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The Capitol Rioters Are Starting To Face Much More Serious Charges For The Insurrection

Prosecutors are ramping up charges against people accused of carrying weapons, assaulting police, and conspiring with others.

Posted on February 19, 2021, at 4:58 p.m. ET

Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Imag

WASHINGTON — Bruno Cua, an 18-year-old from Milton, Georgia, was already facing serious charges when he was arrested on Feb. 6 in connection with the insurrection at the US Capitol a month earlier. He was accused not only of illegally entering the Capitol but also of assaulting police and of obstructing Congress’s efforts to certify the presidential election, which are felony crimes.

But it only got worse for Cua when a federal grand jury in Washington, DC, returned an indictment four days later. On top of the original set of charges, the grand jury bumped up misdemeanor counts he’d faced for entering the Capitol to felonies, citing evidence that he’d carried a “deadly and dangerous weapon” — in his case, a baton. The addition of a “weapons enhancement” meant the maximum sentence he faced for those counts jumped tenfold, from one year in prison to 10.

Cua is one of a growing number of defendants charged in the insurrection seeing their felony counts — and potential prison time — stack up as the investigation presses on. Other defendants only charged with misdemeanors when they were arrested are now facing felonies post-indictment. Acting US Attorney Michael Sherwin in Washington had told reporters one week after the assault on the Capitol that the early rounds of arrests on misdemeanor charges were “only the beginning,” and promised more “significant charges” once prosecutors took these cases before a grand jury. New court documents in cases such as Cua’s show how that’s taking shape.

Of the more than 230 people charged to date, at least 70 are now facing a minimum of one felony count — the most common is obstruction of Congress, which has a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. More than 30 are charged with assaulting or interfering with law enforcement officers, and at least 14 are charged with carrying or using a weapon that day. Weapons identified in the government’s court filings so far have included knives, Tasers, a hockey stick, a large metal pipe, baseball bats, fire extinguishers, and batons.

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Many more new cases are expected. Sherwin last month told reporters that federal law enforcement had opened up more than 400 subject case files — a term that broadly refers to identifying people of interest — in connection with the investigation. A Justice Department spokesperson told BuzzFeed News this week that the number of subject files was up to approximately 540.

Sherwin also previously announced that the Justice Department had formed special task forces focused on building cases that involved more serious felony crimes, including assaulting law enforcement, conspiracy against the United States and sedition, and attacks on the media. No one has been charged yet with seditious conspiracy, a rarely invoked felony that also has a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison, or with assaulting members of the press.

Prosecutors have brought four conspiracy cases, alleging small groups of defendants acted in concert and in some cases preplanned the attack; they’ve left the door open to adding more alleged coconspirators in the future. Three of these cases involve defendants who prosecutors say are affiliated with the Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group connected to violent incidents in the past, and the fourth involves alleged members of the Oath Keepers, a right-wing militia organization that recruits primarily from current and former members of the military and law enforcement.

Prosecutors expanded the Oath Keepers conspiracy case this week, from three defendants to nine. The Justice Department announced on Friday that a grand jury had returned a new indictment adding six more people, including Kelly Meggs, the self-described leader of an Oath Keepers chapter in Florida, and a retired couple from Ohio, Bennie and Sandra Parker. The Parkers allegedly coordinated with a woman charged in the original Oath Keepers indictment, Jessica Watkins. Prosecutors quoted text messages that Watkins exchanged with Bennie Parker leading up to Jan. 6 where the two discussed the Parkers joining the Oath Keepers, planning to travel to Washington, and whether to bring guns. The Parkers’ charging papers also included images from surveillance footage inside the Capitol that prosecutors said showed Sandra Parker in a line, or “stack,” with Watkins and other Oath Keepers.

After the insurrection, Watkins and Bennie Parker exchanged texts where they predicted they wouldn’t be arrested, according to charging papers.

Exactly how much time these defendants could spend in prison if they’re convicted depends on a number of factors and is hard to predict early on. But these penalties are a way to understand how seriously federal law treats the crimes they’re accused of committing on Jan. 6. It’s one thing to walk into the Capitol when it’s not allowed, which on its own is a misdemeanor crime with a maximum sentence of one year in prison. It’s another thing to enter the Capitol with a goal of obstructing lawmakers from carrying out their official duties — that’s a felony with a maximum penalty of up to 20 years in prison.

Other defendants who saw weapons enhancements added once they were indicted include Douglas Jensen, an Iowa man seen in videos leading a mob that chased US Capitol Police Officer Eugene Goodman inside the Capitol. Jensen was initially charged with several felonies, including obstructing Congress and assaulting an officer, but no weapon-related offenses. He later admitted that he had a knife on him at the time; a photo of the knife laid alongside a ruler included in the government’s court papers showed the blade measured 3 inches long.

