Nearly all of the five members of the Proud Boys extremist group who were indicted by federal authorities this week for seditious conspiracy related to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol are veterans, according to court documents and the military services.
The indicted men include an Army combat veteran with a Purple Heart, two Marines who served in the infantry and logistics, and a sailor recruit who washed out in boot camp. The only non-veteran of the group was Enrique Tarrio, the former chairman of the Proud Boys, a far-right group that formed in 2016 and played a key role in the violence in Washington last year.
The charges released Monday allege that the four men were the vanguard among hundreds of pro-Trump rioters gathered to disrupt Congress from certifying the presidential election that day. They were the first to push past police barricades and the first to break windows in the Capitol as part of a seven-hour riot that left 114 police officers injured and caused $1.5 million in damages, according to the indictment and a government watchdog report.
"What we saw in the lead-up to Jan. 6 was that [veterans] were the ones making the decisions about how the group was going to behave, how it was going to organize on Jan. 6," Michael Jensen, a senior researcher at the University of Maryland who studies extremism, told Military.com in a phone interview.
The Proud Boys' veteran status and alleged roles in Jan. 6 raise new questions about the connection between military service and extremist activity following similar sedition charges in January against the Oath Keepers and its founder Stewart Rhodes, an Army veteran and former paratrooper. Authorities say the Oath Keepers created a military-style "quick reaction force" to violently oppose the transition of power to President Joe Biden after he won the 2020 election.
Sedition charges are rare, and the Capitol attack has no parallel in modern U.S. history. Of the 16 people the government has now charged with sedition crimes stemming from Jan. 6, more than half served in the military.
The four indicted men's service experience spans the gamut, records show. Many of the documents were compiled in an extremism database kept by the University of Maryland, which granted Military.com access.
Joseph Biggs, a Proud Boys member who was one of the first people to break past police barricades, appears to have the most time in the military. He spent 12 years in the Army and did two combat deployments as an artilleryman, earning a Purple Heart as well as several personal achievement awards and a Combat Action Badge.
Biggs left the Army in 2012 as a staff sergeant under a medical discharge, according to his service records.
Two other indicted Proud Boys members, Dominic Pezzola and Zachary Rehl, served in the Marine Corps, the service confirmed. Pezzola, who is alleged to have stolen a riot shield he used to break the first window at the Capitol, served for seven years in the reserves as an infantryman, leaving as a corporal in 2005 with no deployments. Rehl, who officials say was key to setting up the group's radios, served as a logistics specialist for four years and was also discharged in 2012 as a corporal having never deployed.
Ethan Nordean, the last of the indicted members and who allegedly helped gather supplies and money for the plot, had the shortest service. He served just over a month as a seaman recruit -- the lowest rank possible -- and never left boot camp in Great Lakes, Illinois, according to the Navy.
Another Proud Boy -- Charles Donohoe, a former Marine -- is mentioned in the indictment as a participant in the riot and leader, but he was not indicted alongside the four veterans and Tarrio on Monday. Court records show he pleaded guilty to two charges in April and has been cooperating with the government.
Marine Corps records show Donohoe was an infantryman who deployed to Iraq twice before being discharged in 2010 as a corporal after serving four years. A court document filed by his lawyers says that, after his time in the Marines, Donohoe worked as a contractor who "monitored and disrupted Taliban operations" while stationed in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Monday's indictment of the Proud Boys alleges the men were also key in raising money, recruiting volunteers, and making plans to attack the Capitol. Although there is no reference to any of the men directly employing their military training, experts have previously told Military.com that veterans -- even those with minimal experience -- are valuable to extremist groups.
"One of the reasons why veterans are so appealing to these organizations is because they assume leadership roles in the group right away," Jensen told Military.com.
Jensen said Oath Keepers members skew older and are less likely to have actual combat from service in the post-9/11 era. Meanwhile, Proud Boys are a younger group, thus more likely to have veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars within its ranks, and more prone to committing violence.
None of the five indicted Proud Boys is older than 44 years of age. Nordean is the youngest at 31 and Pezzola is 44, according to the court document. In contrast, the indicted Oath Keepers were between 44 and 67 years of age.
"The Proud Boys are attracting that kind of younger man for the most part, younger veteran that has combat experience, that still desires that kind of camaraderie and sense of mission that the military gives," he said. "They're attracted to a group that sold themselves as a group that's going out there and fighting on behalf of the cause."
There's no evidence suggesting veterans or active service members are more or less likely to join extremist groups such as the Proud Boys or Oath Keepers.
However, experts are growing increasingly concerned that veterans are more likely to be targeted for recruitment because of their tactical knowledge and the inherent social credibility they carry. A court document filed by Biggs' defense team even noted that the Army combat veteran "did use his planning and leadership roles honed in the military to plan several Proud Boys events in and out of Florida."
Even a rudimentary understanding of basic combat tactics and military mission planning can be difficult for law enforcement to combat. In an unrelated incident, a cavalry scout veteran, who only reached the rank of sergeant and had an otherwise unremarkable career, was arrested in January for teaching classes on how to build bombs and fortify homes against police.
Yet the number of veterans who do become radicalized makes up an extreme minority of the military community.
"There's concern about what [extremism] does to the reputation of military service and the veteran community. Whenever a veteran does something violent, it generates a lot of negative news that reflects poorly on the veteran community," Jensen said. "What we lose in that news cycle is the fact that there are millions of veterans that are never going to radicalize."
