By Miriam Raftery
Photo via U.S. Department of Justice: Erik Herrera in Senate Parliamentarian’s office
August 29, 2022 (El Cajon) – Erik Herrera, 34, of El Cajon has been found guilty of felony and misdemeanor charges for his actions during the January 6, 2021 Capitol insurrection. News of his arrest and trial came as a shock to this editor, who had hired Herrera for freelance photography work locally just months before.
I do not condone any efforts by anyone to participate in an attack on our nation’s Capitol, to obstruct vote counting, or to support an assault on our American democracy.
I have no details on Herrera’s involvement in the Jan. 6, 2021 events at the Capitol other than what is in the government documents and the defense team’s contention that he was there as a photographer. Prosecutors also released a disturbing photo Herrera reportedly posted showing himself wearing a gas mask and holding papers inside the Senate Parliamentarian’s office.
The U.S. Department of Justice stated in a press release, “His actions and the actions of others disrupted a joint session of the U.S. Congress convened to ascertain and count the electoral votes related to the presidential election.”
In a trial before Chief Judge Beryl A. Howell in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Herrera was found guilty by a jury on Aug. 19, 2022 of felony obstruction of an official proceeding and of four misdemeanors including entering and remaining in a restricted building or grounds, disorderly and disruptive conduct in a Capitol Building and parading, demonstrating or picketing in a Capitol Building.
The U.S. Attorney’s office prosecuting the case argued that Herrera was among the rioters who illegally entered the Capitol through the Senate fire door and Senate Wing door.
The defense contended that Herrera was a photographer with a press pass, however, Herrera admitted on social media on Jan. 7, 2021 that the press pass he was wearing had not been issued by any press organization. According to the DOJ, he wrote, “I don’t have a monopoly on press passes. They’re on Amazon for like $8…no special permission to buy.”
Herrera had several freelance photos published by East County Magazine in 2020, including images of a wildfire, pro-Trump and anti-Trump local demonstrations, election day footage and vote-counting in a Santee recount of a city council race.
I received a federal subpoena to testify on his history of paid photography work for ECM in 2020 for a handful of news articles, but was notified at the last minute that I would not have to appear after I provided a copy of his contract for local photography assignments.
As a community news site, East County Magazine provides opportunities to many freelance photographers and journalists.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, my contact with Herrera was virtual, not in person. Thinking back on whether I may have missed any red flags, I cannot recall any. He pitched stories to us covering both sides of the political aisle and I saw no bias in his coverage age of local events.
I had no knowledge of his trip to Washington D.C., nor did he attempt to sell any photos taken during the capitol breach to our organization afterwards.
Legitimate journalists do at times find themselves covering turbulent breaking news stories, as our organization did during local protests and a riot in 2020. However, any journalist or freelance photographer should remain a neutral observer professionally chronicling events – not engaging in unprofessional or participatory actions. Journalists should strive to obtain legitimate press passes issued by a law enforcement agency or an ID or letter of assignment from a bona fide news organization – not a fake press pass ordered online.
I have reviewed Erik Herrera’s blog site at https://sadtographer.myportfolio.com/. He described growing up alongside refugees, immigrants, people of different races, faiths, and multicultural extremes. In an artist’s statement, he wrote, “I aspire to show that life is connected to everything. We all see and unsee the same light that shapes our experiences, our true selves. I share myself in every photo, but I have the habit of hiding who I am behind the work I produce.”
On his blog, he showed sensitivity to the plight of migrants in Mexico and in U.S. border communities, interviewing mothers who fled violence in Honduras, for example. “I know god takes care of all his angels and that he is with every single one of us,” she said, Herrera wrote. He also covered protests over the death of Alfred Olango, a black immigrant killed by an El Cajon police officer, Chicano rights events, and a pilgrimage to care for and say goodbye to his dying grandfather in Mexico.
In late 2020, he covered a “night brigade” organized by Proud Boys in Washington D.C. as well as a March for Trump, his last entry on the blog.
Much of what he covered seemed at odds with a typical profile of an insurrectionist or supporter of Donald Trump, noted for his anti-immigrant, anti-Mexican rhetoric. Herrera did, however, reportedly voice doubt over the 2020 election outcome on social media.
I was saddened to learn that according to prosecutors, this talented young photographer had somehow reportedly been caught up in the melee fomented by the former President’s false claims of a stolen election — claims debunked by over 60 judges who reviewed the election outcomes in multiple states, including several judges whom Trump had appointed.
That misjudgment could cost Herrera years in federal prison. How many more lives have been ruined or derailed by those same false claims?
Herrera’s felony obstruction charge carries a statutory maximum of 20 years in prison as well as potential financial penalties. The four misdemeanor offenses combined carry a maximum of three years in prison and potential financial penalties. His sentencing hearing is scheduled for November 10, 2022. Though he could face up to 23 years total behind bars, most of those convicted thus received sentences ranging from months to several years.
In the 19 months since the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol insurrection, over 860 people have been arrested in nearly all 50 states for crimes related to the breach, including over 260 charged with assaulting or impeding law enforcement.
The FBI’s San Diego and Washington field offices investigated the case with help from the U.S. Capitol Police, Secret Service, and other agencies.
The Department of Justice encourages anyone with tips to call 1-800-CALL-FBI or visit tips.fbi.gov.