Authorities have charged a longtime National Guardsman who was struggling to mount an unlikely bid for U.S. Senate with taking an armored vehicle and leading police on a bizarre, 65-mile pursuit that ended in downtown Richmond near Capitol Square.
Joshua Phillip Yabut, a 29-year-old first lieutenant in the Virginia Army National Guard who lives in Richmond’s Jackson Ward neighborhood, had an initial hearing Wednesday morning in Richmond General District Court on one count each of driving under the influence of drugs, felony eluding police and felony unauthorized use of a vehicle.
No bond was set when he appeared in court by video link from the city jail, where he is being held.
Remarkably, there were no injuries or collisions and no reports of property damage caused by the nearly 12-ton vehicle.
Yabut, a company commander in the Petersburg-based 276th Engineer Battalion, was participating in his annual training at Fort Pickett in Nottoway County when he drove away in an armored personnel carrier just before 8 p.m., said Guard spokesman Maj. Cotton Puryear. The Guard said he has 11 years of service and deployed to Afghanistan from 2008 to 2009 with the Illinois National Guard.
The vehicle, an M577, rolls on treads like a tank but is unarmed and essentially functions like a rolling office for command staff. It was one of several that had been set up for the training exercise that had begun a few days earlier. Puryear said he couldn’t say precisely how Yabut took the vehicle, but that it wouldn’t necessarily have been difficult in such a setting.
“It’s not like somebody had left their post and the vehicle was unsecured,” he said. “There were probably multiple vehicles that were in their stationary position where they set up their operation center and then, yes, the lieutenant would have had access to that vehicle.”
He said the theft was noticed and reported to state police immediately and the pursuit began.
So far, neither the National Guard nor the state police have been willing to comment on a potential motive for the theft. State police would not specify which drug they believe Yabut used.
Hints on social media
Yabut posted pictures and video of himself on Twitter inside a heavy-duty military vehicle shortly after the pursuit began. About six hours before that, he appeared to hint at his plans for the day, sharing a screenshot of a map of Capitol Square with a pin in the Capitol building paired with the Wikipedia entry for the M113 armored personnel carrier, a tracked vehicle that resembles a tank with no turret and is similar to the M577 Yabut allegedly took.
His Twitter presence is prolific and at times strange. On Tuesday, Yabut retweeted a Bernie Sanders post criticizing the executive compensation of Walt Disney Co.’s CEO, a Virginia State Police public message about move over awareness month, and a news story about President Donald Trump’s decision to cancel a planned visit of Philadelphia Eagles players to the White House.
In messages he authored, he wrote:
“what i learned in the army is to never volunteer for anything with that being said im looking for a few volunteers”
“all i wanna do is get an anime wife”
“just received instructions from my local clergyman”
“where is this damn water buffalo”
“wow i think i just discovered a large illegal spy operation in the us government”
The caption of the photo he shared of himself in what appears to be an armored vehicle is “wutang clan ain’t nothin to f- — wit booiiiiiiii” and he makes a “W” hand sign in the image. Wu-Tang Clan is a popular hip-hop group from New York City.
The video he shared around the same time appears to have been shot while he was driving an armored vehicle and shows only his back.
Political ambitions, NASA background
While there are no clear indications about what might have sparked the trek from Fort Pickett to Richmond, Yabut’s online presence offers a detailed account of his past and current pursuits.
He filed paperwork in February to run as an independent for the U.S. Senate seat held by Tim Kaine, but was notified in March that his application lacked adequate information, according to Federal Election Commission records. There is no response on file but in social media posts he shared the status of his effort to get the state’s voter file and solicited signatures to make the ballot.
Yabut had recently tweeted about using Bitcoin-related technology to get 10,000 electronic signatures that would put him on the ballot. “Even a 3% vote for me will rock the status quo... and I’m on a shoestring budget,” Yabut tweeted on Feb. 21.
Sprinkled among his posts about politics and cryptocurrency were photos of computers, weaponry and his dog, Panzer.
From November 2014 to April 2017, Yabut worked as a cyber security researcher in the office of the chief information officer at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Langley Research Center, agency spokesman Michael Finneran confirmed.
