Riot plea: Proud Boys member admits to seditious conspiracy

WASHINGTON (AP) — A North Carolina man pleaded guilty Thursday to plotting with other members of the far-right Proud Boys to violently stop the transfer of presidential power after the 2020 election, making him the first member of the extremist group to plead guilty to a seditious conspiracy charge.

Jeremy Joseph Bertino, 43, has agreed to cooperate with the Justice Department's investigation of the role that Proud Boys leaders played in the mob's attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, a federal prosecutor said. U.S. District Judge Timothy Kelly agreed to release Bertino pending a sentencing hearing, which wasn't immediately scheduled.

Bertino also pleaded guilty to a charge of unlawfully possessing firearms in March 2022 in Belmont, North Carolina. Kelly accepted his guilty plea to both charges during a brief hearing after the case against Bertino was filed Thursday.

Justice Department prosecutor Erik Kenerson said estimated sentencing guidelines for Bertino’s case recommend a prison sentence ranging from four years and three months to five years and three months. The Civil War-era seditious conspiracy charge carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

Former Proud Boys national chairman Henry “Ënrique” Tarrio and four other group members also have been charged with seditious conspiracy for what prosecutors say was a coordinated attack on the Capitol to stop Congress from certifying President Joe Biden’s 2020 electoral victory over Donald Trump.

Bertino's cooperation could ratchet up the pressure on other Proud Boys charged in the siege.

A trial for Tarrio, Ethan Nordean, Joseph Biggs, Zachary Rehl and Dominic Pezzola is scheduled to start in December. The charging document for Bertino's case names those five defendants and a sixth Proud Boys member as his co-conspirators.

A trial is going on now in Washington for the seditious conspiracy case against the founder of the Oath Keepers and other members of the antigovernment militia group for their participation in the Jan. 6 attack.

More than three dozen people charged in the Capitol riot have been identified by federal authorities as leaders, members or associates of the Proud Boys. Two — Matthew Greene and Charles Donohoe — pleaded guilty to conspiring to obstruct an official proceeding, the Jan. 6 joint session of Congress for certifying the Electoral College vote.

Proud Boys members describe the group as a politically incorrect men’s club for “Western chauvinists.” They have brawled with antifascist activists at rallies and protests. Vice Media co-founder Gavin McInnes, who founded the Proud Boys in 2016, sued the Southern Poverty Law Center for labeling it as a hate group.

Nordean, of Auburn, Washington, was a Proud Boys chapter president and a member of the group’s national “Elders Council.” Biggs, of Ormond Beach, Florida, is a self-described Proud Boys organizer. Rehl was president of the Proud Boys chapter in Philadelphia. Pezzola is a Proud Boys member from Rochester, New York.

Video testimony by Bertino was featured in June at the first hearing by the House committee investigating Jan. 6. The committee showed a clip of Bertino saying that the group’s membership “tripled, probably” after Trump's comment at a presidential debate that the Proud Boys should “stand back and stand by.”

Tarrio wasn’t in Washington on Jan. 6, but authorities say he helped put into motion the violence that day. Police arrested Tarrio in Washington two days before the riot and charged him with vandalizing a Black Lives Matter banner at a historic Black church during a protest in December 2020. Tarrio was released from jail on Jan. 14 after serving his five-month sentence for that case.

The indictment in Tarrio's case alleges that the Proud Boys held meetings and communicated over encrypted messages to plan for the attack in the days leading up to Jan. 6. On the day of the riot, authorities say Proud Boys dismantled metal barricades set up to protect the Capitol and mobilized, directed and led members of the crowd into the building.

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For full coverage of the Capitol riot, go to https://www.apnews.com/capitol-siege

Michael Kunzelman, The Associated Press