A day of historic accountability for the crimes of Jan. 6 left a pair of rough-and-tumble Proud Boys in tears on Thursday. On Friday, a third Proud Boys convict choked up before he learned he’ll be spending a decade in behind bars. Only a fourth member of the infamous fight club, sentenced Friday afternoon, made it through his proceedings without blubbering.
Joe Biggs — the “tip of the spear” of the Proud Boys assault on Capitol on Jan. 6 — was sentenced to 17 years in federal prison Thursday for his role in the seditious conspiracy to block the peaceful transfer of power to President Joe Biden following the 2020 election.
Biggs’ sentence — one of the stiffest yet for a Jan. 6 defendant — was handed down by federal district judge Tim Kelly, a Trump appointee. Biggs, along with fellow Proud Boys lieutenants Ethan Nordean, Zachary Rehl, and the group’s chairman, Enrique Tarrio, were convicted on the sedition charge in May. A fifth member, Dominic Pezzola, was also found guilty, on charges including obstructing Congress.
The prison term for Biggs is far below the 33 years called for by federal prosecutors, who sought a sentence “long enough to prevent Biggs from leading another violent conspiracy against the government while he is still motivated and equipped to do so.” Biggs’ legal team had argued anything above 10 years was “excessive punishment.” The diminished sentence reflected how Judge Kelly interpreted the terrorism “enhancement” to Biggs’ charges. The judge did not minimize the events of Jan. 6 but said they differed from a bomb attack or mass-casualty event.
The harsh sentence for Biggs reflects his critical role in the chaos at the Capitol. Tarrio was not on the ground during the events of Jan. 6 — a judge had banished him from Washington, D.C., a day earlier on an unrelated arrest. So Biggs, a key lieutenant, stepped up in his place. He became “the tip of the spear throughout the attack,” the government argued in a sentencing document. This included tearing down a fence that helped clear the way for the mob to reach the Capitol. In the weeks leading up to the attack, Biggs had also been, the same court filing describes, a “vocal” and “influential proponent of the group’s shift toward political violence.” It adds: “More than any of his co-defendants, Biggs constantly invoked the language of ‘war.’”
In a marker of Biggs’ central role in the plot, prosecutors have asked for the same 33-year sentence for Tarrio, the Proud Boys honcho. He was due to be sentenced Wednesday; an illness by the judge postponed that proceeding to next week. By comparison, Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the Oath Keepers received 18 years for leading that militia’s seditious conspiracy plot on Jan. 6. (The government had sought 25 years in that case.)
The Proud Boys — self-described as a “Western chauvinist” fight club — saw themselves as loyalists of Trump, who famously called on the brawlers to “stand back and stand by” during a 2020 debate with Biden. And after Trump announced a protest in D.C. to dispute his election loss, Tarrio created an elite unit within the Proud Boys he called the “Ministry of Self Defense,” with the objective of keeping Trump in power.
These Proud Boys “viewed themselves as revolutionaries, and they believed fully in their cause,” the government argues. Recruits in the top-down structure were told to “fit in or fuck off.” According to the government, “it was Biggs’ pro-violence philosophy that they were meant to ‘fit in’ with.”
This MOSD unit was full of committed extremists who were willing to take orders, and use force as necessary. As spelled out in an 80-page sentencing memo for all five criminals, these Proud Boys “participated in every consequential breach at the Capitol on January 6,” leading surge after surge against Capitol police, until Pezzola finally “smashed open a window allowing the first rioters to enter the Capitol.”
Even after the attack, Biggs showed no remorse. He called Jan. 6 a “warning shot to the government,” while likening the Proud Boys to the founding fathers were also “considered terrorists.” In fact, federal prosecutors sought to stiffen the sentences for all five Proud Boys by adding a federal “terrorism” enhancement — in Biggs’ case because his crimes were “calculated to influence or affect the conduct of government by intimidation or coercion.”
For Biggs, Judge Kelly agreed, stating from the bench that it was not a close call. However, in his sentencing decision, he noted that Biggs’ acts didn’t involve implements like explosives or result in mass death that might match the “stratospheric” sentence demanded by the government. The U.S. attorney arguing the government’s case countered that the intimidating impact of Jan. 6 was “no different than the act of a spectacular bombing of a building.”
