U.S. prosecutors alleged for the first time that a Washington state leader of the Proud Boys was nominated by members of the group to take charge of the U.S. Capitol breach on Jan. 6 and carried out a plan to split into groups to break into the building from as many points as possible.
In a 24-page filing Monday, U.S. prosecutors asked a federal judge in Washington, D.C., to keep Ethan Nordean, 30, of Seattle, in jail pending trial, appealing a lower court’s Feb. 8 release order.
Nordean was “nominated from within to have ‘war powers’ ” to lead activities at the Capitol after the group’s chairman, Henry “Enrique” Tarrio, was arrested by D.C. police upon arriving in the city two days earlier, Assistant U.S. Attorneys James B. Nelson and Jason B.A. McCullough alleged. They do not state whether Nordean and/or others were formally selected to lead events that day.
The prosecutors also asserted that Nordean led the group by positioning Proud Boys members — carrying encrypted two-way Chinese-made Baofeng radios and wearing military-style gear — at an entrance to the Capitol grounds that was guarded by only a handful of Capitol Police officers and spreading out others to different locations to avoid triggering police interest.
“By blending in and spreading out, Defendant and those following him on January 6 made it more likely that either a Proud Boy — or a suitably-inspired ‘normie’ [nonmilitant Trump supporter] — would be able to storm the Capitol and its ground in such a way that would interrupt [Congress’s] Certification of the Electoral College vote,” prosecutors said.
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A detention hearing for Nordean is set for Wednesday.
Nordean, also known as Rufio Panman online, was arrested Feb. 3 on charges of aiding and abetting the destruction of government property, obstructing an official proceeding, trespassing and disorderly conduct on restricted Capitol grounds. The charges include an offense of violence and a charge defined as a federal crime of terrorism — destroying property to intimidate or coerce the government — punishable by up to 10 years in prison, prosecutors said.
Nordean attorney Corey Endo, an assistant federal defender in Seattle, argued when her client was first arrested that he is not accused of violence, has no criminal history, and that prosecutors were targeting Proud Boys members via “guilt by association.”
His local attorneys in Washington, D.C., David B. Smith and Nicholas D. Smith, argued in a court motion for his release that it is not clear that any damage attributed to Nordean would amount to more than a misdemeanor or that his alleged conversation or association with other charged individuals amounted to “aiding and abetting.”
Nordean also should be released because more than 14 days have passed without a probable cause hearing since his initial Feb. 3 court appearance, his defense said.
In granting Nordean’s release on Feb. 8 and staying it pending appeal, Chief Magistrate Judge Brian A. Tsuchida of Seattle said the accused could remain free on the condition that he not travel outside his home county, comply with a nightly curfew and surrender all passports.
Prosecutors have cast Nordean as a key link in their investigation, saying his communications before Jan. 6 indicate that he and other Proud Boys were planning in advance to organize a group that would try to overwhelm police barricades and breach the Capitol.
The FBI and U.S. prosecutors have charged nearly 20 members or associates of the Proud Boys in the breach, and they have accused several members of leading some of the most destructive, aggressive and early efforts to stampede police and break into the building.
The far-right group has a history of violence, and Canada has designated it a terrorist entity.
The FBI has said that Nordean and others appeared motivated in part by what they perceived to be an insufficient police response to the stabbing of one of their members who in December attended a pro-Trump demonstration in D.C.
Tarrio has denied that the group organized any violence at the Capitol. He was not at the Jan. 6 rally and has not been charged with any wrongdoing related to the riot. “There was no plan to go into the Capitol. … There was no plan to even interrupt Congress,” Tarrio has said.
In a Proud Boys live-stream video taken at the Capitol shortly before it was stormed, someone who authorities say appears to be Nordean can be seen leading members on a march around the building, while shouting at police through a bullhorn: “You took our boy in, and you let our stabber go.” The statement appears to be a reference to Tarrio’s arrest on Jan. 4 and the dismissal of charges against another man initially accused of being involved in a melee in which four people, including Proud Boys members, were stabbed after a pro-Trump march in Washington on Dec. 12.
Tarrio was arrested on his way to attend the Jan. 6 Trump rally for allegedly burning a Black Lives Matter banner torn down from a historic D.C. church during the Dec. 12 demonstration. Tarrio has pleaded not guilty.
Nordean became a Proud Boys spokesman after a video of him punching out a Portland, Ore., protester in June 2018 went viral. Last July, he started a Florida business with two other Proud Boys members from that state, Tarrio and Joe Biggs, promoting right-wing causes online in Biggs’s “Warboys” podcast and through Tarrio’s right-wing merchandise store, the 1776 Shop.
In social media and posted videos on accounts that appear to be associated with Nordean, Nordean said Americans must “desensitize” themselves to violence, while others called Proud Boys “soldiers of the right wing” at war, according to prosecutors.
According to Monday’s court filing, Nordean on Nov. 16 posted that “any militia groups” in the Pacific Northwest should contact him on an encrypted social media application by direct message to coordinate.
“We tried playing nice and by the rules, now you will deal with the monster you created,” prosecutors said Nordean posted on Nov. 27, allegedly continuing: “The spirit of 1776 has resurfaced and has created groups like the Proudboys and we will not be extinguished. We will grow like the flame that fuels us and spread like love that guides us. We are unstoppable, unrelenting and now … unforgiving.”
Similarly, the government alleged, “Certain Proud Boys privy to plans for the event discussed their hope to turn the ‘normies,’ or ‘normiecons’ loose on January 6, 2021 — to incite and inspire them to ‘burn that city to ash today’ and ‘smash some pigs to dust.’ ”
Prosecutors said that for days beforehand, Nordean also communicated online to obtain tactical vests, armored plates, bear spray and donations for “protective gear and communications” to be used on Jan. 6.
Arrangements also were made to program, distribute and set to predesignated channels “multiple Baofeng radios for use by Proud Boys members to communicate during the event,” prosecutors said, although it was not clear whether their attempts to use them were successful.
That Nordean “did not personally break open a window or door … neither minimizes his culpability” nor alters the law’s presumption that he be detained pending trial, prosecutors concluded.
“Defendant’s actions in storming past police furthered this objective and as such, Defendant willfully aided, abetted, counseled, and commanded those who followed him onto Capitol grounds that day to destroy government property,” prosecutors wrote.
Prosecutors claim Nordean’s conduct and the severity of his charges and potential punishment show he poses a threat to public safety and is a flight risk.
In support of that last argument, the government said that a search of Nordean’s home turned up a valid U.S. passport issued to someone else who looks like Nordean, along with a passport issued to Nordean’s wife on a dresser on Nordean’s side of the bed, and no passport for Nordean.
Nordean’s attorneys said his wife kept an ex-boyfriend’s passport as a keepsake and stored it with her passport on a dresser, an explanation that prosecutors called “absurd.”
Not all of prosecutors’ arguments in favor of detention have been granted, even for those accused of some of the most violent acts on Jan. 6.
On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Beryl A. Howell reluctantly released Clayton Mullins, a 52-year-old used-car dealer from Kentucky, because she said prosecutors had failed to make a proper argument for detention. Mullins has been charged with assaulting officers, obstruction of law enforcement during civil disorder and other counts related to the riot.
“Danger to the community is a real concern here,” she said, but “my hands are tied.” According to a court filing, Mullins repeatedly attacked the same police officers who were being asked to help Rosanne Boyland, who “was dying after being trampled by the mob.” Authorities have not determined a cause and manner of death for Boyland and two others who officials said died of medical emergencies that day.
Mullins maintains he was helping, not hurting, an officer by grabbing his leg.
Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.