California veteran, GOP activist sentenced to 18 months for Capitol role on Jan. 6

A Sacramento man who was among the first to enter the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection will serve 18 months in prison, a federal judge decided Wednesday.

Jorge Aaron Riley, an Army veteran and the former corresponding secretary of the California Republican Assembly, will also serve two years of supervised release, pay a $100 fine and pay $2,000 in restitution to the Architect of the Capitol, U.S. District Judge Amit P. Mehta said.

Whether Riley thought what he was doing was righteous then, Mehta said, Riley should know the consequences the insurrection had on the people who were at the Capitol and the country now. By now, the judge said, Riley should recognize how entering the Capitol during the certification of Joe Biden’s presidential victory was interfering with a long-established democratic process.

“The things you stood for are the very things you cast aside,” Mehta said before delivering the sentence.

Riley, 45, told the court Wednesday that he was “speaking on behalf of all the patriots” and that GOP legislators should have “adjudicated” the 2020 election results — then protesters would not have felt the need to come to the Capitol on Jan. 6.

Former President Donald Trump has repeated false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him. A third of Americans still believe him.

But, Mehta countered, regardless of which politician Riley supports, the election results were adjudicated in courts across the country. Repeatedly, judges — some appointed by Trump — denied finding election fraud. He and others should have let the judicial process play out rather than entering the Capitol and delaying the certification of results — in which, Mehta said, Republican lawmakers were expected to claim the election was stolen like Riley and others had wanted them to.

Riley like a ‘tourist’ on Jan. 6, lawyer says

Leading up to Jan. 6, 2021, Riley posted about “going for the war” for Trump. He bought six ninja combat throwing knives. He left a form of will to someone he had described as a sister, including “anything in my house” and the knives, before traveling to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 5.

There is no evidence that Riley brought the knives with him, but buying them and using language referring to “war paint” that Riley posted online demonstrated violent intent, Mehta said.

“You’re a veteran,” Mehta said. “You understand what it means to be armed.”

After attending Trump’s Ellipse speech, Riley donned what he called “war paint” and marched to the Capitol on Jan. 6. Riley was one of the first rioters to walk into the building, prosecutors showed in court documents.

Inside, he marched around former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office where, unbeknownst to him, staffers were hiding under desks and tables. He roamed the building, ignoring police orders to leave, and left an hour after entering.

His lawyer, longtime Sacramento defense attorney Tim Zindel, said during Wednesday’s proceedings that Riley’s actions equated to the actions of a tourist. Riley did not know staffers were crouching, the Capitol was jam-packed, making it impossible to get out, and he did not engage in any violence or vandalism.

He pointed to the adage, “Actions speak louder than words.”

Prosecutors cite a lack of remorse

Federal prosecutors had asked for a 21-month sentence and three years of supervised release for his actions. Assistant U.S. Attorney Troy Edwards argued Wednesday that Riley had lacked remorse for his actions. In the days after Jan. 6, Riley posted over 150 messages, photographs and videos to Facebook in an album called “Who’s House? OUR HOUSE.”

After he pleaded guilty, Riley proclaimed he “wore his best Trump tie.” Riley then attended a vigil for Jan. 6 defendants outside the D.C. Jail where he stood “under a ‘Prisoner of War – J6 – You Are Not Forgotten’ flag.”

Riley pleaded guilty to a single felony count of obstructing an official proceeding in March.

While the plea might register a form of remorse, Edwards said, he emphasized Riley’s lack of remorse in his statement on Wednesday: Riley called rioters “patriots” and claimed that they felt the need to “take matters into their own hands” without apologizing for breaching the Capitol that day.

He may not have been violent, Edwards said, but Riley “contributed to the mayhem.” He also pointed to Riley’s intent posted to social media before the insurrection.

“Trying to stop the presidential transfer of power is not a good intention,” Edwards said.

Zindel blamed Trump and the media for convincing Riley and rioters that the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent, and for inciting words of violence.

While Zindel said he and Riley differ greatly on the political spectrum, they have seen eye-to-eye in preparing for the case: “We have to accept that people see the world differently.”

Riley came from turbulent past, judge says

Riley, who is expected to surrender for incarceration once the Bureau of Prisons sets his prison location and date, was the third of four Sacramento-area Jan. 6 defendants to be sentenced.

Sean Michael McHugh, an Auburn construction worker, was sentenced Thursday to 78 months for his role in the riots and for using bear spray on Capitol police.

Valerie Elaine Ehrke of Arbuckle received probation. Tommy Frederick Allan of Rocklin is serving a 21-month sentence at the federal Metropolitan Detention Center in Los Angeles.

Zindel had asked the judge in a memo before Wednesday’s sentencing to incorporate the 36 days Riley already served into his sentence and to have him serve the remainder in home detention to continue his rehabilitation from a difficult past and military service.

After the sentencing, Zindel said he was “very disappointed” with the result.

As a child, Riley, an American Indian who never knew his father, grew up in an abusive household where he and his mother were beaten by his stepfather, Zindel wrote before Wednesday’s sentencing. Riley had to parent his own siblings as an elementary student. Also, Zindel said Wednesday, Riley has at times been homeless and was physically and mentally disabled from his four years in the Army.

Now, Riley provides home care for his girlfriend’s two sons from a previous relationship and their daughter. Zindel argued that it would not serve Riley or his family to go to prison, where he would not be able to continue his growth since Jan. 6.

Mehta, the judge, praised Riley for his progress since his difficult childhood and military service, Riley having been the first in his family to graduate high school and pursue higher education. But, Mehta said, that’s why he was all the more disappointed that Riley still did not acknowledge that Jan. 6 was not in the best interests of the country.

“I think you’re better than that.”