2 Proud Boys charged with seditious conspiracy testify in their own defense

Proud Boys members Zachary Rehl and Ethan Nordean walk toward the U.S. Capitol in support of President Donald Trump on Jan. 6, 2021. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Zachary Rehl, president of the Philadelphia chapter of the Proud Boys, became the first member of the far-right group to testify in his own defense on seditious conspiracy charges for his involvement in the Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol riot.

Under questioning from his defense lawyer, Carmen Hernandez, in a federal courtroom in Washington, D.C., Rehl told Judge Timothy Kelly and jurors that there was not a singular reason that led him to join the group.

He told the court that many members of the Proud Boys had formerly served in the U.S. military and that the militia served as a brotherhood of guys who looked after one another. “We go to protest, get our voice heard. We go party all night,” he testified about the social atmosphere in the militia.

But Rehl, during several days of testimony that ended Tuesday, denied the government’s central claim against him and four other members of the Proud Boys: that he helped organize the violence in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021.

“Never did it cross my mind to attack the Capitol,” Rehl, who acknowledged using the nickname “Captain Trump” on social media, testified. Nor did he ever hear co-defendants Ethan Nordean and Joseph Biggs discuss a possible attack on the U.S. Capitol, he said.

Rehl, 37, insisted that when he marched with other Proud Boys from the Washington Monument to the Capitol, he was acting patriotically. But he also told the court that he now accepts that “what ultimately unfolded, all the violence, was a disgrace … and I think that ultimately it didn’t do any good.”

“I’ve been on many, many protests,” he testified. “I thought it was a protest. That’s why I went there. When I left, that’s what it was.”

He said that once Congress validated Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump in the 2020 election, he accepted Biden as Trump’s legitimate successor. “I wanted the legal process played out,” he told the court.

During the course of a lengthy cross-examination, however, federal prosecutor Erik Kenerson produced text messages and other evidence that raised significant questions about Rehl’s real loyalties and feelings about what happened on Jan. 6.

A Jan. 4 chat — cited by Kenerson that was circulated to Rehl and other Proud Boys by group leaders and insiders who called themselves the Ministry of Self-Defense — was headed “ACAB,” an abbreviation for “All Cops Are Bastards,” a translation Rehl did not challenge.

Kenerson also presented a text message Rehl sent to his mother at 2:48 p.m. on the afternoon of Jan. 6 that read: “They just broke open all the doors and windows and people are pouring in….seems like our raid of the capitol set off a chain of reactions across the country. i’m so proud”

In response to being shown that message, Rehl said that he was “proud of the turnout” and that “our raid” was a reference “to the large group of people that showed up.”

Text messages that Rehl sent to a group of fellow Philadelphia Proud Boys on Jan. 7 — the day after the Capitol riot — were also introduced by prosecutors.

“We shoulda held the capitol. After trump conceding today, it all seemed like a waste,” Rehl wrote to fellow Philadelphia Proud Boys in one of them.

In another group message from Jan. 7, he wrote, “The reason why it feels like a waste is because instead of all these politicians getting scared and realizing they need to answer for this fraud, they are all turning on Trump and cucking. They are doubling down on their actions. Everyone shoulda showed up armed and took the country back the right way…And f*** you fbi, yeah I’m mad.”

The jury was also shown a Jan. 8 message written by Rehl. “They deserve to be tarred and feathered. These cops turning on us are also what they call ‘turncoats’. Just saying,” it read.

On the witness stand, Rehl told the prosecutor that this was “shoulda, coulda, woulda” talk, a characterization he repeated several times, and that in practice he was committed to pursuing politics “the legal way.”

Under questioning, Rehl confirmed to the jury that he had entered the Capitol, smoked a cigarette inside an office and watched other protesters smoking marijuana in the building. Prosecutors do not allege that he engaged in vandalism or violence.

During cross-examination, the prosecutor also spent some time showing jurors pictures of the protest mob on Capitol steps, with one protester apparently aiming some kind of wide liquid spray at police. Kenerson directly asked Rehl whether he was the person spraying the officers, and Rehl demurred, saying he could not be sure.

“I don’t agree with what happened that day. I didn’t want to associate myself with that,” Rehl again insisted under redirect from his lawyer. But he also acknowledged that “at the time it didn’t look bad to me.”

Rioters, including Dominic Pezzola, center, with police shield, are confronted by Capitol police officers outside the Senate chamber inside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Rioters, including Dominic Pezzola, center, with police shield, are confronted by Capitol police officers outside the Senate chamber inside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

“At the time, I didn’t think I did anything wrong,” Rehl continued, adding that he definitely now regretted going into the building. “I truly apologize … I literally went there to protest. I thought that was going to be another protest and after I left I thought that’s all it was.”

Dominic Pezzola, a former U.S. Marine and flooring contractor from Rochester, N.Y., who is also charged in the case, took the witness stand late Tuesday in his own defense.

In his initial remarks, Pezzola insisted that there was “no conspiracy” and that “none ever existed” in regard to the attack on the Capitol. He said he was testifying to “take responsibility” for having been “caught up in all the craziness. … I basically trespassed in all the breaches.” He acknowledged grabbing a police officer’s shield during the riot but added that he fell backward and “let go.” Someone else grabbed the shield from the police officer, Pezzola testified, and he later grabbed it from them.

Pezzola, who was photographed smashing windows with a shield, admitted that he broke “one pane of glass” at the Capitol but insisted that the damage was less than $1,000. He said he gave the shield back to the Capitol police and stayed in the building for only 23 minutes.

He said he believed the purpose of the Proud Boys was the protection of Trump supporters including old people.

The trial of all five current Proud Boy defendants — who also include the group’s alleged leader, Enrique Tarrio as well as Nordean, a former protein powder salesman, and Biggs, a former U.S. Army sergeant — is expected to go to the jury next week, though the proceedings have regularly been disrupted by unexpected delays.