove back to Sullivan.
Monica Hesse, a gifted young writer just a few years older than Emily, wrote a column in the Washington Post mocking the rioters who later acted like they “had accidentally gotten in line for Insurrection Mountain at the Magic Kingdom.”
But what if it happened that way for the young pizza delivery woman from Sullivan?
Emily said the very early reaction from her friends to her social media posts was positive. “Cool. You were right there.” But things got dark quickly. “I didn’t even know about anybody getting killed,” Emily said.
The FBI was trying to identify the rioters. Emily’s parents hired Corlija. Emily was afraid to answer her phone. One day it rang and she asked a friend to answer it. The caller identified himself as an FBI special agent, and the friend dropped the phone as if she’d been scalded. Emily picked it up. The agent was polite and she told him she had a lawyer.
That’s how she ended up with Corlija in front of the FBI headquarters last month.
Emily said her parents were very upset, not only with her, but with the two older Trump supporters who had taken her to Washington. As I said, they are well known to the family. Emily and her attorney asked me not to use their names in this story, but Emily is facing five federal charges — all misdemeanors. The evidence against her is overwhelming, so it is reasonable to assume that Corlija will seek to make a deal and Emily’s cooperation will be required.
She is facing a potential five years.
I asked her to try to look past her current problems. Where would she like to be in five years? Married with children in Sullivan? Maybe a career in a big city?
“I don’t know. I just go with the flow,” she said. Then she added, “I’d like to be wealthy.” She laughed.