“He left to pursue opportunities elsewhere,” Finneran said. “I talked to a couple people who worked directly with him and they didn’t have anything negative to say about him and said he was a pretty smart guy.”
He also led the development of a niche cryptocurrency called ZenCash, according to posts by the project’s team, which say he abruptly left the effort last year. The company wrote last year that after he dropped the project, “he announced and made public a method of attacking the Zen blockchain.”
One of Yabut’s Twitter posts Tuesday read, “permission to execute the 0day sir.” Zero-day is a computing term hackers use for an initial attack on a software vulnerability.
There were news reports Monday that ZenCash had indeed experienced an attack over the weekend, though the timing could be a coincidence and has not been publicly linked to Yabut.
On Wednesday morning, people who live and work in Jackson Ward were shocked to learn the alleged driver lived in their neighborhood on the 300 block of North Second Street. Neighbors described Yabut as quiet and someone they didn’t often see around the neighborhood, and definitely not the type of person you would expect to take an armored vehicle for a spin through city streets.
Reid Collier, a creative director who works in the offices of an architecture firm in the building where Yabut lives, said he came in thinking of armored vehicle jokes to tell co-workers, having no idea the low-key guy who lived in the back apartment was at the center of the story.
“Every once in a while I think he’d pop down and walk his dog or something,” Collier said. “But, yeah, that’s wild.”
“I couldn’t see him doing anything like this,” said a neighbor who asked to be identified only by his first name, Buddy. “But then again I didn’t know him that well. He was kind of a recluse. Stayed to himself.”
Buddy said Yabut was involved in cryptocurrency and had moved into the Jackson Ward building roughly a year ago.
“One of the last times I talked to him he was saying he was just gathering signatures to run for Senate,” Buddy said.
Low speed chase
The pursuit mostly stuck to highways and topped out at speeds of about 45 miles per hour. Yabut stopped the vehicle near Capitol Square on Broad Street and exited on his own accord. Police then sicced a dog on him and shot him with a Taser after he did not follow police orders, witnesses and police said.
Gov. Ralph Northam was at the Executive Mansion during the incident. Officials said the governor’s security team monitored the situation but did not move Northam to a secure location because there never appeared to be a direct threat to the governor’s safety.
Capitol Police closed the gates to the square early and deployed officers with automatic rifles. But it was unclear how effective those weapons might have been against a vehicle designed to withstand small-arms fire.
“I can’t say definitely what we could’ve done that we would have known absolutely would have stopped something like this,” said Capitol Police spokesman Joe Macenka. “It was certainly a good exercise for everyone to go through to make everyone realize that you’re going to have to make some decisions on the fly.”
The National Guard says the armored vehicle was not damaged and it was driven away from the scene shortly after midnight Wednesday, loaded onto a trailer and taken back to Fort Pickett. Police repeatedly stressed that, despite its appearance, the vehicle was not a tank and was not equipped with weapons, though they say Yabut had a personal weapon with him but no ammunition.
“We are extremely grateful that there were no injuries as a result of this incident, and we appreciate the great work of the Virginia State Police, Richmond Police Department and other law enforcement and first responders who safely brought this situation to a close,” said Maj. Gen. Timothy P. Williams, the Adjutant General of Virginia, in a statement. “We have initiated our own internal investigation, and we will determine appropriate actions once the investigation is complete.”
Court records indicate Yabut’s next court appearance is scheduled for July 11 in Richmond.
Theresa J. Royall, the Nottoway County commonwealth’s attorney, said there were no charges pending there against Yabut as of Wednesday afternoon, but that she is consulting with the state police and that could change.
While no one was injured, the sight of the vehicle driving down Boulevard and then Broad Street toward downtown caused considerable alarm, which quickly gave way to laughter and jokes about the situation, which has been memorialized online with the hashtag “RVATank.” By midday Wednesday, at least three groups were hawking tank top shirts memorializing what some are characterizing as a joyride.
Herman “Big Herm” Baskerville, the owner of Big Herm’s Kitchen on the block where Yabut lives, said he was unloading supplies at the restaurant Tuesday night when the convoy went by.
“I was like, this is some kind of crazy-ass exercise. I don’t know what the taxpayers are paying for that,” Baskerville said. “But it was insane.”