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Prosecutors: Proud Boys Gave Leader 'War Powers,' Planned Ahead For Capitol Riot

Ethan Nordean, with bullhorn, leads members of the far-right group Proud Boys before the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. The self-described sergeant-at-arms of the Seattle Proud Boys is facing federal charges over his role in the attack.
Carolyn Kaster
Ethan Nordean, with bullhorn, leads members of the far-right group Proud Boys before the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. The self-described sergeant-at-arms of the Seattle Proud Boys is facing federal charges over his role in the attack.

A document filed in federal court on Monday sheds new light on the Proud Boys' tactical preparation for and movements during the Jan. 6 insurrection.

It alleges that a Washington state-based member of the far-right group was internally nominated to have "war powers" and assume "ultimate leadership" of the group's activities that day. Thirty-year-old Ethan Nordean allegedly helped coordinate members' storming of the Capitol in an effort to interrupt the Electoral College certification of President Biden's victory.

In the 24-page filing, U.S. prosecutors say Nordean, who they say calls himself the "sergeant of arms" of the Seattle Proud Boys, was "personally active" in planning the group's activities on Jan. 6 and used social media to recruit members, raise money and gather military-style equipment in the weeks leading up to it.

On the day of the attack, they say, the "defendant — dressed all in black, wearing a tactical vest — led the Proud Boys through the use of encrypted communications and military-style equipment."

"He led them with the specific plans to: split up into groups, attempt to break into the Capitol building from as many different points as possible, and prevent the Joint Session of Congress from Certifying the Electoral College results," prosecutors wrote.

Nordean, who also goes by the name "Rufio Panman," was arrested in his home state of Washington on Feb. 3 on several federal charges, including violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds, aiding and abetting depredation against government property and knowingly entering restricted grounds. The most serious charge, obstructing or impeding an official proceeding, carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.

He has not entered pleas, though his attorneys maintain in a separate court document that certain charges lack evidence and probable cause.

"[The government] makes sweeping, vague allegations concerning intricate plots to invade Congress — and then offers no factual evidence to support the allegation as to Nordean beyond citing inane social media posts about patriots, the election, and fundraising," his lawyers wrote.

Regarding the allegation that Nordean led the Proud Boys through the use of encrypted communications, for instance, his attorneys, David Smith and Nicholas Smith, argue that "throughout the day of January 6, Nordean's mobile phone was without power."

But prosecutors describe their case against Nordean — who they say has held a leadership position in the Proud Boys at the local and national levels for more than two years — as dating back months.

Alleged role in Capitol riots

According to court documents, Nordean was "nominated from within" to have "war powers" and assume ultimate leadership of the Proud Boys' activities on Jan. 6, following the Jan. 4 arrest of leader Enrique Tarrio upon his arrival in Washington, D.C.

"In communications between Proud Boys members following Tarrio's arrest, it was acknowledged that Defendant would be among those that led the Proud Boys on the ground on January 6, 2021," prosecutors wrote, before outlining the preparations they say the group took in advance.

Leaders allegedly arranged to program and distribute Chinese-made BaoFeng radios — which are harder to monitor or overhear than standard walkie-talkies — for use by members during the day, and communicated specific radio frequencies to them. (Prosecutors say law enforcement recovered one such radio, still tuned to a frequency that group leaders allegedly told the group to use, from Nordean's home while executing a search warrant. His lawyers say he did not obtain the radio until after Jan. 6.)

On the evening of Jan. 5, prosecutors say, participating Proud Boys were instructed to meet at the Washington Monument at 10 a.m. the next day to await further orders, wearing plain clothes and "no colors."

"In order to increase the odds that their plan would succeed, Defendant and those Proud Boys following him dressed 'incognito' and spread out to many different locations from which they could force entry into the Capitol," prosecutors wrote, adding that the Proud Boys likely knew from experience that the group's typical tactic of marching in uniform and in unison could alert law enforcement.

A group gathered accordingly and began walking toward the Capitol with Nordean in the lead, reportedly dressed in all black, wearing a tactical vest and carrying a bullhorn. The filing notes that the group marched to a pedestrian entrance to the Capitol grounds — secured by a small number of police officers and a waist-high metal barrier — around 12:53 p.m. ET.

Then-President Donald Trump's speech on the Ellipse did not end until after 1 p.m., prosecutors noted.

"Defendant and those he was leading were not present for any part of the speech, because hearing the speech was not in their plan," they wrote. "While other persons who would later participate in the Capitol riot were watching former President Trump speak, Defendant was leading Proud Boys members on a march around the Capitol and positioning them at an entrance to the Capitol grounds that was guarded by only a handful of Capitol Police officers."

