Federal prosecutors appear to have made their biggest breakthrough yet in their sprawling investigation into the violent riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. A high-ranking Proud Boy has flipped, agreeing to testify in any and all cases where his testimony might be “deemed relevant by the government.”
It’s the latest example of the government strengthening its case against the far-right street-fighting gang that’s become a national household name since its leaders and dozens of members have been charged in relation to the Capitol riot.
Late last week, the Justice Department announced that Charles Donohoe, leader of the North Carolina Proud Boys chapter, had pleaded guilty to two charges—conspiring to disrupt the certification of the 2020 election results, and assaulting, resisting, or impeding law enforcement officers.
Donohoe was charged with conspiracy along with five prominent Proud Boys, including the group’s former national chairman Enrique Tarrio.
But Donohoe’s agreement with the government could have cascading effects beyond his case.
There are dozens of Proud Boys facing charges in relation to Jan. 6, and under the terms of his agreement, Donohoe could well be asked to testify in their cases.
“Donohoe’s guilty plea is a significant development in the case against the Proud Boys defendants,” said Barbara McQuade, who served as the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan from 2010 to 2017. “His agreement to cooperate means that any trial against other Proud Boys members will include his testimony, which will be important evidence for the prosecution.”
His cooperation could also “signal his ability to provide information up the chain to organizers and leaders who planned the attack,” said McQuade, specifically whether Proud Boy leaders had any communication with former President Donald Trump’s inner circle in the run-up to Jan 6.
“We are learning that the attack on the Capitol was not a spontaneous event for all participants, but instead was planned by at least two groups, the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers,” McQuade added. “Investigators will want to know how high up that planning and coordination went.”
Donohoe’s testimony will also be a major boon to federal prosecutors trying to shore up their evidence in one of the high-profile cases stemming from the Capitol riot. Court documents filed in the case so far reveal that prosecutors planned to rely heavily on group chats between the alleged conspirators in the weeks running up to the riot, as well as video evidence from the day itself.
“From the prosecutors’ point of view, they have a witness who is likely to be quite credible, who can put the pieces together in a way that is much more compelling than if they were just dealing with communications,” said Bruce Green, a former federal prosecutor and now director of Fordham Law School’s Louis Stein Center for Law and Ethics.
Court documents filed last week tout Donohoe as a well-positioned witness who was privy to the inner workings of the gang for years. “As a member of the Proud Boys since 2018 and an attendee at prior national rallies attended by the Proud Boys, Donohoe knew and understood that some members of the Proud Boys—known internally as the “rally” boys—would resort to unlawful conduct to achieve an objective,” prosecutors wrote.
Charles Donohoe on January 6 in an image released in court documents.
In a statement of offense signed by Donohoe, he claimed he was heavily involved in exclusive planning chats in the weeks before Jan. 6. He said that Tarrio recruited him around Dec. 20, 2020, to join a special new leadership chapter of the Proud Boys called the Ministry of Self Defense (MOSD). Donohoe said he was “privileged” to be included in this group and was invited into a group chat on an encrypted messaging app that included Tarrio, Ethan Nordean, Joseph Biggs, and Zachary Rehl—all high-profile Proud Boy leaders who are now his co-defendants.
Donohoe said he was originally not planning to travel to D.C. for Jan. 6 but agreed to help with the planning. In his capacity as a “regional leader,” Donohoe said he was responsible for recruiting “trusted Proud Boys” to join the MOSD. All potential recruits were told repeatedly that they would have to follow the commands of “leadership” if they wanted to be accepted into the MOSD. Recruits were asked to participate in a video call on Dec. 30.
The approximately 65 Proud Boys who were “approved” to join the MOSD were added to a separate encrypted group chat by Tarrio, according to Donohoe. Among them was Dominic Pezzola, aka “Spazzo,” who Donohoe said had been “fast-tracked into membership in the Proud Boys by Tarrio.” Pezzola, who is a defendant in Donohoe’s conspiracy case, was seen on camera smashing a Capitol window with a stolen police riot shield—this was the first breach of the Capitol, allowing rioters to clamber through doors into the building.
Donohoe said that at least as early as Jan. 4, 2021, he knew that the MOSD leaders were discussing potentially storming the Capitol.
“Donohoe believed that storming the Capitol would achieve the group’s goal of stopping the government from carrying out the transfer of presidential power,” prosecutors wrote. “Donohoe understood that storming the Capitol would be illegal.”
It was only after Tarrio was arrested on his way into D.C. on Jan. 4 for crimes committed during an earlier rally and for possession of a high-capacity magazine, that Donohoe, concerned about a potential “leadership void” in MOSD, decided he would in fact travel to the nation’s capital for Jan. 6 after all.