Speaking on his own behalf, Biggs broke down crying. He told the court: “I know I messed up that day. But I’m not a terrorist.” In his life before Jan. 6, Biggs was a larger-than-life presence. An Army veteran, he hosted a podcast, and moved in GOP political circles, even getting his photo snapped chumming around with Greg Abbott, the governor of Texas.
On Thursday afternoon, Judge Kelly also sentenced a second Proud Boys leader, Zachary Rehl, to 15 years. Rehl was not at the top of the MOSD pecking order. His sentence only rivals Biggs’ because he also perjured himself at trial. Rehl had denied attacking law enforcement on Jan. 6. But Kelly pointed to video evidence that had recently come to light that shows, by a “preponderance of the evidence,” Rehl firing a chemical agent, e.g. pepper or bear spray, at cops. “You did spray that officer, and then you lied about it,” Kelly said, handing down the sentence. “In the law we call those bad facts.” (The government had called for a lesser sentence for Rehl than Biggs — 30 years.)
Rehl’s actions with MOSD also drove his jail time. During one surge toward the Capitol, where rioters were already battling police, Rehl shouted: “Fuck them! Storm the Capitol!” Afterward, Rehl reveled in the chaos that the Proud Boys had helped unleash. Rehl’s only regret was that Biggs and others had to skip town before they could party: “I was hoping to have some celebratory beers with yall,” Rehl lamented, “after this epic fuckin’ day.”
During his sentencing, a tearful Rehl struck a very different, remorseful tone, taking responsibility for his predicament — repeatedly saying, “It’s my fault.” He also insisted: “I’m done peddling lies for other people that don’t care about me.”
A third member of the Proud Boys, Dominic Pezzola, learned his fate on Friday morning: a prison sentence of 10 years. Of the five criminals in this case, Pezzola was the only one not convicted of seditious conspiracy. But the government, which had sought a 20-year sentence, painted him as an “enthusiastic foot soldier” and one of the Jan. 6 crew’s “most violent members.”
As a sentencing document briskly recaps: “Pezzola assaulted a U.S. Capitol Police officer and forcefully robbed him of his shield, told others that they ‘better be fucking scared’ because ‘we ain’t stopping,’ smashed open the window to the Capitol building while Congress was still in session, allowing the first rioters to enter the building, and filmed a celebratory video from inside the building, proclaiming that he ‘knew we could take this motherfucker over if we just tried hard enough. Proud of your motherfucking boy.’” From the bench, Judge Kelly said this conduct “boggles the mind.”
Speaking to the judge shortly before his sentencing, Pezzola fought back tears and said: “I stand before you with a heart full of regret.” Calling for mercy for her husband, Pezzola’s wife nonetheless deemed him a “fucking idiot.” As if to prove this point, as he exited the courtroom, Pezzola threw up a fist and shouted: “Trump won!”
On Friday afternoon, another top leader of the seditious conspiracy, Ethan Nordean was sentenced to 18 years in federal prison, one more than Biggs, and matching the sentence handed out to the Oath Keeper Rhodes. Nordean is infamous for his call for the Proud Boys to “fash the fuck out” — or to embrace fascism.
The government likened Nordean — a celebrated street brawler within the Proud Boys — to Biggs in terms of his on-the-ground leadership on Jan. 6. A federal sentencing memo states plainly: “Nordean and Biggs took command of the MOSD following Tarrio’s arrest.” The same memo details how Nordean “led a group of nearly 200 men… onto Capitol grounds.” His objective was clear, it states: “Nordean was there to use force against the government and lead what he viewed as a second American Revolution — or as Nordean would call it, ‘seventeen-seventy-fucking-six’.”
Judge Kelly rebuked Nordean, as he did each Proud Boys convict, for his role in having broken America’s sacred tradition of the peaceful transfer of power. He denounced Nordean in particular for joining with Biggs to tear down the fence that permitted rioters to gain closer access to the Capitol.
Tarrio, the seditious conspiracy’s kingpin, is now due to be sentenced on Sept. 5.
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