The document details how at various entrances, Proud Boys members worked to dismantle metal barricades set up to protect the grounds from the advancing mob.

Prosecutors say Nordean, "a former bodybuilder, positioned his large frame near the front of the crowd." At one point, he "stalked the front line in an apparent effort to intimidate law enforcement and encourage the crowd."

Nordean also had what prosecutors describe as a "brief exchange" with a "bat-wielding" man who was not a member of the group and who would later rally to a location where another Proud Boy broke open a window with a police officer's riot shield.

Members hoped to inspire people outside their group to " 'burn that city to ash today' and 'smash some pigs to dust,' " according to prosecutors.

Prosecutors do not believe Nordean personally broke any windows or doors heading into the Capitol, but he "understood full well that the men he was leading as he charged past law enforcement and onto the Capitol grounds were likely to destroy government property, or attempt to do so." This forms the basis for the aiding and abetting charge.

"All of this mayhem plainly envisioned that those carrying out Defendant's stated vision — the reawakening of 1776 — would at least attempt to destroy federal government property and force their way inside the building," they wrote. "There was simply no other way for them to enter the Capitol building."

Nordean's attorneys say that such an assertion lacks probable cause, writing that "whether Nordean was commenting on the weather, the size of the crowd, the action in front of them, or what's for lunch, the complaint does not plead." They also assert that prosecutors do not show where any damage to government property that Nordean might have caused would exceed the $1,000 threshold that makes it a felony punishable by 10 years in prison.

A mob of Trump supporters, many with ties to far-right groups, storms the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. New court documents detail the alleged role of Proud Boys member Ethan Nordean.
Samuel Corum / Getty Images
Getty Images
A mob of Trump supporters, many with ties to far-right groups, storms the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. New court documents detail the alleged role of Proud Boys member Ethan Nordean.

Social media use ahead of Jan. 6

Nordean and other Proud Boys leaders are accused of using social media to "cast doubt on the legitimacy" of the presidential election, starting as early as Nov. 4. They also encouraged others to join the group in "protesting and preventing" the certification of the Electoral College votes, according to the filing.

Prosecutors point to several social media posts between November and Jan. 4 in which accounts belonging to Nordean describe claims of a stolen election and the need to take action.

On Nov. 16, for instance, after the Proud Boys' prominent attendance at the Million MAGA March in Washington, D.C., Nordean allegedly wrote that "any militia groups" in the Pacific Northwest should contact him via encrypted social media or direct message to coordinate.

"You can take a hard stand now, or watch as everything we've all built crumble before your eyes and have nothing to leave to your children. Enough is enough," reads a Dec. 4 message. A few weeks later, he posted, "Fight now, or lose everything."

Nordean's lawyers acknowledge in their filing that the messages often featured "vague comments about 'patriots' and the 'stolen election' " but write that "not a single one" shows that Nordean planned or intended to commit any crime on Jan. 6.

Prosecutors allege that Nordean also used social media to request funds and equipment for use on Jan. 6 through numerous direct messages and a crowdsourcing campaign created in late December to solicit "protective gear and communications" for the group. Nordean allegedly exchanged messages with several individuals on Dec. 28 about picking up donations of protective gear.

And on Jan. 2 and 3, prosecutors say, Nordean messaged with an individual who offered to give $1,000 to the Proud Boys' "travel fund" to send a "combat veteran and a Marine [who] wants to get in the street and fight" to join group members in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6.

In turn, Nordean's attorneys say he sought such gear for events before and after Jan. 6 because multiple Proud Boys members had been stabbed at a recent event. They say group members have been wearing such protective gear since "long before the 2020 election and the January 6 incident."

Pretrial detention battle

Monday's filing comes amid a back-and-forth between federal prosecutors and Nordean's lawyers over whether he should remain in pretrial detention.

Prosecutors say Nordean should remain in detention because of his "wherewithal" to orchestrate another such attack. They also say he is a flight risk.

They say law enforcement agents carrying out a search warrant discovered a valid U.S. passport issued to "someone else who looks like" Nordean, along with a passport issued to his wife.

Nordean's explanation was that the passport belongs to his wife's ex-boyfriend and that she kept it as a keepsake after their relationship ended — an account prosecutors called "absurd." Nordean's attorneys say there are differences in the men's hair color and face shapes.

A hearing for Nordean is scheduled for Wednesday afternoon.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.
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