Proud Boys ringleader Enrique Tarrio sentenced to 22 years in prison for Jan 6 attack

The sentence is the largest to date connected to the attack, reflecting his singular role organizing members of the mob that brought American democracy to the brink

Alex Woodward
Wednesday 06 September 2023 00:46 BST
Related video: Convicted Proud Boys organizer calls Alex Jones from prison

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Enrique Tarrio, the now-former leader of the neo-fascist Proud Boys gang convicted on treason-related charges after fuelling a mob on January 6, has been sentenced to 22 years in prison.

Tarrio was among four members of the group convicted of seditious conspiracy and other crimes earlier this year following a four-month trial. Tarrio, as the group’s leader, organized and directed a mob towards the US Capitol, where Proud Boys dismantled barricades and broke windows to breach the halls of Congress, then bragged about their actions on social media and in group chat messages that were later shared with jurors.

He served as a “naturally charismatic leader, a savvy propagandist, and the celebrity Chairman” of the group, wielding his influence over his subordinates and allies to “organize and execute the conspiracy to forcibly stop the peaceful democratic transfer of power” as lawmakers convened to certify the results of the 2020 presidential election, federal prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memo.

Tarrio instead used his talents “to inflame and radicalize untold numbers of followers, promoting political violence in general and orchestrating the charged conspiracies in particular,” they argued.

US District Judge Timothy Kelly, characterising Tarrio as the “ultimate leader” of that conspiracy in a lengthy sentencing hearing in Washington DC on 5 September, handed him the largest prison sentence to date among cases connected to the Capitol attack.

Federal sentencing guidelines indicated Tarrio could have faced 27 to 33 years in prison. Prosecutors sought a sentence of 33 years.

As he did with other Proud Boys cases, the judge applied what is called a terrorism “enhancement” to the sentencing guidelines but refrained from imposing larger prison sentences for crimes he has contrasted to mass casualty events.

Four other members of the group were sentenced last week for their roles in the attack. Ethan Nordean received a sentence of 18 years in prison, tying Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes for what is now the second-longest sentence to date among the hundreds of people convicted in connection with January 6.

Joe Biggs was sentenced to 17 years, Zachary Rehl was sentenced to 15 years, and Dominic Pezzola – the sole co-defendant among them who was not convicted of seditious conspiracy – was sentenced to 10 years.

Tarrio’s verdict marked the first successful seditious conspiracy conviction against a January 6 defendant who was not physically at the Capitol that day – he was barred from entering Washington DC after he was arrested for burning a Black Lives Matter banner outside a church during a riot weeks earlier. He watched the insurrection from a hotel room in Baltimore.

During the Proud Boys trial, prosecutors presented hundreds of internal messages revealing the group’s culture of violence and preparations for an attack in the weeks leading up to January 6.

Prosecutors argued that Proud Boys were not merely obedient followers of Donald Trump’s commands, amplifying his bogus narrative of election fraud, but were preparing for “all-out war” to undermine millions of Americans’ votes and upend a democratic election to preserve his presidency.

In the insurrection’s aftermath, Tarrio wrote on the social media platform Parler that “when the government fears the people, there is liberty,” a post he accompanied with a photo of House members ducking for cover.

“When he wrote those words, Tarrio was not referring to politicians’ fear of being voted out of office,” prosecutors wrote. “He was speaking concretely and approvingly about what the members of Congress and their staffs were experiencing that very afternoon: fear of injury and death at the hands of a vicious mob that included Tarrio’s own hand-picked soldiers.”

At Tarrio’s sentencing hearing, defence attorney Sabino Jauregui called his client a “misguided patriot” who never intended to “bring down” the government. Tarrio’s attorneys sought to separate Tarrio from the destructive actions of other Proud Boys on the ground.

“I do think the evidence of Mr Tarrio’s leadership was, quite frankly, evident during trial,” Judge Kelly said. “I do find the evidence shows that Mr Tarrio was on the top of the command structure with regard to the planning of the offense.”

As he pleaded with the judge for leniency, Tarrio apologised to law enforcement, lawmakers, the jurors and Washington DC residents for the “national embarrassment” of January 6.

“When I get back home I want nothing to do with politics, groups, activism or rallies … and when you walk out that door your honor, I won’t be saying anything other than that,” he added.

Days earlier, Tarrio’s co-defendant Dominic Pezzola, moments after sobbing in front of the judge, raised a fist and shouted “Trump won” after receiving his prison sentence.