On Jan. 5, at around 9:17 p.m., according to Donohoe, Biggs told the new MOSD chat that he and Nordean had spoken with Tarrio and come up with “a plan.” Donohoe said he wasn’t given the details of this plan but he understood from discussions that the Proud Boys were planning to use “force and violence” to obstruct the certification of the 2020 election results and “show Congress that ‘we the people’ were in charge.”
Donohoe said he met Proud Boy leaders by the Washington Monument in D.C. on the morning of Jan. 6 and that Nordean announced that the MOSD and other Proud Boys would march together to the Capitol but would return for outgoing President Donald Trump’s speech. Donohoe said it “soon became evident” that “Nordean and Biggs did not intend to lead the group back to Trump's speech.” They marched around the Capitol with about 100 Proud Boys—Donohoe said he believed Nordean and Biggs were looking for an opportunity to storm the building.
The rest of Donohoe’s statement offers a timeline for how the chaos unfolded around the Capitol. He describes throwing water bottles at police who were trying to prevent the mob’s advances. He also recalls running into Pezzola, who had obtained a police officer’s riot shield, and announcing to the MOSD leaders group chat “got a riot shield” and took a photo of Pezzola holding it. He recalled seeing another Proud Boy, Daniel Scott Lyons, aka Milkshake, initiating an “altercation” at the front lines of the mob, which added to the chaos and allowed Donohoe and others in the crowd to push forwards, past police and up the stairs.
Donohoe said he never actually went into the Capitol; he left the premises after becoming overwhelmed by pepper balls deployed by police. But later that day, he celebrated the Proud Boys’ actions, writing in the MOSD group chat “[w]e stormed the capitol unarmed,” [a]nd took it over unarmed” and “[t]he people are fucking done.”
Under the terms of Donohoe’s deal, he’s looking at around six years in prison (including the year he’s already served in jail). Without that deal, he’d be facing a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison for the conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding, and a maximum of three years for assaulting, resisting, or impeding law enforcement officers.
Plea deals were likely on the table for all defendants in the conspiracy case, and it just so happened that Donohoe bit first. “It’s a game of chicken,” said Stephen Saltzburg, a professor at George Washington Law School and former deputy assistant attorney general in the DOJ’s Criminal Division. “The one who flips first will get the best deal.”
While Donohoe’s cooperation is a major asset to the prosecution, it’s not necessarily a silver bullet. For example, it’s standard practice for defense lawyers to try to undermine the credibility of a cooperating witness by implying they were making things up, legal experts told VICE News.
“There’s always a little bit of a taint associated with someone who strikes a deal, and is essentially getting paid with a discount from the government to testify the way they want them to testify,” said Saltzburg. “Cooperating witnesses routinely get attacked by defense lawyers on the grounds that they’re only cooperating to get a deal and willing to say what the government wants to hear.”
Donohoe has been in jail for over a year now awaiting trial—defense lawyers may well portray his decision to cooperate as one borne of desperation. Defense lawyers have already been leaning on right-wing narratives casting jailed Jan. 6 defendants as “political prisoners” who’ve been subject to unfair treatment, even torture.
Asked whether they might expect these kinds of attacks, Donohoe’s lawyer declined to comment. "Charlie regrets his actions, and is remorseful for the conduct that led to these charges,” Ira Knight told VICE News in an email. “He accepts responsibility for his wrongs and is prepared to accept the consequences."
Saltzburg also pointed to the recent case in Michigan where a group of men were accused of conspiring to kidnap the state’s governor. Prosecutors cast them as anti-government extremists who were hellbent on igniting a civil war. They had testimony from informants, undercover agents, and two defendants who, like Donohoe, agreed to cooperate and plead guilty in exchange for a lighter sentence. Despite all that, the case resulted in a hung jury for two defendants, and acquittals for the other two. “There’s no guarantee that, just because someone says, ‘I’m going to cooperate,’ that a jury will believe them,” said Saltzburg.
Donohoe is the second Proud Boy overall who has agreed to cooperate. In December, Matthew Greene, a low-ranking Proud Boy from Syracuse, New York, also pleaded guilty in a separate conspiracy case related to Jan. 6. Like Donohoe, he also agreed to testify in any and all matters deemed relevant by the government.
The May 18 trial date for the conspiracy case involving Tarrio, Biggs, Nordean, Rehl, and Pezzola was recently vacated (in part due to a recently filed superseding indictment that added Tarrio to the case). The parties have not yet agreed on a new trial date.
Tarrio’s lawyer Nayib Hassan told VICE News in an email that Donohoe’s plea did not impact their decision to proceed with the trial. “As you are aware, our client was arrested much later than all the other individuals and was not present on January 6, 2021, when the events transpired to which the government references in the indictment,” wrote Hassan. Biggs’ lawyer and Rehl’s lawyer both declined to comment. Lawyers representing Nordean and Pezzola did not respond to VICE News’ request for comment.
(Disclosure: Gavin McInnes, who founded the Proud Boys in 2016, was a co-founder of VICE in 1994. He left the company in 2008 and has had no involvement since then.)