First Proud Boys leader pleads guilty to Jan. 6 seditious conspiracy

Washington Post photo by Joshua Lott.
Former Proud Boys chairman Enrique Tarrio.

WASHINGTON – A lieutenant of former longtime Proud Boys chairman Henry “Enrique” Tarrio became the group’s first member to plead guilty to seditious conspiracy in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot on Thursday, deepening the government’s case against an organization accused of mobilizing violence to prevent the inauguration of Joe Biden.

Jeremy Bertino, 43, of Belmont, N.C., agreed to cooperate with the Justice Department against Tarrio and four other Proud Boys leaders with ties to influential Donald Trump supporters Roger Stone and Alex Jones. The Proud Boys defendants are set to face trial in December on charges including plotting to oppose by force the presidential transition, culminating in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

At a hearing before U.S. District Judge Timothy J. Kelly in Washington, Bertino pleaded guilty to that count and to one count of illegal possession of firearms as a former felon, punishable by 51 to 63 months in prison at sentencing under advisory federal guidelines, prosecutors said.

In a sign of the sensitivity and potential importance of Bertino’s testimony, prosecutors agreed that in exchange for “substantial cooperation,” they could seek leniency at sentencing and enter Bertino into a Justice Department witness protection program.

In plea papers, Bertino said Proud Boys leaders “agreed that the election had been stolen, that the purpose of traveling to Washington, D.C., on January 6, 2021, was to stop the certification of the Electoral College vote, and that the [Ministry of Self Defense] leaders were willing to do whatever it would take, including using force against police and others, to achieve that objective.”

He admitted that at least two days earlier he received encrypted chat messages indicating that members of the Proud Boys leadership group who called themselves the Ministry of Self Defense “believed that storming the Capitol would achieve the group’s goal” and would require using violence.

Bertino had a place in the inner circle of Proud Boys leaders accused of conspiring to impede Congress with angry Trump supporters as lawmakers met to certify the election results. Bertino’s home in North Carolina was searched in March at the same time that Tarrio was arrested on charges that he and at least the four others “directed, mobilized and led” a crowd of 200 to 300 supporters onto Capitol grounds. Many in that crowd are accused of leading some of the earliest and most aggressive attacks on police and property.

At the time of the search, Bertino allegedly possessed two pistols, a shotgun, a bolt-action rifle and two semiautomatic AR-15-style rifles with scopes. Bertino was convicted in 2004 of first-degree reckless endangerment in New York state, a felony, and sentenced to five years of probation with a period of local jail time, according to court filings.

Bertino’s testimony could implicate Tarrio, a former aide to GOP strategist Stone, and co-defendant Joe Biggs, a former employee of Jones’s online Infowars show. Stone and Jones are two prominent right-wing figures who promoted Trump’s incendiary and baseless assertions that the election was stolen.

Stone remained in contact with Trump at Mar-a-Lago in Florida and in Washington in the weeks leading up to the Jan. 6 attack, coordinated post-election protests and privately strategized with figures such as former national security adviser Michael Flynn and “Stop the Steal” organizer Ali Alexander, The Washington Post has reported.

Stone also communicated via encrypted texts after the 2020 election with Tarrio as well as Stewart Rhodes, the founder and leader of a second right-wing extremist group, the Oath Keepers, accused of playing an outsize role in planning for and organizing violence at the Capitol. Rhodes was on trial Thursday on seditious conspiracy charges in the same courthouse where Bertino pleaded.

Before Bertino, all four of 14 people hit with the historically rare charge of seditious conspiracy in the Capitol riots who have pleaded guilty were affiliated with the Oath Keepers.

Tarrio and Rhodes were part of a Signal chat group titled F.O.S. – or Friends of Stone, and the pair met in an underground parking garage next to the Capitol the evening before Jan. 6 with leaders of two pro-Trump grass-roots groups.

Jones, meanwhile, promoted a Nov. 20, 2020, podcast by Tarrio with Biggs and co-defendant Ethan Nordean in which Tarrio suggested in an expletive-laden call that Trump supporters infiltrate the Biden inauguration and turn it into a “circus, a sign of resistance, a sign of revolution.”

Rhodes, Tarrio, Nordean and Biggs have pleaded not guilty to seditious conspiracy and other charges. Stone, who has not been charged, has denied involvement in the Jan. 6 riot. He has previously told The Post: “Any claim, assertion or implication that I knew about, was involved in or condoned the illegal acts at the Capitol on Jan. 6 is categorically false and there is no witness or document that proves otherwise.”

An attorney for Alexander said he testified before a federal grand jury this summer after being assured he was not a target of the investigation. Jones has said he did not lead but followed the crowd to the Capitol that day, grew alarmed by the chaos and recorded himself urging calm and directing others not to fight police.

Tarrio and Bertino were not in Washington on Jan. 6, the only two of more than 870 federally charged defendants who were elsewhere. But in sworn plea papers that largely restated the 10-count indictment against Tarrio and others, Bertino corroborated many of prosecutors’ allegations against the others, and admitted joining in calls for violence including against police, whose support the Proud Boys have long tried to cultivate.

Bertino was a regional leader in charge of recruiting handpicked members for the MOSD. He said the group was trying on Dec. 30, 2020, to prepare for the expected arrest of Tarrio for burning a Black Lives Matter flag at an earlier pro-Trump rally in Washington, speculating that it might cause Proud Boys and others gathering for Jan. 6 to “riot.”

“Maybe it’s the shot heard round the world and the normies will f— up the cops,” Bertino admitted saying.

Tarrio was arrested Jan. 4, released on bond and later pleaded guilty and completed a jail term this year.

On Jan. 4, according to his indictment, Tarrio posted a voice message to an MOSD leaders group of Proud Boys, 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, Bertino – previously identified as “Individual A” or “Person 1” in charging papers – acknowledged messaging Tarrio, “Brother you know we made this happen,” and “1776,” exulting with a profanity. Tarrio replied, “The Winter Palace,” according to Tarrio’s indictment. Prosecutors allege it is 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.

Bertino has been on the radar of both the FBI and a House select committee investigating the events of Jan. 6. Bertino told the House panel that membership “tripled” after Trump famously urged the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” during a 2020 presidential debate, according to a video clip of his interview played during a House hearing in June.

Social media posts, video recordings from Jan. 6 and earlier charging papers by the FBI also indicate that Nordean and Proud Boys leaders were motivated to confront police that day in part by what they perceived to be an insufficient response to the stabbing of Bertino outside Harry’s Bar in downtown Washington after a pro-Trump demonstration the previous month.