Prosecutors unveiled new conspiracy charges Friday against four leaders of the Proud Boys, the pro-Trump extremist group that participated in the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6, charging them with a plot to disrupt Congress’ certification of the 2020 election.
The grand jury indictment, handed up last week and unsealed Friday by a federal judge in Washington, alleges that Ethan Nordean of Seattle, Zach Rehl of Philadelphia, Charles Donahoe of North Carolina and Joseph Biggs of Florida orchestrated a strategy to overwhelm Capitol Police officers and target weakly guarded entrances to the building.
All four are considered regional leaders of the Proud Boys organization, with close ties to the group’s national leader Enrique Tarrio.
The charges are arguably the most significant leveled in the 10 weeks since a mob of Donald Trump supporters — seeded with cells of organized extremist groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers — stormed the Capitol, sent lawmakers and then-Vice President Mike Pence fleeing for safety and injured more than 100 police officers.
And the Proud Boys case could expand beyond the four current defendants. One claim in the new charges is that as many as 60 people were in a secure, encrypted communications channel the group set up to coordinate its activities on the day the Capitol was stormed.
A conspiracy indictment against 10 Oath Keepers has been pending for weeks and is expected to add up to five additional defendants, although several appear to be low-level members who tagged along with organizers.
By contrast, the conspiracy indictment unveiled against the Proud Boys Friday is aimed squarely at the group’s leadership.
Tarrio, who was arrested as he arrived in Washington two days before the Jan. 6 Capitol assault, is not charged in the new indictment but is facing separate charges for his alleged role in violence that broke out at a rally in support of former President Donald Trump in December. But according to prosecutors, Tarrio remained in contact with the other four Proud Boys leaders after that time as they discussed a strategy for rushing the Capitol.
Prosecutors have repeatedly indicated in court that their investigation is still in its early stages as mountains of new video and documentary evidence — some from Capitol surveillance cameras and others from phones and computers seized in searches across the country — keep landing in their offices.
According to the indictment, the four leaders grew alarmed that their encrypted communications could be breached after police arrested Tarrio. So they decided to “nuke” the earlier chat and set up two new channels ahead of Jan. 6: “New MOSD” and “Boots on the Ground,” the latter for the Proud Boys who had assembled in Washington. About 60 people participated in that channel, prosecutors say.
On those channels, the Proud Boys leaders discussed a leadership strategy in Tarrio’s absence, and one person identified as an “unindicted coconspirator,” indicated that Nordean — who goes by the alias Rufio Panman — had been designated as the group’s leader in Washington, prosecutors contend.
“Rufio is in charge, cops are the primary threat,” the unindicted co-conspirator told associates on the encrypted channel, per the indictment. “[D]on’t get caught by them or BLM, don’t get drunk until off the street.”
Per the communications included in the indictment, Rehl then indicated he was bringing Baofeng radios to Washington that would be programmed so Proud Boys could communicate throughout the day. At multiple moments, members of the group’s leadership exhorted their allies to remain “decentralized” or to break into “groups” for their march on the Capitol.
The indictment charges that Nordean, Biggs and Rehl were in the earliest waves to enter the Capitol, following closely behind several other previously identified Proud Boys who breached the building, like Dominic Pezzola and William Pepe.
Biggs, who had entered through a door near where Pezzola had smashed a window with a police riot shield, left the Capitol early to pose for a picture on the steps, before reentering through another door along with two other Proud Boys, prosecutors say. He then headed for the Senate chamber.
At 3:38 p.m., as initial waves of rioters were leaving the building, Donohoe sent an encrypted message to the “Boots on the Ground” channel to indicate, “We are regrouping with a second force.”
In earlier proceedings, Nordean had argued that he had no access to communications that day and that a radio he purchased matching the Baofeng style of the other Proud Boys had not arrived at his home until Jan. 7.
Prosecutors also pulled back, at the time, from evidence they said showed Nordean directing the Proud Boys strategy to divide into groups in order to target Capitol doorways that had few police or fortifications. But the prosecution reiterated that plan in the new indictment returned on March 10 and made public Friday.
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