Key Proud Boys Jan. 6 co-conspirator pleads guilty, Tarrio lawyer says

REUTERS/Leah Millis
People protest an event featuring Gavin McInnes, the founder of the far right group Proud Boys, which has been linked to white nationalism, at Pennsylvania State University in State College, Pennsylvania, U.S., October 24, 2022.

An accused key co-conspirator who longtime former Proud Boys chairman Henry “Enrique” Tarrio allegedly said proposed storming the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, has pleaded guilty in a deal with U.S. prosecutors, Tarrio’s lawyers revealed Friday.

Details of the plea emerged in a pretrial hearing as the government ratchets up pressure against Tarrio and four other defendants who face trial in December on a charge of seditious conspiracy.

During the hearing in federal court in Washington, Tarrio defense attorney Sabino Jauregui said that John Charles Stewart, 44, of Carlisle, Pa., pleaded guilty in June. Prosecutors interjected, and U.S. District Judge Timothy J. Kelly immediately halted the public session to go behind closed-doors, which after resuming made no further mention of Stewart.

Stewart did not respond to requests for comment Friday. But he has been identified previously as “Person 3” in Tarrio’s charging papers and described as heading a Proud Boys Jan. 6 “operations” leadership team with Tarrio co-defendant and Philadelphia chapter president Zachary Rehl and one other member. After Stewart allegedly recommended on Jan., 3, 2021, that Proud Boys should focus their efforts in Washington at the “front entrance to the Capitol building,” Tarrio responded the next morning, “I didn’t hear this voice note until now, you want to storm the Capitol,” his indictment states.

Jauregui did not respond to a request for comment afterward, and Tarrio co-defense counsel Nayib Hassan said he was not privy to discuss what he called an accidental disclosure of a sealed matter. Still, the revelation was likely to generate more news coverage about Tarrio, although not at the time of prosecutors’ choosing.

A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office of Washington, which is overseeing Capitol breach prosecutions, declined to comment.

The disclosure by Tarrio’s defense aligns with court records showing that prosecutors on June 10 charged a defendant who was expected to plead guilty and cooperate with investigators in a case related to Tarrio and four top lieutenants, who stand accused of planning in advance to oppose the lawful transfer of presidential power by force. The unidentified defendant was charged with conspiring to obstruct an official proceeding of Congress, according to the records – initially posted publicly by the court but removed from public view. The charge is the same crime admitted to by Matthew Greene, of Syracuse, N.Y., and Charles Donohoe, of Kernersville, two other cooperating Proud Boys who were previously charged with Tarrio or one of his co-defendants. An attorney listed in the record for the unnamed defendant did not respond to requests for comment.

Federal charges of conspiracy to obstruct Congress and to engage in sedition carry the same 20-year maximum penalty. The sedition charge is rarely used and carries more symbolic weight.

Stewart has been identified as an “upper tier” Proud Boys leadership member in government court filings, and his home was searched in March on the same day 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, LancasterOnline earlier reported.

The same government filing that disclosed the search at the time Tarrio was charged also revealed a search of the home of Jeremy Bertino, 43, of Belmont, N.C. Bertino – previously identified as “Individual A” or “Person One” in Tarrio’s charging papers – this month became the group’s first member to plead guilty to seditious conspiracy, seeking leniency in exchange for “substantial cooperation.”

In court on Friday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason McCullough specified that prosecutors have issued a plea offer to all five defendants. But his request to describe the offer in general terms drew objections from attorneys for co-defendants Rehl and Ethan Nordean, of the Seattle area, and was denied by the judge.

“It’s a proposed plea, which isn’t even complete,” lacking for example a summary of admitted facts, Rehl attorney Carmen Hernandez said.

The U.S. push to secure pleas came as Tarrio attorney Jauregui accused prosecutors of deliberately timing the public announcement of Bertino and Stewart’s pleas. Jauregui, who is seeking to move Tarrio’s trial out of Washington, argued that the drumbeat of cooperator agreements is magnifying already “unprecedented” prejudicial pretrial publicity against their client, making it impossible for them to receive a fair trial.

“‘Enrique Tarrio lieutenants have pleaded guilty to seditious conspiracy.’ It’s all over the place, it’s nonstop, and it’s so close to the trial,” Jauregui said. “These plea agreements by Bertino and by Stewart, they were back in June, and they were just released now.”

In plea papers, Bertino said Proud Boys leaders used an encrypted messaging service to create a chat group titled “Ministry of Self Defense” (M.O.S.D) and used it to assemble their plans for blocking Congress’ certification of Biden’s win in the electoral college.

Bertino said he and others “agreed that the election had been stolen, that the purpose of traveling to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021, was to stop the certification of the electoral college vote, and that M.O.S.D. leaders were willing to do whatever it would take, including using force against police and others, to achieve that objective.”

Tarrio, of Miami, and co-defendants Rehl, Nordean, Joe Biggs, of Ormond Beach, Fla., and Dominic Pezzola, of Rochester, N.Y., have pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Tarrio, who was not in Washington that day, has denied wrongdoing and denied that his group planned to commit violence that day.

Jauregui argued Friday that no other Jan. 6 defendant has received the negative publicity that Tarrio has, and that he would be singled out for punishment as a political “surrogate” for President Donald Trump by jurors selected from the District, which voted 95 percent in favor of his 2020 opponent.

“I would submit there are residents in D.C. dying to get on this jury, dying to lie, dying to say they would be fair and impartial, dying to seek some retribution against ‘white supremacists’ or ‘insurrectionists,’ because that’s what they’ve been told for months and months by leaders and people they admire,” Jauregui said. “People are going to go in there, say they can be fair and impartial, all the while going in with a hidden agenda.”

The Proud Boys became known for brandishing batons at rallies and gatherings in 2020 in which members were eager to engage in street fights with their perceived enemies in the leftist antifa movement. During a presidential election debate in September 2020, Trump famously refused to denounce the Proud Boys, urging them to “stand back and stand by.”

Kelly said he would take under advisement Tarrio’s motion to move the trial, while saying the defense faced “an uphill climb” given the legal precedent that judges cannot move trials before jury selection for alleged political bias. The judge said President Richard M. Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, went to trial for the Watergate coverup in Washington, despite pretrial polling indicating that 61 percent of local residents thought he was guilty.

The question isn’t about having opinions but whether potential jurors can put aside their views and render a verdict fairly and impartially based on the facts and law as presented at trial against individual defendants charged, prosecutors said. Among those called to serve in the ongoing seditious conspiracy trial of a second group charged with seditious conspiracy in the Jan. 6 Capitol breach, the Oath Keepers, only 5 percent answered ‘no’ to that question, Kelly noted.

“As much as I hear your argument that, ‘Jeez, judge, if we don’t get [a trial moved] in this case, we’re never going to get it in any other case,’ I think that on the other hand, . . . it’s going to be a very unusual case that warrants this,” Kelly said.