During a televised presidential debate on 29 September, 2020, moderator Chris Wallace repeatedly asked then-President Trump whether he would denounce white supremacism. Mr Trump asked for a name to reference. Joe Biden, standing on the opposite side of the stage, suggested the Proud Boys.

“Proud Boys, stand back and stand by,” Mr Trump said. “But I’ll tell you what somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left because this is not a right-wing problem. This is a left-wing problem.”

Almost immediately, Proud Boys members and their allies celebrated what they heard as a call to action. On Parler, Tarrio wrote: “Standing by, sir.”

On 12 December, 2020, Tarrio and members of the Proud Boys and other far-right groups sparked riots in Washington DC in the wake of Mr Trump’s defeat in the 2020 election. Tarrio admitted in comments on Parler and on a Proud Boys-affiliated podcast that he was responsible for burning a church’s sign.

“I was the one that lit it on fire,” he said. “I was the person that went ahead and put the lighter to it and engulfed it in flames, and I am damn proud that I did.”

Tarrio was arrested moments after arriving in Washington DC from Miami on 4 January, 2021. During his arrest, police found Tarrio was carrying two high-capacity magazines compatible with high-powered rifles. Both were empty.

He faced a misdemeanor charge of destruction of property for burning the church’s sign and two subsequent felony charges for possessing a high-capacity feeding device. In July, members of the group were ordered to pay $1m over what a Washington DC Superior Court judge called a “highly orchestrated” and “hateful and overtly racist” assault against the church.

But in the weeks leading up to his arrival in the nation’s capital, Tarrio had assembled a “Ministry of Self-Defense” with his co-defendants, the “primary instrument” through which members of the group prepared for January 6, according to prosecutors.

Members of the group were instructed to conceal and destroy evidence of their conversations and to refuse to cooperate with law enforcement, with warnings of disavowal and retribution if members were exposed.

Days before the attack, Tarrio exchanged messages over a document titled “1776 Returns” that included plans to occupy “crucial buildings” with “as many people as possible,” including the House and Senate. One message told him that “revolution is [sic] important than anything,” to which Tarrio replied: “That’s what every waking moment consists of … I’m not playing games.”

On January 6, Tarrio told followers on social media that day to “do what must be done” and, in a group chat with other Proud Boys members, “do it again.”

“Don’t f****** leave,” he told them.

“Make no mistake,” he wrote in another message. “We did this.”

Enrique Tarrio, pictured with the Proud Boys in Portland, Oregon in 2019
Enrique Tarrio, pictured with the Proud Boys in Portland, Oregon in 2019 (AP)

Prosecutors argued that his group messages and public posturing before his arrest in Washington DC suggested that Tarrio “strategically calculated his arrest as a means to inspire a reaction by his followers” (Proud Boys members can be seen marching towards the Capitol on January with T-shirts reading “ENRIQUE TARRIO DID NOTHING WRONG”).

His physical absence from the Capitol that day did nothing to “detract from the severity of his conduct,” prosecutors argued in a sentencing memo. Tarrio was functioning as a “general rather than a soldier,” they wrote. By provoking a “desire for political violence” and “inflaming” group members with rage let loose on the Capitol, Tarrio “did far more harm than he could have as an individual rioter,” they wrote.

One day after the attack, Tarrio warned lawmakers who “created the problem” to “listen … because things can get ugly,” which prosecutors called a veiled threat of violence that amounts to a “political version of an extortionate shakedown: Nice democracy you’ve got there; be a shame if something were to happen to it.”

“All this rhetoric from Tarrio, as leader of the conspiracy, underscores the common-sense conclusion that the crimes committed by him and his co-defendants on January 6 were calculated to influence or affect the conduct of government by intimidation or coercion,” according to prosecutors.

Tarrio’s influence among the Proud Boys and far-right extremism more broadly extends far beyond the scope of January 6.

Following the federal case against him in the aftermath of the January 6 attack, as the US Department of Justice scrutinized far-right groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, Tarrio announced he was stepping down from his leadership role. He urged other members to “start getting more involved in local politics” and said the group would be “running our guys for office from local seats, whether it’s a simple GOP seat or a city council seat.” Members of the group would go on to do just that.

Members have also harassed drag queen story-telling events at libraries and amplified “groomer” smears aimed at LGBT+ people. Proud Boys have been central to a wave of attacks and threats against drag performers and the people and venues that host them, targeting at least 60 such events within the last year, with more than half resulting in physical and verbal clashes.

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