ATLANTA — Long before he stormed the U.S. Capitol, Bruno Joseph Cua flashed warning signs he was headed for serious trouble in his hometown of Milton, Georgia.
Perched behind the wheel of his Toyota pickup with a Trump 2020 flag streaming from the truck bed, the 18-year-old harassed drivers whose vehicles showed support for Joe Biden or liberal causes.
He joined social media sites favored by the extreme right and filled up his feeds with screeds that became more strident following Trump’s Nov. 3 loss. He wrote of acquiring an assault-style weapon illegally. And when Trump called supporters to Washington Jan. 6 for his “Save America” rally, Cua was all in.
“President Trump is calling us to FIGHT!” he blared in one post.
He joined the rally with his mother and father. Afterward, Cua fought his way into the Capitol, and pushed past security onto the Senate floor. A reporter’s video captured him pacing in front of the dais as another rioter sat in the chair and perched his feet on the desk that had earlier been hastily vacated by former Vice President Mike Pence.
“They can steal an election, but we can’t sit in their chairs?” he shouted in defense of the man sitting in Pence’s seat.
Cua, a month shy of his 19th birthday, is back in his family’s home in Milton after five weeks in local and federal lockup. He is the youngest of the nearly 400 defendants so far arrested in the riot and, among Georgians charged, faces among the most serious crimes.
Now awaiting trial, Cua may be among the first defendants to learn the personal cost of believing — and acting on — Trump’s lie of a stolen election.
It’s a stunning turn for a young man who was admired by some in his North Fulton community for his handiness and impassioned support of the former president. And his path from suburban teenager to suspect in the attack on Congress and democracy offers a cautionary tale about political extremism.
Federal prosecutors say Cua’s online behavior shows “the radicalized mind of a young man fixated on stopping the normal functioning of democracy by violent means.”
Cua’s attorneys counter that he’s a sheltered, vulnerable and impressionable teenager whose “view of the outside world largely revolved around social media,” and he “echoed what many others were saying and shared Trump’s rhetoric.”
“I think he was just very impulsive in the moment, and behaved in a way that is attributable more to just being excited and 18 than it is to somebody who is profoundly brainwashed,” said Molly Parmer, one of the four defense attorneys representing him.
Months before going to Washington, however, Cua had already begun acting out in ways that put him on the radar of local police, and made some residents uneasy.
Freedom and privilege
Among the horn-honking, car-and-truck cavalries supporting former President Donald Trump, Cua was a flag-flying star.
The blue pickup he drove, bulked up with oversized tires and a grill guard, was a familiar site in the North Fulton suburbs of Milton, Alpharetta and Roswell.
The truck bed was lined with flag mounts, and the flags kept getting bigger in the months leading to the 2020 presidential election. Cua frequently wore a red “Make America Great Again” hat with the number 45 stitched on the side.
The Cuas moved to Milton in the mid-2000s, just as the mostly white city of horse farms, gated subdivisions and large homes came into being. Their house on a protected three-acre lot typified the suburban-rural appeal of Milton, where the median home value of $541,000 is three times Georgia’s.
Today, no trespassing signs are posted outside the Cua’s long, gated driveway.
Until March of last year, Joseph Cua, Cua’s father, was a vice president for the Wyndham Hotel Group. Alise Cua, Cua’s mother, was a veterinarian. But she stopped working to home-school Cua and his two younger siblings, according to court testimony.
An outdoorsy kid, Cua fed chickens, horses and dogs. He fished in neighborhood ponds. He built treehouses with dirt-caked hands and played manhunt in dirt-stained jeans. He prized guns.
Cua worked at Hunters’ Tree Farm, a Christmas Tree farm in Milton. Janine Simpson, whose family owns the farm, said Cua was one of the farm’s best employees.
“If I ever needed an extra or last minute help when he wasn’t scheduled to work he would be over in and instant to help us out. He always went the extra mile,” Simpson wrote in one of the character letters submitted to federal court on Cua’s behalf.
