Proud Boys charged with conspiracy in US Capitol riot

Dominic Pezzola and William Pepe were already facing lesser charges connected to the Capitol attack on Jan 6. PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - Federal prosecutors investigating the violent riot at the Capitol this month announced their first conspiracy charges against the Proud Boys last Friday (Jan 29) night, accusing two members of the far-right nationalist group of working together to obstruct and interfere with law enforcement officers protecting Congress during the final certification of the presidential election.

In an indictment filed in federal court in Washington, prosecutors charged the two Proud Boys, Dominic Pezzola and William Pepe, with 11 counts, including conspiracy, assaulting an officer and civil disorder.

Both Pezzola, a former boxer and Marine, and Pepe, an employee of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, were already facing lesser charges connected to the Capitol attack, which followed a Jan 6 rally in support of former president Donald Trump.

While more than 170 people have been charged in the deadly assault on the Capitol, most have been accused of relatively minor crimes like disorderly conduct and unlawful entry.

The only other serious conspiracy charges in the inquiry have been brought against three members of the militia group the Oath Keepers, who are accused of organising since a week after the November election to stop the certification of the vote.

But unlike the Oath Keepers indictment, the one brought against Pezzola, 43, and Pepe, 31, describes only a two-person conspiracy that lasted only through the day of the rally when, it notes, a large group of Proud Boys travelled to Washington and gathered near the Capitol grounds.

A Proud Boys "organiser" led the group - with Pezzola and Pepe among them - in a series of chants, including, "we love Trump", before moving on to the Capitol, the indictment said.

Earlier this month, prosecutors described a virtually identical scene in court papers charging Joseph Biggs, a high-ranking leader of the Proud Boys, with steering a crew of about 100 Proud Boys towards the Capitol. Another organiser, Mr Ethan Nordean, helped Biggs lead the crowd, the court papers said, but has not been charged.

The Proud Boys, a self-described "western chauvinist" group that has a long history of bloody street fights with left-wing activists known as antifa, have drawn the attention of investigators because they are one of the extremist outfits that had a large presence on Capitol Hill during the assault.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has started executing search warrants against the group, including one from last week that permitted the collection of numerous electronic devices from a Proud Boys member who took extensive videos of Biggs and his crew.

The organisation, which has maintained links with both overt white supremacists and more mainstream Republicans, has been a vocal - and often violent - advocate for Mr Trump.

During one of the presidential debates, Mr Trump seemed to signal his support by telling its members to "stand back and stand by".

Investigators have made a priority of exploring whether the attack was planned in advance by groups like the Proud Boys. This past week, Mr Michael Sherwin, the US attorney in Washington, said that prosecutors were focused on bringing "more complicated conspiracy cases related to possible coordination among militia groups" and "individuals from different states that had a plan to travel" to Washington before Jan 6.

The new Proud Boys indictment offers no evidence that members of the group worked in advance to plot the Capitol assault and describes only vague links between its two defendants, Pezzola and Pepe. Still, the indictment noted that the men worked with other individuals - both "known and unknown" - leaving open the possibility that further charges could be filed.

Pezzola, who works as a labourer laying tile, has been a focus of the sprawling investigation into the Capitol attack almost from the moment it began.

Court papers released last Friday morning said that he was in the first wave of rioters to enter the building, shattering a window with a plastic police shield. After climbing through the window, prosecutors said, Pezzola joined a mob that confronted Capitol Police officer Eugene Goodman in a stairwell near the Senate floor.

According to court papers, someone in the mob called out, "Where they meeting at? Where they counting the votes?"

Prosecutors said that Pezzola later posted a video of himself online, smoking a cigar inside the Capitol. In the video, court papers said, he refers to the cigar as a "victory smoke", adding that he knew the mob would be able to take over the building if the rioters "tried hard enough".

When FBI agents searched Pezzola's home after the riot, prosecutors said, they found a thumb drive with several PDF files, some suggesting he had been studying bomb-making techniques. The computer files, court papers said, had titles like Advanced Improvised Explosives, Explosive Dusts, and Ragnar's Big Book of Homemade Weapons.

Mr Michael Scibetta, Pezzola's lawyer, said last Friday that authorities were not letting him see his client, who is now in custody in Washington.

Pepe's lawyer, Ms Susanne Brody, did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

The prior charges against Pepe, a Metro-North Railroad worker, were only scantly described. In a criminal complaint issued on Jan 11, prosecutors said he had used a day of sick leave to attend a "Stop the Steal" protest in Washington and was subsequently photographed inside the Capitol. At a hearing this past week, prosecutors made a cryptic reference to an ongoing investigation involving Pepe but never fully explained what it was at the time.

At least four other members of the Proud Boys have been charged in connection with the Capitol attack, including Biggs, a US Army veteran.

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