August 31, 2023 - 10:03 am
Updated August 31, 2023 - 1:51 pm
WASHINGTON — A former leader of the far-right Proud Boys extremist group was sentenced on Thursday to 15 years in prison for spearheading an attack on the U.S. Capitol to try to prevent the peaceful transfer of power from Donald Trump to Joe Biden after the 2020 presidential election.
Zachary Rehl was seen on video spraying a chemical irritant at law enforcement officers outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, but he repeatedly lied about that assault while he testified at his trial, federal prosecutors said.
Prosecutors had recommended a 30-year prison sentence for Rehl, who helped lead dozens of Proud Boys members and associates in marching to the Capitol on Jan. 6. Rehl and other Proud Boys joined the mob that broke through police lines and forced lawmakers to flee, disrupting the joint session of Congress for certifying the electoral victory by Biden, a Democrat.
The judge who sentenced Rehl also on Thursday sentenced Proud Boys organizer Joseph Biggs to 17 years in prison. U.S. District Judge Timothy Kelly will separately sentence three other Proud Boys who were convicted by a jury in May after a four-month trial in Washington that laid bare far-right extremists’ embrace of lies by Trump, a Republican, that the 2020 election was stolen from him.
Enrique Tarrio, a Miami resident who was the Proud Boys’ national chairman and top leader, is scheduled to be sentenced on Tuesday. His sentencing was moved from Wednesday to next week because U.S. District Judge Timothy Kelly was sick.
Tarrio wasn’t in Washington on Jan. 6. He had been arrested two days before the Capitol riot on charges that he defaced a Black Lives Matter banner during an earlier rally in the nation’s capital, and he complied with a judge’s order to leave the city after his arrest. He picked Biggs and Proud Boys chapter president Ethan Nordean to be the group’s leaders on the ground in his absence, prosecutors said.
Rehl, Biggs, Tarrio and Nordean were convicted of charges including seditious conspiracy, a rarely brought Civil War-era offense. A fifth Proud Boys member, Dominic Pezzola, was acquitted of seditious conspiracy but convicted of other serious charges.
Prosecutors also recommended prison sentences of 33 years for Tarrio and Biggs, 27 years for Nordean and 20 years for Pezzola. Nordean and Pezzola are scheduled to be sentenced on Friday.
Biggs, of Ormond Beach, Florida, acknowledged to the judge at his sentencing hearing that he “messed up” on Jan. 6, but he blamed being “seduced by the crowd” of Trump supporters outside the Capitol and said he’s not a violent person or “a terrorist.”
“My curiosity got the better of me, and I’ll have to live with that for the rest of my life,” he said, claiming he didn’t have “hate in my heart” and didn’t want to hurt people.
Defense attorneys argued that the Justice Department was unfairly holding their clients responsible for the violent actions of others in the crowd of Trump supporters at the Capitol.
More than 1,100 people have been charged with Capitol riot-related federal crimes. Over 600 of them have been convicted and sentenced.
Rehl led at least three other men into the Capitol and into a senator’s office, where he smoked and posed for pictures while flashing the Proud Boys’ hand gesture.
“Rehl led an army to attempt to stop the certification proceeding, was proud that they got as close as they did, and his only regret in the immediate aftermath was that they did not go further,” prosecutors wrote in a court filing.
Later that day, Rehl expressed pride for his role in the attack.
“Seems like our raid of the capital set off a chain reaction of events throughout the country,” he wrote in a message to his mother.
The 18-year prison sentence for Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes is the harshest punishment for a Jan. 6 so far. Six members of the anti-government Oath Keepers also were convicted of seditious conspiracy after a separate trial last year.