WASHINGTON (AP) — Two former leaders of the far-right Proud Boys extremist group were sentenced to more than a decade each in prison Thursday for spearheading an attack on the U.S. Capitol to try to prevent the peaceful transfer of power from Donald Trump to Joe Biden after the 2020 presidential election.
The 17-year prison term for organizer Joseph Biggs and 15-year sentence for leader Zachary Rehl were the second and third longest sentences handed down yet in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack.
They were the first Proud Boys to be sentenced by U.S. District Judge Timothy Kelly, who will separately preside over similar hearings of three others who were convicted by a jury in May after a four-month trial in Washington that laid bare far-right extremists’ embrace of lies by Trump, a Republican, that the 2020 election was stolen from him.
Enrique Tarrio, a Miami resident who was the Proud Boys’ national chairman and top leader, is scheduled to be sentenced Tuesday. His sentencing was moved from Wednesday to next week because Kelly was sick.
Tarrio wasn’t in Washington on Jan. 6. He had been arrested two days before the Capitol riot on charges that he defaced a Black Lives Matter banner during an earlier rally in the nation’s capital, and he complied with a judge’s order to leave the city after his arrest. He picked Biggs and Proud Boys chapter president Ethan Nordean to be the group’s leaders on the ground in his absence, prosecutors said.
Rehl, Biggs, Tarrio and Nordean were convicted of charges including seditious conspiracy, a rarely brought Civil War-era offense. A fifth Proud Boys member, Dominic Pezzola, was acquitted of seditious conspiracy but convicted of other serious charges.
Federal prosecutors had recommended a 33-year prison sentence for Biggs, who helped lead dozens of Proud Boys members and associates in marching to the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Biggs and other Proud Boys joined the mob that broke through police lines and forced lawmakers to flee, disrupting the joint session of Congress for certifying the electoral victory by Biden, a Democrat.
Kelly said the Jan. 6 attack trampled on an “important American custom,” certifying the Electoral College vote.
“That day broke our tradition of peacefully transferring power, which is among the most precious things that we had as Americans,” the judge said, emphasizing that he was using the past tense in light of how Jan. 6 affected the process.
Defense attorneys argued that the Justice Department was unfairly holding their clients responsible for the violent actions of others in the crowd of Trump supporters at the Capitol.
Biggs, of Ormond Beach, Florida, acknowledged that he “messed up” on Jan. 6, but he blamed being “seduced by the crowd” of Trump supporters outside the Capitol and said he’s not a violent person or “a terrorist.”
“My curiosity got the better of me, and I’ll have to live with that for the rest of my life,” he said, claiming he didn’t have “hate in my heart” and didn’t want to hurt people.
During the trial, jurors saw a trove of messages that Proud Boys leaders privately exchanged in the weeks leading up to the Capitol riot, including Biggs encouraging Tarrio to “get radical and get real men” after Trump announced plans for a rally on Jan. 6.
That day, dozens of Proud Boys leaders, members and associates were among the first rioters to breach the Capitol. Before the first breach, Biggs used a megaphone to lead rioters in chants of “Whose Capitol? Our Capitol!”
Biggs “acted as the tip of the spear” during the attack, prosecutors said in a court filing. He tore down a fence and charged up scaffolding before entering the Capitol. He left the Capitol but reentered the building and went to the Senate chamber.
“There is a reason why we will hold our collective breath as we approach future elections,” prosecutor Jason McCullough said. “We never gave it a second thought before January 6th.”
For Rehl, who also helped lead Proud Boys, prosecutors asked for a 30-year prison sentence. He was seen on video spraying a chemical irritant at law enforcement officers outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, but he repeatedly lied about that assault while he testified at his trial, said prosecutor Erik Kenerson. “He tried to craft a narrative to fit the evidence and he was caught,” Kenerson said.
Rehl also led at least three other men into the Capitol and into a senator’s office, where he smoked and posed for pictures while flashing the Proud Boys’ hand gesture, prosecutors said in court documents.
“Rehl led an army to attempt to stop the certification proceeding, was proud that they got as close as they did, and his only regret in the immediate aftermath was that they did not go further,” they wrote in a court filing.
Kelly read from some of the “chilling” messages Rehl sent after Jan. 6, including one, the judge said, that read, “Everyone should have showed up armed and taken the country back the right way.” The judge shook his head and said, “I mean, my God.”
Rehl sobbed as he told the judge he deeply regretted being at the Capitol that day. “I’m done with all of it, done peddling lies for other people who don’t care about me,” Rehl said. “Politicians started spreading lies about the election, and I fell for it hook, line and sinker."
Defense attorney Norman Pattis, who represents Biggs and Rehl, said they are “misguided patriots,” not terrorists, and said long sentences would fuel division.
Rehl and others who rioted at the Capitol that day were following Trump's urging, and genuinely believed that something was fundamentally wrong with the election when they took to the streets, he said. “What they’re guilty of is believing the president who said the election was stolen from him,” Pattis said.
Kelly acknowledged that was a factor, but a “very modest one.”
Prosecutors have also recommended prison sentences of 33 years for Tarrio, 27 years for Nordean and 20 years for Pezzola. Nordean and Pezzola are scheduled to be sentenced Friday.
More than 1,100 people have been charged with Capitol riot-related federal crimes. Over 600 of them have been convicted and sentenced.
The 18-year prison sentence for Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes is the harshest punishment for a Jan. 6 so far. Six members of the anti-government Oath Keepers also were convicted of seditious conspiracy after a separate trial last year.