Man Who Attacked Police Gets Stiffest Sentence so far for a Jan. 6 Rioter

U.S. attorney’s office
Images of Peter Schwartz at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021.

A man who attacked police officers defending the U.S. Capitol with their own chemical spray on Jan. 6, 2021, has been sentenced to more than 14 years in prison, the longest sentence yet for anyone convicted of participating in the violent pro-Trump riot.

“You were at the front of the line,” Judge Amit P. Mehta said in sentencing Peter Schwartz, 49, of Uniontown, Pa., to 170 months behind bars. “You were a soldier against democracy.”

Schwartz was convicted by a jury in December of four felony counts of assault on law enforcement, obstructing the vote count and related charges. Along with repeatedly turning pepper spray on police, Schwartz threw a metal chair at officers facing the mob at the mouth of a tunnel into the Capitol, causing their line to break. And he joined that mob as it pushed against the police, crushing one officer in a doorway.

He later bragged to friends that he “started a riot” by “throwing the first chair” and “stole” officers’ chemical sprays “and used it on them!”

Aquilino Gonell, a Capitol Police sergeant who took medical retirement because of the injuries he suffered in the riot, spoke at the sentencing about the moment he was hit with the pepper spray.

“I couldn’t stop to wipe it down because of the chaos,” he recalled. In order to “differentiate the mob from the officers,” Gonell said, he had to take off his protective helmet. he said other officers were similarly made vulnerable and “had to retreat into the Capitol.”

The judge said he also took into account Schwartz’s long criminal history – 38 previous convictions, including at least 11 involving violence or threats of violence. At the time of the riot, Schwartz was on probation for domestic abuse and threatening domestic abuse.

His wife was with him on Jan. 6, and in a radio interview after his trial Schwartz said his actions that day were in her defense. She pleaded guilty to assaulting officers with pepper spray and was sentenced to two years in prison. In sentencing papers she said she is in the process of divorcing him.

Prosecutors had asked for 24 years in prison, a sentence that defense attorney Dennis Boyle argued “would give credence to all those who consider this a political prosecution.”

Mehta responded that it was Schwartz who was bolstering that false narrative by giving interviews in which he called the trial a “a sham, in the face of irrefutable video evidence.”

Boyle said the true blame lay with Donald Trump and other “grifters” who convinced “disaffected” people such as Schwartz that the election was stolen. Mehta responded that Schwartz was not feeling powerless on Jan. 6 but gleefully violent, “a warrior.” And Mehta faulted Schwartz for spreading his own lies in claiming he was targeted for being a Christian conservative.

“You can go on these podcasts and claim to be a victim of a political prosecution,” Mehta said. “You are not a political prisoner. You’re not somebody who is standing up to injustice. . . . It’s up to you whether you want to take responsibility for your actions.”

The judge said the scene he found “saddest” from the videos shown at Schwartz’s trial is when, after the metal chair hits the police officers, another man “sees, and he points at them, and he laughs.” After repeating that thought twice, Mehta sighed. “I’m not quite sure what we have come to,” he said.

The previous longest sentence for someone charged in the insurrection was the 10-year prison term former New York City police officer Thomas Webster received in September. Webster, a former Marine, swung a flagpole at police and tackled an officer before yanking off his gas mask during the riot. A jury found Webster guilty of assaulting a law enforcement, obstructing officers and other felonies.

Mehta, who also sentenced Webster, said that attack was “extremely violent” but in comparison involved only a single victim and a perpetrator with no criminal past. He also credited Webster with accepting responsibility once he was found guilty.

Schwartz on Friday said only, “I do sincerely regret the damage that January 6 has caused to so many people and their lives.”

“I appreciate what you said,” Mehta replied. “But I don’t believe it.”