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Proud Boys leader and lieutenants charged with seditious conspiracy

The group is the second whose members face the federal rare charge in the Capitol attack

Henry Tarrio, the former leader of the Proud Boys, and four other members were charged with seditious conspiracy on June 6 for their role in the Capitol attack. (Video: Reuters)
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Henry “Enrique” Tarrio, the former longtime chairman of the extremist group Proud Boys, was indicted on a new federal charge of seditious conspiracy with four top lieutenants on Monday. The charges expand the Justice Department’s allegations of organized plotting to oppose through violence the certification of President Biden’s election victory, culminating in the attack on the Capitol by a mob on Jan. 6, 2021.

Tarrio, 38, was not in the District that day but allegedly guided activities from nearby Baltimore as Proud Boys members engaged in the earliest and most aggressive attacks to confront and overwhelm police at several critical points on restricted Capitol grounds. Another defendant, Dominic Pezzola of Rochester, N.Y., broke through the first window of the building at 2:13 p.m. with a stolen police riot shield, authorities said.

A 10-count superseding indictment returned Monday morning charges Tarrio, Pezzola and three other existing defendants — Ethan Nordean of Washington state, Joe Biggs of Florida and Zachary Rehl of Pennsylvania — with “opposing the lawful transfer of presidential power by force,” eventually mustering and coordinating the movements of as many as 300 people around the Capitol that day. The defendants are accused of fomenting and spearheading a riot that stormed the Capitol, eventually forcing the evacuation of Congress as it met to confirm the 2020 election results.

Federal prosecutors previously leveled the historically rare charge of seditious conspiracy for the first time in the Jan. 6 attack against Stewart Rhodes, the founder and leader of the extremist group Oath Keepers, and 10 associates. Since the charges were filed in January, a year after the violence, two of the other defendants, Joshua James of Alabama and Brian Ulrich of Georgia, and one other Oath Keeper member, William Todd Wilson of North Carolina, have pleaded guilty to the charge and are cooperating with the Justice Department.

In April, a Tarrio co-defendant, Charles Donohoe of North Carolina, pleaded guilty to two felony counts including obstructing an official proceeding of Congress. His plea provided insights into the plans and intention of the group to disrupt the electoral vote confirmation. Tarrio and the others pleaded not guilty to a previous indictment that charged them with offenses including conspiring to obstruct Congress or impede police in a civil disorder.

The new charges add two counts, seditious conspiracy, punishable by up to 20 years in prison, and conspiracy to prevent an officer from discharging any duties. A new hearing was set for Friday. Rehl attorney Carmen Hernandez called the action by prosecutors ahead of an August trial date exceedingly heavy-handed against her client, who she said committed no violence and at worst is allegedly to have associated with the Proud Boys as his right under the First Amendment.

“To bring such a serious charge against Mr. Rehl at this late date without alleging a single new fact against him is simply wrong and deserves a response,” Hernandez wrote in a filing. Tarrio attorney Nayib Hassan said his client “is looking forward to trial and his day in court.” Attorneys for Nordean declined to comment.

The charges show prosecutors pulling together a wider picture of organization within extremist groups that shared overlapping if not common goals. The investigations have exposed hints of coordination among groups, even as the FBI and Justice Department are expanding their investigations into the political orbit of former president Donald Trump. The House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack is expected to shine a spotlight on such connections in public hearings starting Thursday.

Released videos show Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio meeting Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes the day before the attack on the Capitol. (Video: U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia)

In recent weeks, prosecutors have introduced as evidence in the latest case a video of a meeting in an underground parking garage near the Capitol among Tarrio, Rhodes and Kellye Sorelle, an attorney who has worked with the Oath Keepers, on the eve of the rioting. Leaders of two right-wing groups, Joshua Macias of Vets for Trump, a scheduled speaker the following day, and Bianca Gracia, head of Latinos for Trump and a Jan. 6 event organizer with White House ties, were also at the meeting.

Snippets of audio released do not capture what the group discussed. Tarrio has said he was only interested in connecting with Sorelle because she was a “good attorney” after he was released from jail and ordered to leave Washington pending trial for a separate incident, the burning of a Black Lives Matter banner stolen from a church in the District in late 2020 after a different pro-Trump rally. Tarrio pleaded guilty in the banner-burning case and completed a four-month jail term earlier this year.

Meanwhile, multiple Oath Keepers members provided security for Trump confidant Roger Stone on Jan. 5 and Jan. 6, court records show, while at previous pro-Trump rallies he surrounded himself with Proud Boys, including Tarrio, who has served as an aide to Stone.

In the Oath Keepers case, a defendant this spring made public the transcript of a Nov. 9, 2020, videoconference call of the Oath Keepers, in which Rhodes has Sorelle debrief members on “multiple pods working” to challenge Biden’s election victory. Sorelle said those in the pods included the Trump campaign, the Republican National Committee, QAnon supporters and the legal team of Rudy Giuliani.

Tarrio also used an encrypted messaging app to communicate with both Rhodes and Stone, who had drawn up a “Stop the Steal” plan on Nov. 5, two days after the election, according to footage from a documentary crew that The Washington Post has reported on. Stone, Macias, Sorelle and Garcia have not been accused of wrongdoing. Stone has denied that he knew about illegal conduct at the Capitol.

The Monday indictment largely restated the role Tarrio allegedly played in discussions that preceded the violence at the Capitol. On Dec. 30 and 31, prosecutors said, Tarrio exchanged messages with an individual who sent him a plan called “1776 Returns″ to occupy “crucial buildings” in Washington, including the House and Senate, with “as many people as possible.” After sending it, the individual allegedly messaged Tarrio that the “revolution is [sic] important than anything,” to which Tarrio allegedly replied, “That’s what every waking moment consists of … I’m not playing games.”

Proud Boys leader charged with conspiracy in Capitol insurrection

On Jan. 3, an unidentified “Person 3” wrote on an encrypted Proud Boys leadership chat that the group should “plan the operations based around the front entrance to the Capitol building,” according to the indictment. The following day, it alleged, Tarrio posted a voice message to a “Ministry of Self Defense” leaders group, stating, “I didn’t hear this voice note until now, you want to storm the Capitol.” After the Capitol was breached, Tarrio wrote in a Telegram group chat, “We did this,” prosecutors said.

That night, in a new detail alleged in the 32-page indictment, a fellow Proud Boys member identified as “Person 1” messaged Tarrio exulting with a profanity, “1776.” Tarrio, according to the charging document, then replied “The Winter Palace,” a reference to a Proud Boys planning document that had a section called “Storm the Winter Palace,” referring to the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the former imperial palace in St. Petersburg that was raided by Bolsheviks, CNN first reported.

Someone identified in the indictment as “Person 1” also suggested to Tarrio that the election result could be invalidated if lawmakers failed to vote by midnight, a seeming attempt to interpret the Electoral Counting Act in a way to deny Biden’s victory that echoed the effort by Trump’s own lawyers.

The Proud Boys are known for brandishing batons at rallies and gatherings and for being eager to spar with their perceived enemies in the leftist antifa movement. During a presidential election debate in fall 2020, Trump famously refused to denounce the Proud Boys, urging them to “stand back and stand by.” The group took those words as a rallying cry, which appeared to energize members in the months leading up to Jan. 6. While its leaders disavow racism, some members have ties to groups that espouse white-nationalist rhetoric common among hate groups.

Proud Boys engaged in street brawls with antifa members during pro-Trump rallies in Washington in late 2020, one of which included the flag-burning incident at the church and one in which a Proud Boys member, Jeremy Bertino of North Carolina, was stabbed, matching prosecutors identification of “Person 1.”