Capitol riot: FBI informant testifies for Proud Boys defense
Wed, Mar 29, 2023 6:56 PM
By MICHAEL KUNZELMAN, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — An FBI informant who marched to the U.S. Capitol with fellow Proud Boys members on Jan. 6 testified on Wednesday that he didn't know of any plans for the far-right extremist group to invade the building and didn't think they inspired the violence that day.
The informant, who was identified in court and in a court record only as “Aaron," was a defense witness at the trial of former Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio and four lieutenants charged with seditious conspiracy for what prosecutors said was a plot to keep Donald Trump in the White House after the 2020 presidential election.
The informant was communicating with his FBI handler as the mob of Trump supporters swarmed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, writing in a text message that police barriers were down and the crowd was almost at the building. He also told his handler that the Proud Boys “did not do it, nor inspire."
“The crowd did as a herd mentality. Not organized," he wrote. The handler's response was redacted from a screenshot that a defense attorney showed to jurors.
A prosecutor later suggested that the informant sent that text only after it became clear that he and other members could be in serious trouble. The prosecutor also suggested that the informant wasn’t a mere observer to the riot, showing video that captured him helping another Proud Boy use a podium to block a security gate from closing.
The presence of government informants in the far-right group has repeatedly come up in the lengthy trial, as defense lawyers seek to undermine prosecutors' claim that the Proud Boys plotted to attack the Capitol to stop Congress from certifying President Joe Biden’s electoral victory.
“Aaron,” who was allowed to withhold a last name when he testified, is one of several Proud Boys associates who were informants before or after the Jan. 6 attack. He is the first to testify at the trial, one of the most important to emerge from the Justice Department’s massive investigation of the Capitol riot.
Revelations about the informants have raised fresh questions about intelligence failures before the riot. A U.S. Senate report examining security failures surrounding the riot found that law enforcement had intelligence leading up to Jan. 6 that some Trump supporters were threatening violence and planning a siege to stop the certification of Biden’s victory.
The informant, however, who joined the Proud Boys in 2019, said he wasn’t a group leader and didn’t know any Tarrio or any of the other leaders on trial. He was not in any of the Telegram chats the Proud Boys leaders on trial are accused of using to plot in the days leading up to Jan. 6.
Law enforcement routinely uses informants in criminal investigations, but their methods and identities can be closely guarded secrets. Federal authorities haven’t publicly released much information about their use of informants in the far-right group.
The informant told jurors that his relationship with the FBI began around 2008 and investigators didn’t ask him to join the Proud Boys or direct him to gather information about the group. The FBI also didn’t ask him to go to Washington on Jan. 6 or march with the Proud Boys that day, he said.
The informant planned his travel to Washington with members of a Kansas City chapter of the Proud Boys, including at least four who were charged with conspiring to impede the Electoral College vote on Jan. 6, he said.
The informant told jurors that marching from the Washington Monument to the Capitol appeared to be a photo opportunity for the Proud Boys. He said he reached out to his handler when the violence erupted on Jan. 6 because he saw it as an “emergency situation."
“If there was any violence and all that, they would have wanted to know,” he said of the FBI.
On cross-examination, prosecutor Conor Mulroe showed videos of the informant near Nordean and Biggs among rioters who breached police lines. In one video, the informant is seen pumping a fist. Asked why he didn’t try to de-escalate the situation, the informant said he couldn’t believe the mob would storm past police officers guarding the building.
“At that point, it was almost a circus before things got serious,” he said.
The trial was briefly disrupted last week when prosecutors told defense attorneys that another person the defense had wanted to put on the witness stand secretly worked as a government informant for two years after the Jan. 6 attack.
Prosecutors said that person, who didn't officially become an informant until after months after the riot, was never told to gather information about the defendants or their lawyers and the FBI ended its relationship with her this past January after it learned she might testify.
Tarrio's lawyers ultimately decided not to put her on the witness stand after the judge said attorneys couldn't ask about her relationship with the FBI because it's not relevant to the trial.
Tarrio, a Miami resident who served as national chairman of the group, and the other Proud Boys could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted of seditious conspiracy. Tarrio wasn't in Washington on Jan. 6. Tarrio had been arrested in a separate case days earlier, but authorities say he helped put into motion the violence that day.
Two other former Proud Boys members, who agreed to cooperate with the government, also testified they didn’t know of any specific plan to storm the Capitol.
But Bertino, a former regional leader from North Carolina who pleaded guilty to seditious conspiracy, told jurors that the group plotted to violently prevent Biden from taking office because they were trying to “save the country” from what they feared would be a tyrannical government.
Hundreds of privately exchanged messages shown to jurors show the Proud Boys becoming increasingly agitated as Trump’s legal challenges failed in the weeks leading up to Jan. 6 and celebrating the attack on the Capitol and their role in it.
“Do what must be done,” Tarrio wrote on social media as the mob stormed the Capitol. Later that day, someone asked in an encrypted group chat what they should do next.
“Do it again,” Tarrio responded.
Also on trial with Tarrio are Ethan Nordean, Joseph Biggs, Zachary Rehl and Dominic Pezzola. Nordean, of Auburn, Washington, was a Proud Boys chapter leader. Biggs, of Ormond Beach, Florida, was a self-described Proud Boys organizer. Rehl was president of the Proud Boys chapter in Philadelphia. Pezzola was a Proud Boys member from Rochester, New York.
Prosecutors rested their case on March 20. Jurors are expected to hear several more days of testimony from defense witnesses before they hear closing arguments.
Associated Press writer Alanna Durkin Richer in Boston contributed to this report.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the Capitol riot at https://apnews.com/hub/capitol-siege.