Source: NYTNS/Nicole Craine
Ms Boyland, 34, was one of five people who never made it home from the 6 January protest, which erupted in violence when hundreds of people stormed into the Capitol. Her death has left her family grappling to understand how Ms Boyland, who they say had never voted before 2020, wound up waving a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag amid a crowd of fanatic supporters of the president before walking up the steps of the Capitol to her death.
Their frustration deepened further last week when Republicans in the Senate blocked an effort to establish an independent commission to look into the origins and the handling of the attack on the Capitol.
“Why anyone would NOT want to find out what happened, even just to prevent it from happening again, is beyond me,” Ms Boyland’s older sister, Lonna Cave, said in a text message after the vote.
For months before the rally, Ms Boyland had bombarded her friends and relatives with messages and links to long videos about the fantastical theories she had come to accept as fact.
Many of the false claims spilled from QAnon, the pro-Trump conspiracy-theory movement that rose in popularity over the course of his presidency and promoted the idea that many Democrats and celebrities are part of a global pedophile ring — a theory that 15 per cent of Americans believe, according to a poll last week.
Many of its supporters falsely believed that President Joe Biden had stolen the election, and some attended Mr Trump's 6 January rally.
Ms Boyland’s sudden fixation so alarmed her family members and friends that some of them asked her to stop talking to them about politics - or just to stop talking altogether.
Some of her closest friends believe that Ms Boyland was a vulnerable target for the conspiracy theorists. After a stint in drug rehabilitation, she had returned to her parents’ home and largely avoided drugs for several years, her family said.
But the isolation brought about by the pandemic was making it harder. QAnon filled a void in her life, they said, helping distract her from thoughts of returning to drugs even as it acted as a different kind of hallucinogen.
“I was worried that she was trading one addiction for another,” said Blaire Boyland, her younger sister. “It just seemed like, yes, she’s not doing drugs, but she’s very obsessively online, watching all these YouTube videos and going down the rabbit hole.”
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The family is also still struggling to understand how she died. From the video of the chaotic siege, it appeared that she had died after being caught in a crush of rioters. But the autopsy by the Washington medical examiner’s office did not find evidence of trampling and concluded that she had overdosed on amphetamines.
Family members said it was likely that the only amphetamine in her body was the Adderall she took every day by prescription, although it appeared that she might have taken at least twice her prescribed dose.
“We just want to find out what happened, to be able to rest,” Ms Cave said. “This has been so messed up. We just want to grieve the normal way.”
A descent into conspiracy theories
For years, Ms Boyland had been barred from voting because she had been convicted of felony drug possession, but she had also shown little interest in politics until 2020. In the fall, though, free from probation, she made it clear early on that she planned to cast a ballot for Mr Trump. She registered to vote on 3 October, a month before the election, records show.
“She was so happy that she was able to vote,” recalled Stephen Marsh, 36, a friend of Ms Boyland’s who said that she had been so thrilled that she had called his mother. “She was so excited about it because her past made it difficult for her to participate.”
But her increasing absorption in the QAnon community was by that time pushing some of her closest friends away.
“I care about you, but I think it would be best if we didn’t talk for a while,” Sydney Vinson, a friend since childhood, texted her on 3 October after Ms Boyland had sent her a long text message and screenshots about purported government manipulation of the news media. “Please don’t send me any more political stuff.”
At about 8:30 pm on 5 January, Ms Boyland began the roughly 10-hour drive to Washington with a friend, Justin Winchell. They parked in Virginia and took a bus into the city to see Mr Trump at the rally, where he riled up the crowd with unsubstantiated claims that his election loss had been rigged.
“If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore,” Mr Trump told the crowd.
Ms Boyland headed with many of the other protesters down the street to the Capitol.
The chaotic seige
Ms Boyland could barely be made out at first in the footage of the crowd’s surge up the Capitol steps — a short figure, outfitted in a black hoodie and American-flag sunglasses.
She disappeared into the mob inside the tunnel that presidents use when they emerge for their inaugurations. It was the scene of some of the day’s most brutal hand-to-hand fighting, and videos showed rioters crushing police officers between doors and warning that the crowd could become dangerously packed.
Just minutes later, after a push by the police that sent the crowd tumbling back out of the tunnel, she could be seen lying on her side, after which two men dragged her away from the door and began trying to resuscitate her.
The day after Ms Boyland's death, Ms Cave’s husband, Justin, told reporters that Mr Trump had “incited a riot last night that killed four of his biggest fans". Then came a spate of cruel messages to the family from all sides — people who said they were glad Ms Boyland had died, and others who had been infuriated by Justin Cave’s comments.
The Caves were left wondering what they had missed and how they could have helped Ms Boyland before she fell too deeply into the conspiracy theories.
“That’s part of the reason I feel guilty, because none of us thought too much about it when she started looking into it,” Lonna Cave said. “I understand that she was somewhere she shouldn’t have been. But she would not have been here if it weren’t for all the misinformation.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.