Federal prosecutors investigating the violent riot at the Capitol this month announced their first conspiracy charges against the Proud Boys on Friday night, accusing two members of the far-right nationalist group of working together to obstruct and interfere with law enforcement officers protecting Congress during the final certification of the presidential election.
In a brief news release, the Justice Department said that an indictment had been filed against two Proud Boys, Dominic Pezzola, of Rochester, New York, and William Pepe, of Beacon, New York. But by late Friday night, the charging papers had not yet appeared in the Washington federal court database. Both Pezzola, a former boxer and Marine, and Pepe, an employee of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, already had been facing lesser charges connected to the Capitol attack.
While more than 170 people have been charged in the deadly assault on the Capitol, most have been accused of relatively minor crimes such as disorderly conduct and unlawful entry. The only other serious conspiracy charges in the inquiry have been brought against three members of the militia group the Oath Keepers, who are accused of preparing for the Jan. 6 rally in Washington as early as one week after the election.
The Proud Boys, a self-described “Western chauvinist” group that has a long history of bloody street fights with the activists known as antifa, have drawn the attention of investigators because they are one of the extremist outfits that had a large presence on Capitol Hill during the assault.
The organisation, which has maintained links with both overt white supremacists and more mainstream Republicans, has been a vocal — and often violent — advocate for former President Donald Trump. During one of the presidential debates, Trump seemed to signal his support by telling its members to “stand back and stand by.”
Investigators have made a priority of exploring whether the attack was planned in advance. Earlier this week, Michael Sherwin, the U.S. attorney in Washington, said that prosecutors were focused on bringing “more complicated conspiracy cases related to possible coordination among militia groups” and “individuals from different states that had a plan to travel” to Washington before Jan. 6.
But because the new indictment remained under seal Friday night, it remained unclear precisely how prosecutors believed that Pezzola and Pepe conspired together to obstruct law enforcement.
Pezzola, 43, has been a particular focus of the sprawling investigation into the Capitol attack almost from the moment it began.
Court papers released Friday morning said that he was in the first wave of rioters to enter the building, shattering a window with a plastic police shield. After climbing through the window, prosecutors said, Pezzola joined a mob that confronted a Capitol Police officer, Eugene Goodman, in a stairwell near the Senate floor. According to court papers, someone in the mob called out, “Where they meeting at? Where they counting the votes?”
Prosecutors said that Pezzola later posted a video of himself online, smoking a cigar inside the Capitol. In the video, court papers say, he refers to the cigar as a “victory smoke,” adding that he knew the mob would be able to take over the building if the rioters “tried hard enough.”
When FBI agents searched Pezzola’s home near Rochester after the riot, prosecutors said, they found a thumb drive with several PDF files, some suggesting he had been studying bomb-making techniques. The computer files, court papers said, had titles like “Advanced Improvised Explosives,” “Explosive Dusts” and “Ragnar’s Big Book of Homemade Weapons.”
Michael Scibetta, Pezzola’s lawyer, said Friday night that he had not yet seen the new conspiracy charges and complained that authorities were not letting him see his client, who is in custody in Washington.
“The matter is evolving,” Scibetta said, adding that prosecutors were depriving Pezzola of “his constitutionally guaranteed right of assistance of counsel.”
Pepe’s lawyer, Susanne Brody, did not respond to an email seeking comment.
The prior charges against Pepe, a 31-year-old Metro-North Railroad worker, were only scantly described. In a criminal complaint issued Jan. 11, prosecutors said that he had used a day of sick leave to attend a “Stop the Steal” protest in Washington and was subsequently photographed inside the Capitol. At a hearing earlier this week, prosecutors made a cryptic reference to an ongoing investigation involving Pepe but never fully explained what it was at the time.
At least four other members of the Proud Boys have been charged so far in connection with the Capitol attack, including a top-ranking leader of the group, Joseph Biggs. Biggs, a U.S. Army veteran, stands accused of leading a group of about 100 Proud Boys on an angry march toward and into the Capitol.