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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Ex-leader of Proud Boys sentenced to 22 years in Jan. 6 sedition case

Enrique Tarrio, center, addresses a Proud Boys rally alongside Joseph Biggs, right, in Portland, Ore. on Sept. 26, 2020.

By Alan Feuer

Enrique Tarrio, the former leader of the Proud Boys, was sentenced earlier this week to 22 years in prison for the central role he played in organizing a gang of his pro-Trump followers to attack the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and stop the peaceful transfer of presidential power.

Tarrio’s sentence, stemming from his conviction this spring on charges of seditious conspiracy, was the most severe penalty handed down to any of the more than 1,100 people charged in connection with the Capitol attack — and was likely to remain that way, given that no other defendants face accusations as serious as the ones he did.

Until Tuesday, the longest prison term connected to Jan. 6 had been 18 years. That sentence was issued last week to Ethan Nordean, one of Tarrio’s co-defendants. The same sentence was given in a separate case in May to Stewart Rhodes, the leader of another far-right group, the Oath Keepers militia, who also was found guilty of sedition in connection with the storming of the Capitol.

The penalty imposed on Tarrio at a three-hour hearing in U.S. District Court in Washington was the final sentence to be lodged against the five members of the Proud Boys who were tried on seditious conspiracy charges this year. Three other men in the case — Joseph Biggs, Zachary Rehl and Dominic Pezzola — were each sentenced last week to between 10 and 17 years in prison.

But of all the sentences handed down, Tarrio’s was the most notable — not only because of its length, but also because of what it suggested about the current state of the Proud Boys.

Within days of the Capitol attack, the far-right group became a priority for the FBI’s inquiry into Jan. 6 as investigators quickly determined that dozens of its members had played decisive roles in breaching barricades and assaulting the police.

In a series of separate prosecutions — of which Tarrio’s sedition trial was by far the most important — the Justice Department all but decapitated the group’s national leadership and mostly put an end to its involvement in large-scale and often violent pro-Trump rallies in cities across the country.

But the Proud Boys as a whole survived, persisting in their role as “foot soldiers for the right,” in the words of one member who testified for the government at Tarrio’s trial. In recent years, the group has repeatedly inserted itself at the local level into conflicts over issues like coronavirus restrictions and the teaching of anti-racism in schools, and has taken part in attacks against LGBTQ pride events.

Explaining why he had imposed 22 years, Judge Timothy J. Kelly read aloud the seditious conspiracy statute, noting that it was a “serious offense.” Tarrio, he added, was the “ultimate leader of that conspiracy” and had been “motivated by revolutionary zeal.”

For Tarrio, 39, the sentence ended a brief but belligerent career as a prominent force among far-right groups during a period when they moved from the fringes toward the center of conservative politics. Tarrio was in charge of the Proud Boys, which has long espoused a kind of violent patriarchal nationalism, when Donald Trump famously called it out during a presidential debate against Joe Biden, telling its members to “stand back and stand by.”

A Floridian of Cuban descent rarely seen without his uniform of sunglasses and a baseball cap, Tarrio took control of the Proud Boys in 2018 after the group’s founder, Gavin McInnes, stepped aside. With long-standing ties to pro-Trump figures like Roger Stone, Tarrio was enough of a celebrity in right-wing circles that even the prosecutors who secured his conviction referred to him in a sentencing memo this month as “a naturally charismatic leader” and “a savvy propagandist.”

As he left the courtroom escorted by federal marshals, Tarrio raised two fingers in a peace or victory sign.

Conor Mulroe, a prosecutor on the case, had urged Kelly to sentence Tarrio to 33 years in prison, saying that a stiff penalty was needed to prevent extremists from attacking the democratic process in future elections. Mulroe described Tarrio as summoning his men to Washington on Jan. 6 and launching them at the Capitol, where they crashed into the building with a “tidal wave of force.”

Still, Tarrio’s situation was unique: He was in Baltimore, not Washington, on Jan. 6, having been kicked out of the city days earlier by a local judge presiding over a separate criminal matter. In that case, Tarrio was arrested on charges of burning a Black Lives Matter banner that belonged to a Black church in Washington after an earlier pro-Trump rally and of being in possession of two high-capacity rifle magazines bearing a Proud Boys logo.

Prosecutors claimed that Tarrio knew in advance that he was going to be taken into custody through a contact in the Washington police force and “strategically calculated his arrest as a means to inspire a reaction by his followers.” On Jan. 6, Tarrio was watching events unfold from a distance and swapping texts with some of his subordinates as the pro-Trump mob — with the Proud Boys in the lead — overran the Capitol.

Mulroe said that Tarrio has never showed true remorse for the Capitol attack, noting that even as a jury was deliberating his fate he gave an interview in front of thousands of people online declaring that the Proud Boys did nothing wrong on that day.

Tarrio’s lawyers disputed many of these claims, arguing, as they did during the trial, that neither Tarrio nor the Proud Boys had a plan to storm the Capitol on Jan. 6.

“The plan all along was to confront antifa and to protest,” Sabino Jauregui, one of the lawyers said, adding, “Everything that happened after that was not my client’s intent and was not my client’s plan.”

Nayib Hassan, another lawyer for Tarrio, took issue with the government’s attempts to liken his client to “a general controlling his soldiers,” noting that in this instance, the general “didn’t have communication with his troops.”

Moments after his mother begged Kelly for leniency, Tarrio, dressed in an orange prison outfit, apologized for his role in the events of Jan. 6 and said his trial, which lasted more than three months, had “humbled” him.

Some of the other Proud Boys sentenced were similarly contrite in their remarks to Kelly — only to reverse themselves outside the judge’s presence. Last week, not long after telling the judge that he was “a changed and humbled man,” Pezzola raised his fist as he was being led from the courtroom and shouted with a smile, “Trump won!”

Days after weeping at his own sentencing, Biggs called into a vigil being held outside the municipal jail in Washington that houses several Jan. 6 defendants, describing his punishment as “insane” and declaring, “We gotta stand up and fight — don’t give up.”

In an interview with his former boss, conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, Biggs also said he expected that Trump, if reelected, would pardon him.

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