Current and former neighbors said the Cuas are a deeply religious family. Cua was polite, and he was trustworthy with younger kids in the neighborhood as he often supervised children who roamed freely from farm to farm. On YouTube, he built a following for his “Southern Adventures,” a YouTube channel based on trucks, construction, guns, hunting and fishing.
Adam Malone, a former FBI agent who lived near the Cuas before moving out of state, wrote in a character letter submitted on the teen’s behalf that he did not know Cua to be a “political activist” but considered him patriotic.
“I knew him to believe passionately in his rights as a U.S. citizen, and he regularly flew a U.S. flag on the back of his pickup truck around town,” Malone wrote.
Trump carried the Milton precinct where the Cua’s live by two-thirds of the vote in 2016, so it wasn’t surprising when Cua began flying a Trump 2020 flag in the months before the election. He was a regular presence at Trump rallies too.
Tiffany Savage, a gubernatorial candidate who maintains the election was stolen from Trump, organized car caravans for Georgia’s MAGA Drag the Interstate chapter.
“Bruno and his family volunteered to help me organize my last rally on Nov. 1st (over 3,000 cars in attendance) and without Bruno’s dedication and generous heart, I would not have been able to pull it off,” Savage wrote in a letter submitted in Cua’s criminal case.
But Cua’s activism also went too far, some local residents told the AJC.
The Milton woman was driving on Mid Broadwell Road in Alpharetta one Saturday afternoon in September when a big blue truck pulled up behind her.
The truck engine purred for attention. She knew it was Cua.
“Everybody knew who he was in the North Fulton area,” said the woman, who spoke to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on the condition of anonymity because she feared retaliation from Trump supporters. “We all talked about it. You could always see him in the distance, because you could see the big Trump flag.”
As a Biden supporter, the woman said she was accustomed to stares, honks, middle fingers and even the occasional tailgating because of the magnets and bumper stickers on her car.
But she had her teenage daughter in the passenger seat that day and they were scared.
“He was literally on my tail,” she said.
“I had no problem with him with the flag,” she said. “The trying to intimidate with a car — that’s wrong.”
Another woman, who planned to wave signs for Biden in Roswell in October, was told by the event organizer that they might get a visit from Cua’s truck brigade.
“We were kind of a little bit on edge,” the woman told the AJC in an account confirmed by two other volunteers.
The woman could hear the growling engines before she could see the flag-waving truck cavalry. She recognized the lead truck, a blue Toyota Tundra. The four truck drivers blared air horns and yelled obscenities as they drove through the intersection.
“We have some openly gay people, so they called us faggots,” the woman recalled. “Most of it was, ‘You all are baby killers, Joe’s a pedophile, Joe’s a criminal.’ So, just a lot of hate.”
Minutes later, the cavalry returned. This time, they stopped at the intersection, holding up traffic. The trucks intentionally spewed black exhaust fumes.
Cua and others also drove their ATVs on the gravel road in his rural Milton neighborhood, prompting neighbors to call police.
Milton police were called to the Cua house multiple times, according to Cua’s father in court testimony.
“It was half a dozen times, at least while I’ve been there, but I know there’s been other times as well,” he said.
On Dec. 8, police were called to Birmingham Falls Elementary because “a pickup truck with a large Trump flag was racing around the parking lot,” according to the police report. Cua was also blasting an air horn as his father and friends videotaped him.
Two months earlier, police gave Cua a warning for blasting the air horn. This time, they cited him for creating a public disturbance.
Then in early January, Cua was caught trespassing in the White Columns subdivision and using profanity against a homeowner, according to the police report.
When police arrived at Cua’s home to issue a criminal trespass warning, Cua, his father and his brother met the officer at the front gate. Cua’s mother pulled up, and recorded the police with her cellphone.
“What are you doing here harassing my son while kids are out there smoking marijuana,” she said to an officer, according to the police report.
