The first time Celeste Norris laid eyes on Ashli Babbitt, the future insurrectionist had just rammed her vehicle three times with an SUV and was pounding on the window, challenging her to a fight.
Norris says the bad blood between them began in 2015, when Babbitt engaged in a monthslong extramarital affair with Norris’ longtime live-in boyfriend. When she learned of the relationship, Norris called Babbitt’s husband and told him she was cheating.
“She pulls up yelling and screaming,” Norris said in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press, recounting the July 29, 2016, road-rage incident in Prince Frederick, Maryland. “It took me a good 30 seconds to figure out who she was. … Just all sorts of expletives, telling me to get out of the car, that she was going to beat my ass.”
Terrified and confused, Norris dialed 911 and waited for law enforcement. Babbitt was later charged with numerous misdemeanors.
The attack on Norris is an example of erratic and sometimes threatening behavior by Babbitt, who was shot by a police officer while at the vanguard of the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. Former President Donald Trump and his supporters have sought to portray her as a righteous martyr who was unjustly killed.
Trump has called her “an incredible person” and he even taped a posthumous birthday greeting to her in October. Trump has also demanded the Justice Department reinvestigate Babbitt’s death, though the officer who shot her was cleared of any wrongdoing by two prior federal investigations.
But the life of the Air Force veteran from California, who died while wearing a Trump campaign flag wrapped around her shoulders like a cape, was far more complicated than the heroic portrait presented by Trump and his allies.
In the months before her death, Babbitt had become consumed by pro-Trump conspiracy theories and posted angry screeds on social media. She also had a history of making violent threats.
Babbitt, 35, was fatally shot while attempting to climb through the broken window of a barricaded door leading to the Speaker’s Lobby inside the Capitol, where police officers were evacuating members of Congress from the mob supporting Trump’s false claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. She was one of five people who died during or immediately after the riot, including a Capitol Police officer.
On social media, Babbitt identified as a Libertarian and ardent supporter of the Second Amendment. Her posts included videos of profane rants against Democrats, COVID-19 mask mandates and illegal immigration.
Her Twitter account, which was taken down after her death, was rife with references to the QAnon conspiracy theory, which centers on the baseless belief that Trump has secretly battled deep-state enemies and a cabal of Satan-worshiping cannibals that includes prominent Democrats who operate a child sex trafficking ring.
“Nothing will stop us,” Babbitt tweeted Jan. 5. “They can try and try and try but the storm is here and it is descending upon DC in less than 24 hours....dark to light!”
Among Q followers, “The Storm” refers to the predicted day Trump would finally unmask the pedophile cabal, arrest and execute those deemed traitors and restore America to greatness.
Trump has repeatedly insisted Babbitt was murdered, and she has achieved martyr status among Trump supporters. Her name and likeness now appear on T-shirts and flags at pro-Trump rallies.
A Maryland personal injury lawyer representing Babbitt’s husband, Aaron Babbitt, has raised $375,000 through a Christian crowdfunding site and has threatened to file a lawsuit against the Capitol Police.
Key to that wrongful death claim is the contention that Babbitt, a former military police officer who was 5-foot-2 and weighed 115 pounds, would have peacefully surrendered had Capitol officers attempted to arrest her.
Aaron Babbitt declined to comment in October when a reporter knocked on the door of the San Diego apartment he shared with Ashli and another woman. In a June interview with Tucker Carlson of Fox News, Babbitt said he has been sickened by some of what he has seen written about his deceased wife.
“There’s never been a person who Ashli ran across in her daily life that didn’t love her,” said Babbitt, 40.
That is not how Norris felt about her.
Court records involving the violent 2016 confrontation between Babbitt and Norris have previously been reported by media outlets, including the AP. But Norris, now 39, agreed to speak about it publicly for the first time in an interview with the AP and shared previously unreported details. She also provided documents and photos from the crash scene to support her account.
Norris was in a six-year relationship with Aaron Babbitt when she said she learned he was cheating on her with a married co-worker from his job as a security guard at a nuclear power plant near the Chesapeake Bay. She eventually found out the other woman was Ashli McEntee, who at the time went by the last name of her then-husband.
“He was telling me about this foulmouthed chick that’s on his shift, blah, blah, blah,” Norris recounted. “Come to find out a few months later ... they were basically having this relationship while they were at work.”
When she learned of the affair, she reached out to Babbitt’s husband, Timothy McEntee.
“You know, I was trying to keep my home life together,” she said.
Norris said she tried for a few months to salvage her relationship with Aaron Babbitt before finally deciding to move out of their house. Within days, Norris said, Ashli moved in.
A few weeks later, Norris was waiting at a stop sign in Prince Frederick, about an hour southeast of Washington, D.C., when she says a white Ford Explorer passed her going the other direction.
Norris saw the SUV pulling a U-turn before speeding up behind her. She recounts that the SUV’s driver began swerving erratically, laying on the horn and attempting to pass a Chevrolet Suburban that was in between them on the narrow two-lane road.
When the driver of the Chevy pulled over, Norris said the white Ford SUV accelerated and rammed into her rear bumper. She said the SUV rammed her a second time and then a third, all while the vehicles continued to roll down the road.