Fit in or F--- Off
The Proud Boys, which had been staging demonstrations around the country with other far-right groups for years, were already discussing their plans for Jan. 6 by late December 2020, according to the indictment. The men set up an encrypted messaging group called "The Ministry of Self Defense Leader's Group." The group, referred to as MOSD, would become a code word for their activities during the Capitol siege.
On Dec. 27, for example, the indictment alleges that Nordean started a crowdfunding campaign for "protective gear and communications." A court document says he communicated with a person who offered to donate a tactical vest, steel plates and bear mace to the group.
Days later, the indictment says Tarrio told the "MOSD Prospect Group," a separate group for people who wanted to join the more exclusive Leader's Group, that the ministry "will have a top down structure" and warned prospective members that "if that's something you're not comfortable with" not to bother showing up.
Tarrio split their efforts into two sections: "Operations" run by Rehl and two other unnamed people, and "Marketing" led by himself, Biggs and Nordean, according to the indictment.
On a Dec. 30 video call for recruits into the MOSD, the indictment says Tarrio and other leaders warned that members were required to follow leaderships' commands and that they could "fit in or f--- off."
The MOSD members group grew to at least 65 people by Jan. 2, just days before the Capitol violence unfolded.
Tarrio raised the possibility of storming the Capitol in a Jan. 4 message on the group chat. By that evening, the indictment says, the Proud Boys were discussing dividing people into groups and assigning radio channels for them to use.
Court documents show that Rehl, the discharged Marine whose LinkedIn profile says he managed finances and shipping equipment for the Corps, was key in setting up communications for the day of the siege.
Rehl "brought a number of programmable radio devices with him, and he assisted in the plans to program and distribute them to ensure the group could communicate through the day," court documents allege. The Chinese-made radios were made to transmit "on more than 1,000 different frequencies, making them far more difficult to monitor or overhear."
Throughout the planning process, the indictment alleges, the leaders emphasized that people not "wear colors" -- the distinct yellow and black outfits the group had become known for. A separate court document explained that the Proud Boys "likely knew from experience that their typical tactic of marching in 'uniform,' and in unison, would draw a concentrated law enforcement response to their location."
Day of the Attack
On the day of the riot, about 100 Proud Boys gathered near the Washington Monument -- including four of the men indicted for sedition. Tarrio, who had been arrested on Jan. 4 for destruction of property and possessing high-capacity magazines, was ordered to leave Washington, D.C.
Nordean and Biggs, armed with the radios the leaders had procured, led the group to the Capitol, the indictment alleges.
"Seconds before 12:53 p.m., Biggs was approached by an individual whose identity is known to the grand jury," according to the document. The person spoke with Biggs and then crossed the police barrier erected round the building to keep out the gathering crowd.
"This was the first barrier protecting the Capitol grounds to be breached on Jan. 6, 2021, and the point of entry" used by the indicted members of Proud Boys, authorities charge.
From there, the group allegedly rushed up the west plaza, past police barricades, while people were posting in the Proud Boys leadership group chat to "Push inside! Find some eggs and rotten tomatoes!"
At around 2:13 p.m., Pezzola allegedly used a riot shield taken from a Capitol Police officer to break a window in the Capitol. "The first members of the mob entered through this broken window," the indictment says.
Within minutes, the Senate had suspended its vote to certify Biden as the official winner of the 2020 presidential election. Meanwhile, at around 2:38 p.m., Tarrio made posts on social media that read "Don't f--ing leave," as well as "Make no mistake..." followed by "We did this..."
The indictment also alleges that Tarrio met with Rhodes, the leader of the Oath Keepers, in an underground parking garage on Jan. 4 for about 30 minutes. The indictment is sparse on details of the meeting, noting that some of the other participants were not known to investigators, but the document does say "a participant referenced the Capitol."
The detail is significant since it appears to connect Rhodes and his Oath Keepers militia group to the Proud Boys and their activities on Jan. 6.
Top Oath Keepers members were indicted in January over their own plans to cause mayhem at the Capitol. Prosecutors allege that the group stockpiled guns and ammunition at a nearby hotel in Virginia while making plans to deploy armed reaction teams into the city and the Capitol building.
Court documents show that, since the initial January 2022 indictment, two of the Oath Keepers charged with seditious conspiracy -- Joshua James and Brian Ulrich, who are not military veterans -- have pleaded guilty to that charge, as well as obstructing an official proceeding, and begun cooperating with the Justice Department.
The Proud Boys indictment comes just days ahead of House select committee hearings on the Jan. 6 attack scheduled to start Thursday during prime time. The landmark hearings are expected to flesh out details following an extensive investigation into the riot aimed at keeping then-President Donald Trump in power after he lost reelection.
In the two months before the Capitol riot, Trump and some GOP lawmakers spread lies that the national election was marred by fraud, despite numerous recounts and no evidence. Trump asked his supporters to come to Washington on Jan. 6 to protest. His false election fraud claims fueled much of the anger among protesters in Washington that day.
Part of the crowd on Jan. 6 was chanting "hang Mike Pence" and making threats against other officials, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The mob also erected a noose and gallows outside the Capitol.
Trump had once directly addressed the Proud Boys, as public concern grew over extremist groups. When asked to condemn white supremacy during the first presidential debate in September during the last election, Trump told the Proud Boys to "stand back and stand by," which was widely seen as tacit approval of the group.
Jensen, with the University of Maryland, said the group's mode of operation is "offensive" and that the members are "not just sitting back waiting for this civil war that the Oath Keepers think is coming that never comes."
If any of the men indicted for seditious conspiracy are eventually charged and convicted, they can face up to 20 years in jail, according to U.S. law.
-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.
-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.