Cua and his father argued with the officer. Cua said he didn’t jump the gate at the subdivision. The officer showed him surveillance footage.
Cua “changed his demeanor after seeing the video,” the officer wrote.
Online rants: ‘I want to fight’
On social media apps Parler and Instagram, Cua talked cavalierly about war and overthrowing a “tyrannical government.”
In a video posted to the social media app TikTok, he explained why he refused to wear a mask during the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s actually about control,” he said. “So when you’re wearing a mask, scientifically, it is actually lowering your — or it’s increasing your risk of actually catching a virus.”
Cua’s social media posts, a central part of the government’s case against him, became more urgent and extreme as the Nov. 3 election neared. He frequently compared the baseless accusations of a stolen election to 1776, the year the United States declared independence and a rallying cry for extremists.
After the election, Cua talked online about buying an AR-15 assault-style rifle under the table, prosecutors said. On Dec. 14, he wrote in an Instagram direct message that he didn’t “want to sit in Georgia and watch. I want to fight.” On Dec. 22, he wrote that Jan. 6 “could be one of the most important days in American history.”
In response to a Trump tweet referring to the election as “the biggest SCAM in our nation’s history,” Cua wrote on Parler: “President Trump is calling us to FIGHT! He knows this is the only way to save our great country, show up #January6th. It’s time to take our freedom back the old fashioned way. #Thisisour1776″
When Trump tweeted “See you in Washington, DC, on January 6th,” Cua wrote on Parler: “This is the third time he’s tweeted about it. This isn’t a joke, this is where and when we make our stand. #January6th, Washington DC. Be there, no matter what. Nothing is more important.”
Three days before the insurrection, he wrote on Parler: “If you aren’t going to DC on Wednesday, pray for us. Pray for President Trump. Pray for Mike Pence. Pray for congress. Pray for our Country.”
Attacking the ‘swamp rats’
Cua and his parents drove the almost 10 hours to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 5 to attend Trump’s “Save America” rally, where they joined thousands of Trump supporters near the White House the next day.
By the time they arrived, election officials and judges across the country had thoroughly debunked Trump’s claims of vote rigging, ballot stuffing and voting machine fraud. In Georgia, Republican officials found little evidence of fraud after recounts and audits, and GOP Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger had forcefully rejected Trump’s plea to “find” more votes for him.
At the rally, Trump continued his baseless attacks on the election in a last-ditch effort to bully Congress into challenging the certification of the results.
“You don’t concede when there’s theft involved. Our country has had enough and we will not take it anymore,” Trump declared at the rally. “We’re going to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue — I love Pennsylvania Avenue — and we’re going to the Capitol.”
After Trump’s speech, the Cuas said they walked toward the Capitol but decided to stand back as people began pushing and shoving law enforcement. Cua asked his parents for a closer look, and they agreed, according to court testimony.
According to prosecutors, “Cua eventually made his way to the foyer of the Senate Chamber. There, he and a group of others shoved aside a police officer guarding the entrance, and then entered the Senate Chamber.”
Surveillance video and social media posts from the rioters themselves captured his moves.
After he left the Capitol, Cua defended his actions in an Instagram post: “We didn’t attack American people. We attacked the swamp rats.”
He acknowledged that he screamed at cops to join the insurrection. He said he would lay down his life for Trump, and wrote that he wanted to “lock the swamp rat tyrants in the capitol and burn the place to the ground.”
The day after the insurrection, he borrowed a quote from Thomas Jefferson:
“The tree of liberty often has to be watered from the blood of tyrants. And the tree is thirsty,” Cua wrote on Parler.
The quote, taken from a 1787 letter, is actually, “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” That quote was on the back of the T-shirt Timothy McVeigh was wearing in 1995 when he was arrested less than two hours after detonating a truck bomb at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, killing 168 people.
“Everyone who works in congress is a traitor to the people and deserves a public execution,” Cua wrote on Parler after he returned to Milton.
