Rally junkie doesn’t care if it’s Clinton or Trump, as long as he’s in the picture

Putting on a different hat is all it takes for one local man to create front-row access to future (and past) presidents.

Wear a red “Make America Great Again” hat and blend in with Trump supporters. Put on a green “Mexico” cap and watch vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine speak from only a few feet away.

At various political rallies in Pennsylvania over the past month, I spotted Jonathan Lee Riches wearing different “hats,” claiming to be a Muslim supporter for Trump at one rally and a Muslim for Clinton at an other.

Jonathan Lee Riches, a West Chester man of 39 and former federal prisoner, describes himself in social media profiles as a truth-seeking sleuth. In this quest he has filed thousands of lawsuits and open-record requests. Many of them are unfruitful.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

He self-documents his actions and posts photos and videos online as he attempts to get close to the daily newsmakers. For Riches, “being at the right place at the right time” means showing up really early. Often he is one of the first in line for an event. It seems he wants to make sure he gets the front row seat to increase his chances of a quick handshake or a selfie with the candidate.

The first time I met him was outside at a Trump rally, in Manheim, Pennsylvania, on Oct. 1. His appearance there confused me. In central Pennsylvania, I didn’t expect to see a Muslim, and especially not one who openly was there to support the Republican candidate known for what many have called racist remarks against Muslims.

Without knowing I would bump into him several more times before the end of the election cycle, I took some quick shots and asked him his name and where he was from. “We are tired of being stigmatized, of us Muslims being bad people,” he said of his motivations.

I have also seen Riches taking selfies, shaking hands, and recording video commentary at rallies with Clinton in Havertown, Pennsylvania; Tim Kaine in Philadelphia; and former President Bill Clinton in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania.

On Oct. 24, he showed up at Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown as former Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane was led away in handcuffs. Watching Riches maneuver around outside the courthouse, I realized he was mostly ignored by the general media. At the same time he shows up in the background of many images captured at those events.

JLR @ Montgomery County Courthouse where former Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane will learn her fate. pic.twitter.com/260b46bqq9

— Jonathan Lee Riches (@xxxlawsuitxxx) October 24, 2016

Coming to these rallies is an enjoyable experience for Riches. He says he wants to get as close as possible to the candidates, see their faces, ask questions, or request a favor.

At a recent rally with Bill Clinton, he asked the former president to share a message to his mother, who Riches says has breast cancer. Bill Clinton did that as Riches recorded.

His followers on social media applaud his actions. Some suggest he is “playing a game.” He has a record of crossing the line.

“I have been to Aurora, Sandy Hook, Orlando. Wherever the hot story is, I go,” Riches says. “Even though these events are tragic, I try to bring a smile to people’s faces.”

Thinking back on his appearance at Sandy Hook, only a few days after the Dec. 14, 2012, shooting, Riches says things got out of hand. He remembers kneeling at the memorial paying respect and laying flowers and a wreath in respect for the victims. Published photos identified Riches as Jonathan Lanza, uncle of shooter Adam Lanza. Several media outlets, including the New York Daily News, published Riches’ claims that Lanza was taking a anti-psychotic drug prescribed to treat schizophrenia.

Riches denies that he misidentified himself. Eventually the hoax was discovered, and Riches was tracked down by the FBI, who arrested the impersonator for parole violations.

Riches says it is for the public to decide if his acts should be seen as humor or whether he should be considered a hypocrite. After serving 10 years of jail time for fraud, he says he attends these events in peace, and his sole purpose is to enjoy himself and have a good time.

In the last four days before the Nov. 8 elections, Riches is planning to attend events that include Donald Trump in Hershey on Friday, and Katy Perry, Hillary Clinton, and Jill Stein in Philadelphia on Saturday.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal