At the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, there were at least two extremist groups with clear hierarchical structures present: the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers.
Since the insurrection, which has been labeled as domestic terrorism by the FBI director, those two groups have become some of the most notorious names in the U.S.—and their actions have become the subject of close scrutiny by federal prosecutors.
Last week, the Justice Department unveiled a bombshell seditious conspiracy indictment against the leader of the Oath Keepers and 10 other members of the far-right militia, which accuses them of plotting to incite an insurrection.
The seditious conspiracy drastically raised the stakes in the Jan. 6 prosecution efforts—and prompted questions about what else could be coming down the pike.
“I think that if the evidence supports it, a seditious conspiracy charge similar to the one charged against the Oath Keepers could also be charged against the Proud Boys,” said Barbara McQuade, who served as the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan from 2010 to 2017. “I imagine that investigators are looking at communications between members of the Proud Boys to assess the extent of their conspiracy.”
So far, at least 40 accused members of the Proud Boys, a far-right street-fighting gang, have been hit with federal charges in connection with the Capitol riot. About a third of those Proud Boy defendants are facing conspiracy charges, according to case data collated by The Prosecution Project, meaning prosecutors identified examples where two or more members of the group colluded with the shared goal of committing a federal crime.
The government’s main conspiracy allegations have hinged on two Telegram channels, operated by four key Proud Boy defendants—Ethan Nordean, Joe Biggs, Zachary Rehl, and Charles Donohoe.
Nordean, of Washington state, has been described as a Proud Boy sergeant-at-arms. Biggs, from Florida, is a prominent organizer and often Proud Boy chairman Enrique Tarrio’s right-hand man. Rehl and Donohoe lead the Philadelphia and North Carolina chapters, respectively. All four are considered leaders in the sprawling group that has anywhere between thousands and tens of thousands of members. They’ve been indicted on six counts, including conspiracy, obstruction of an official proceeding, obstruction of law enforcement, destruction of government property, entering and remaining in a restricted building, and disorderly conduct.
Nordean, Biggs, Rehl, and Donohoe operated two Telegram channels to organize Proud Boy activity on Jan. 6. One of the channels, named “New MOSD” was used by top leaders, while a “Boots on the Ground” channel was for rank-and-file Proud Boys, and had 63 participants in total.
Federal investigators have said they were able to bring sedition charges against Oath Keepers and their leader Stewart Rhodes (who’d escaped prosecution until last week) partly thanks to encrypted Signal chats that they obtained. The feds haven’t revealed how they got access to those chats, but it’s worth noting that the indictment dropped only months after at least four Oath Keepers took plea deals, and agreed to cooperate with the government in exchange for lenient sentences.
Among the 40 Proud Boys currently facing charges are a Florida cop, a web designer from San Francisco, a bodybuilder from Washington, D.C., and a mechanical engineer for New York City’s public transportation system. A VICE News analysis of those 40 cases found that the alleged Proud Boy defendants span 18 states, and have an average age of 36. More than a quarter of them hail from Florida.
And until last month, not one had succumbed to the temptation of taking a plea deal.
At various points since Jan. 6, there have been rumors that different accused Proud Boys had at least considered taking a plea deal, however. Dominic Pezzola, aka “Spazzo,” of Rochester, New York, who was allegedly instrumental in the Capitol breach and was seen on video smashing a window with a stolen police riot shield, was reportedly mulling a plea deal last February, fueling speculation that he had “flipped” and was cooperating with authorities. But months later, he had new lawyers—and a possible plea deal was seemingly off the table.
Similarly, last summer, prosecutors hinted that a plea deal for six defendants, five of whom were accused Proud Boys from Arizona, Missouri and Kansas (the sixth was one of their sisters), could be in the works. But a plea deal hasn’t materialized for any of those individuals.
Then in December, the federal government finally landed a win. Matthew Greene, a low-ranking 34-year-old Proud Boy from Syracuse, New York, pleaded guilty to conspiracy and obstruction of official proceedings, and said he’d cooperate with prosecutors in exchange for a lesser sentence.
Greene, who only joined the Proud Boys in December 2020 and achieved the lowest rank of “First Degree,” was fired from his job as chief technology officer at a graphics design company he founded when his colleagues discovered that he’d participated in the Capitol riot. The FBI said that Greene had stockpiled guns and ammo prior to Jan. 6 and after the fact. Under the terms of the deal, Greene is facing a maximum of four years in prison and fines between $15,000 and $150,000.
It's unclear if Greene’s cooperation will help investigators unearth new evidence—or if such evidence even exists.
“The guilty plea of a member of the Proud Boys presents an opportunity to obtain additional evidence through his cooperation. For example, a cooperator could provide encrypted text messages from his personal cell phone that can expose the scope of the scheme and the identity of others involved,” said McQuade. “A cooperator can help investigators determine whether other conspirators were involved in funding the group and organizing the attack, whether this was part of a more comprehensive conspiracy to overturn the election.”
Of the Proud Boy cases headed to trial, the one that’s likely to be watched the most closely will be that of Nordean, Rehl, Biggs, and Donohoe. All four men remain detained pending the outcome of their trial, which is slated to begin in May.
(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.)