He continued: “Dear Swamp Rats, The events at the capital were a reminder that WE THE PEOPLE are in charge of this country and that you work for us. There will be no ‘warning shot’ next time.”
On Feb. 5, back in Milton, Cua walked into the Milton Police Department to pay the fine on the citation for blowing his air horn on Dec. 8. FBI agents were waiting and arrested him for assaulting a federal officer, storming the Capitol and disrupting the actions of Congress.
‘I was wrong’
Prosecutors haven’t found any connections between Cua and known extremist groups. But in the immediate aftermath of the Capitol insurrection the judge who ordered his release thought his social media posts were chilling.
“They are not mere political rants; they are calls for violent revolution against duly elected representatives of the People,” U.S. District Court Judge Randolph D. Moss wrote in his order. “This was a singular and chilling event in U.S. history, raising legitimate concern about the security — not only of the Capitol building — but of our democracy itself.
“In Cua’s view, violence was justified on the same terms as the American Revolution.”
In a letter to Moss on March 4, Cua begged to be reunited with his family before his trial.
“My posts were foolish, unnessacary, (sic) and untrue, thats (sic) not who I am or ever want to be, I have completely comprehended a very painful! Lesson over the last month in jail, including over two weeks in isolation,” he wrote. “I have completely lost those aggressive feelings and moved on from the entire politcal (sic) idea. I was wrong.”
In a letter to Moss, Alise and Joseph Cua expressed remorse and disavowed support for Trump. They never would have gone to Washington if they had known things would turn violent, they wrote. They wish they never had let their son get a closer look at what was unfolding at the Capitol.
“We feel it is important for you to know that any doubts we have had about the presidential election are gone,” Cua’s parents wrote. “We realized that shortly after January 6th and well before Bruno was arrested. We both feel embarrassed that we went down the path of believing President Trump and other leaders that widespread fraud had stolen the election from him. We see now that it was all lies.”
Alise and Joseph Cua declined interview requests through attorneys.
Since the riot, Cua’s parents told the judge their son had completed three of the six remaining online courses to graduate from high school.
Cua was released to the custody of his mother on March 16. A May trial date was recently canceled and no new date has been set. Through his attorneys, Cua entered a not guilty plea.
As he awaits trial, he’s wearing a GPS monitoring device and is confined to his home. He’s also restricted from using social media. Alise Cua must provide weekly declarations that her son is complying with the judge’s orders.
Preparing for his defense, Cua’s attorneys argue that his social media messages were just “the idle chatter of an extremely passionate, but very naive, teenager.”
“Bruno, after talking with him, reminds me of the 18-year-old Civil War soldier who went into battle against his country under false pretenses and believed what his elders told him to believe,” said J. Tom Morgan, one of his attorneys and a former DeKalb County district attorney. “This kid was led down a path.
“I truly believe it came as an absolute shock to Bruno — and I’m not sure he’s fully comprehended — that what he has been told was not true, and that what he was doing — taking back this country — was illegal.”
Adults supported and emboldened Cua’s actions, Morgan said.
“Not just those in the community of Milton, but also on the web,” he said.
HOW WE GOT THE STORY
Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigative reporter Otis R. Taylor Jr. reviewed hundreds of pages of court transcripts and police records to learn details of Joseph Cua’s life, and interviewed two of his defense attorneys multiple times. Cua’s parents declined to be interviewed, along with several contemporaries contacted by the AJC. Individuals who submitted character letters to the court on Cua’s behalf stood by the contents of those letters but declined to elaborate on them in interviews. Some accounts were given to the court anonymously and were quoted in court by federal prosecutors. The AJC independently identified two women who wrote to the court about negative interactions they had with Cua and his friends in the weeks leading up to the presidential election. When contacted, they agreed to speak about their experiences on condition they not be identified by name because they feared retaliation by former President Donald Trump’s supporters. The AJC interviewed others who corroborated their stories.