The grand jury returned a seven-count indictment against Jensen on Feb. 10. He wasn’t charged with using the knife to hurt anyone, but the allegation that it was in his pocket meant that two misdemeanor charges — entering a restricted building and disorderly and disruptive conduct in a restricted building — became felonies.

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When Vitali Gossjankowski was arrested on Jan. 18 in Washington, DC, he was charged with carrying a Taser as he illegally entered a restricted area near an entrance to the Capitol, which meant he was already facing a weapons enhancement. But he wasn’t initially charged with actually using the Taser against police. That changed when a grand jury returned an indictment on Feb. 17, adding one count of assaulting a law enforcement officer using a deadly or dangerous weapon. The assault count carried a maximum penalty of eight years in prison, and the weapons enhancement increased that to 20 years.

The conspiracy indictments show how prosecutors are starting to thread together evidence from individual cases. William Pepe of Beacon, New York, was arrested on Jan. 12 on misdemeanor charges of illegally entering the Capitol. Three days later, Dominic Pezzola, who lives several hundred miles away in Rochester, New York, was arrested on charges of obstructing Congress, destruction of government property, and illegally entering the Capitol; prosecutors presented photos of Pezzola breaking a window using a US Capitol Police riot shield.

On Jan. 29, a grand jury returned an 11-count indictment that charged the two men together with conspiracy, alleging they were both members of the Proud Boys. The indictment accused Pepe and Pezzola (who prosecutors said is also known as “Spaz” and “Spazzo”) of joining fellow Proud Boys members in descending on the Capitol. Prosecutors left open the possibility of adding more coconspirators later, alleging that Pezzola and Pepe were part of a group of Proud Boys and other “individuals known and unknown” involved in toppling metal barriers that Capitol Police had put up to block access to the Capitol grounds and assaulting officers behind that security perimeter. The FBI said a witness told them that Pezzola was part of a group that had talked about how they “planned to kill every single 'm-fer' they can,” including then–vice president Mike Pence “if given the chance.”

Pezzola is also individually facing more serious counts in the indictment in terms of prison time; he’s charged with breaking a window into the Capitol, stealing a Capitol Police riot shield, and obstructing Congress, which carry maximum penalties of 10, 15, and 20 years in prison, respectively. The FBI also found instructions for making guns and bombs in his home.

On Feb. 3, the grand jury returned an indictment alleging another Proud Boys conspiracy, this time involving Nicholas DeCarlo, who lives in Texas, and Nicholas Ochs, who lives in Hawaii and was described in charging papers as a founding member of the state’s Proud Boys chapter who had a “Proud Boy” tattoo on his right arm. Like Pezzola and Pepe, DeCarlo and Ochs were originally charged separately, although prosecutors had noted that they were together at the Capitol.

In the indictment, prosecutors alleged the two men planned in advance to come to DC to “stop, delay, and hinder” Congress’s certification of the Electoral College votes, and that they raised money online to finance the trip and publicized their itinerary. Once inside the Capitol, the government said they defaced a door in the Capitol by writing the words “MURDER THE MEDIA” — DeCarlo and Ochs have claimed they were at the Capitol as citizens journalists on behalf of “MT Media News” — and stole a pair of Capitol Police plastic handcuffs.

The third Proud Boys conspiracy involves four people who prosecutors identified in videos and photos heading toward the Capitol and then entering the building with Proud Boys members. The charging papers note that Pepe, Ochs, and DeCarlo are seen near these defendants, but they aren’t all charged together.

In the newly-expanded Oath Keepers conspiracy case, prosecutors have built much of the case based on messages that different alleged members of the conspiracy exchanged about planning to come to Washington on Jan. 6. The government described Watkins and co-defendant Crowl as moving toward the Capitol “in an organized and practiced fashion” while wearing tactical gear. Prosecutors also cited evidence that the defendants were in communication with one another and other unidentified people during the riot — including via a walkie-talkie app that recorded messages — as well as after.

There are also a few cases where defendants have been indicted together, but aren’t facing a conspiracy charge. In one indictment returned on Jan. 29 but only unsealed this week, the grand jury clustered three defendants who didn’t appear to know each other before Jan. 6 — Michael Lopatic Sr., Jeffrey Sabol, and Peter Stager — but were all accused of assaulting or interfering with the same police officer outside the Capitol, referred to by the initials “B.M.” Lopatic and Sabol are also separately charged with attacking other officers on the scene.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.

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