After Norris dialed 911, an emergency dispatcher advised her to pull over to the shoulder and stop. As she waited for help, Babbitt got out of her vehicle and came up to Norris’ driver’s-side window, banging on the glass.
Norris said the force of the impact caused her seatbelt to lock tight, preventing her from getting out of her car. Within minutes, deputies arrived.
A case report from the Calvert County Sheriff’s Office obtained by the AP shows Ashli Babbitt was issued a criminal summons on charges of reckless endangerment, a misdemeanor defined under Maryland law as engaging in conduct “that creates a substantial risk of death or serious physical injury to another” and punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. She was also charged with malicious destruction of property for the damage to Norris’ vehicle.
Court records show those charges were later updated to include traffic offenses — reckless driving, negligent driving and failure to control a vehicle’s speed to avoid a collision.
Photos from the scene provided to the AP by Norris show Babbitt’s white Ford Explorer with its front bumper smashed in. The SUV’s grill is also pushed in and the hood dented. The rear bumper of Norris’ Escape is pushed in on the passenger side, with the detached Maryland license plate from the front bumper of Babbitt’s SUV wedged into it.
Following the altercation, Norris and a friend went to the courthouse in neighboring St. Mary’s County, where she lived at the time, and petitioned for a peace order, a type of restraining order, against Ashli Babbitt. The resulting judicial order barred Ashli Babbitt from attempting to contact Norris, committing further acts of violence against her and going to her home or workplace.
A copy of the order, dated the same day as the altercation, contains Norris’ contemporaneous account of what occurred, as written down by her friend. Norris’ hands were still shaking so badly she couldn’t write down what happened for herself, according to a note on the document.
In the weeks after the incident, Norris said, Babbitt falsely claimed to authorities that the collisions had occurred when Norris repeatedly backed her vehicle into Babbitt’s SUV. But when the case went to trial, Norris said, Babbitt changed her story, admitting under oath that she had collided with Norris’ vehicle but portraying it as an accident.
No transcript from the hearing was available, but Norris said the lawyer defending Babbitt made repeated references to her employment at the local nuclear power plant and years of military service, which included deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Babbitt served on active duty with the U.S. Air Force, and then in the reserves and the Air National Guard until 2016. A judge acquitted Babbitt on the criminal charges.
In February 2017, records show Norris asked for and received a second peace order against Ashli Babbitt, citing ongoing harassment and stalking. In a handwritten petition, Norris says that Babbitt had recently followed her home from work and that she had also received repeated calls in the middle of the night from an unlisted number.
“I lived in fear because I didn’t know what she was capable of,” Norris told the AP. “I was constantly looking over my shoulder.”
In 2019, Norris filed a personal injury lawsuit against Ashli Babbitt, seeking $74,500 in damages, and she said she settled out of court with Babbitt’s insurance carrier for an undisclosed sum.
By then, Aaron and Ashli had moved to California, where she grew up and still had family. Timothy McEntee was granted a divorce in Maryland in May 2019. McEntee did not respond to voicemails and messages left at his home.
Ashli posted on Facebook that she married Aaron Babbitt the following month. Records show the couple owned a pool cleaning service with Ashli’s brother. When a reporter visited the business the day after her death, a large sign on the locked door declared the building to be “Mask Free Autonomous Zone Better Known as America.”
In the year since Babbitt’s death, Trump and many Republicans in Congress have sought to recast the Jan. 6 insurrection as nonviolent — a contention directly contradicted by hours of video footage and the public testimony of Capitol Police officers, 140 of whom were injured in the melee.
In his video on Babbitt's birthday, Trump also said: “Together we grieve her terrible loss. There was no reason Ashli should have lost her life that day. We must all demand justice for Ashli and her family, so on this solemn occasion as we celebrate her life, we renew our call for a fair and nonpartisan investigation into the death of Ashli Babbitt.”
Aaron Babbitt’s lawyer, Terrell Roberts III, did not respond to numerous phone messages and emails seeking comment. But in written statements to the media, he has said her shooting “was tantamount to an execution without trial.”
“Given her background as a 14-year veteran of the Air Force, it is likely that Ashli would have complied with simple verbal commands, thereby making the use of any force unnecessary,” Roberts said.
The Capitol Police officer who shot Babbitt, Lt. Michael Byrd, said in a televised interview in August that he fired as a “last resort.” When he pulled the trigger, he said, he had no idea whether the person jumping through the window was armed.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia cleared Byrd of wrongdoing in April, concluding that he acted in self-defense and in the defense of members of Congress. The U.S. Capitol Police announced in August that they had also cleared Byrd.
“I tried to wait as long as I could,” Byrd said. “I hoped and prayed no one tried to enter through those doors. But their failure to comply required me to take the appropriate action to save the lives of members of Congress and myself and my fellow officers.”
Associated Press correspondent Elliot Spagat in San Diego contributed to this report.
Follow AP Investigative Reporter Michael Biesecker at @mbieseck
Contact AP’s global investigative team at Investigative@ap.org.