Encrypted Chats, Parler Posts Indict Proud Boys Leaders for Capitol Rioting

Encrypted Chats, Parler Posts Indict Proud Boys Leaders for Capitol Rioting
A member of the Proud Boys speaks to the media at a gun rights rally near the Capitol in Richmond, Virginia on January 18, 2021. (Photo: Ryan M. Kelly, Getty Images)
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The FBI has amassed a tranche of social media posts and encrypted text messages implicating four senior members of the Proud Boys in a January 7 plot to storm police barriers at the U.S. Capitol and stop members of Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s victory.

In a superseding indictment Friday targeting leaders of the notoriously violent far-right fraternity, the acting U.S. attorney for D.C. alleges three Proud Boys chapter presidents and another member were among the “Stop the Steal” rioters who overran police, eventually forcing their way into the Capitol building.

In some cases, charging documents say, members moved ahead of the crowds.

Prosecutors offered up social media posts from as far back as November and up to the day of the siege to allege crimes committed by members were planned well in advance; what the courts call a “conspiracy.” Text messages, including many from an encrypted coordinating channel used exclusively for Washington, show members issuing orders and advice on avoiding police and readying their radio comms, while repeatedly references to “plans.”

The same Proud Boys members would later lead accomplices across the western lawn of the Capitol, prosecutors said, helping to overpower police and finally breach the building.

Proud Boys chapter presidents Ethan Nordean, 30, of Seattle, who’s also an Elders chapter member (and calls himself “Rufio Panman”); Zachary Rehl, 35, of Philadelphia; and Charles Donohoe, 33, of Kernersville, North Carolina are all named as co-conspirators, in addition to Joseph Biggs, 37, of Ormond Beach, Florida, who is listed as a “self-described organiser of certain Proud Boys events.”

The four defendants now face six counts, including obstruction of an official proceeding and destruction of government property and aiding and abetting.

Prosecutors first point to a Parler post by Enrique Tarrio, the Proud Boys chairman (referred to only as such in the indictment). His Dec. 29th message made public the Proud Boys’ plans to “turn out in record numbers on Jan [7th],” as well as the decision to “be incognito” so that “smaller teams” could “spread across downtown.”

The charging documents go on to detail events as the unfolded that day, describing key moments of the siege and how the Proud Boys played a pivotal role:

The Proud Boys gathered in numbers at around a quarter till one near Peace Circle, where Pennsylvania Ave. and First St. meet. A police barrier is overrun on the western perimeter moments after. Footage of the breach was captured by several cameras, including that of right-wing media personality Elijah Schaffer. According to prosecutors, Nordean, Biggs, Rehl, and Donohoe were part of the mob that forced its way past police guarding a pedestrian walkway.

The fences and other obstacles erected by police on the western lawn proved nothing more than security theatre. The crowd easily overcame them and the police continued to lose ground, retreating eventually to the west steps. Nordean “positioned himself near the front of the crowd as these events took place,” prosecutors said.

Inside the building, Vice President Mike Pence was convening a joint session to certify the Electoral College vote and name Joe Biden president-elect. Outside, a violent crowd bent on reversing the outcome surged. Police now vastly in the minority watched as crowds chanting, some to lynch the vice president, smashed windows and rammed open doors.

Prosecutors say three of the accused — Nodrean, Biggs, and Rehl — seized the opportunity to get inside. In a self-shot video as the mob reached the west plaza, Biggs announced: “we’ve just taken the Capitol.”

Social media posts written by the Proud Boys now provide evidence in their name. Donohoe, 33, the president of a North Carolina chapter, wrote for instance: “We stormed the capitol unarmed,” adding: “And we took it over unarmed.” Prosecutors also use posts prior to the breach to help establish intent: “It’s time for fucking War if they steal this shit,” Biggs wrote on Nov. 5. Rehl, days after mentioning a “a big rally” on January 7, wrote he was hoping “the traitors who are trying to steal the election” are killed by “firing squads.”

The group crowdfunded online more than a week in advance to pay for members’ travel and buy new paramilitary gear, including radio equipment. Some of the group would use Zello, an app that emulates walkie-talkies over a cell network.

The FBI obtained numerous messages from encrypted chat groups that included Nordean, Biggs, Rehl, Donohoe and “a handful of additional members.” Two days before the event, Donohoe is seen warning members in the chat: “Everything is compromised and we could be looking at Gang charges.” “Stop everything immediate,” he says, “This comes from the top.” But roughly an hour later, another member, unidentified in the charging documents, calls for handheld radios to be passed out to pick which channels to use.

A separate encrypted Proud Boy channel called “Boots on the Ground” was created for communication in Washington, the indictment says. There, members were instructed by Biggs to “avoid getting into any shit” on the eve of the event. “Tomorrow’s the day,” he said. The word “plan” is used multiple times. Members are also told that “cops are the primary threat” and to remain covert, not displaying their colours.

When the group finally reached the Capitol building that day after 2 p.m., prosecutors say fellow Proud Boy member Dominic Pezzola, 43, smashed a window using a riot shield he’d ripped from the hands of a police officer. Rioters poured inside and forced open a door for the crowd. Biggs accompanied three other Proud Boy members, William Pepe, Joshua Pruitt, and Gilbert Garcia inside. A message is dropped in the Boots on the Ground channel moments later: “We just stormed the capitol.”

Some walked the halls while others lingered around in the rotunda before going back outside. A message shortly 3:30 p.m. informed the group: “We are regrouping with a second force.”

More than 300 people have been charged so far in connection with the Capitol breach. As many as 100 more may be indicted, officials say.