By MICHAEL KUNZELMAN Associated Press
An FBI informant who marched to the U.S. Capitol with fellow Proud Boys members on Jan. 6 testified on Wednesday that he didn’t know of any plans for the far-right extremist group to invade the building and didn’t think they inspired the violence that day.
The informant, who identified himself in court only as “Aaron,” was a defense witness at the trial of former Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio and four lieutenants charged with seditious conspiracy for what prosecutors said was a plot to keep Donald Trump in the White House after the 2020 presidential election.
The informant was communicating with his FBI handler as a mob of Trump supporters breached police barricades at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
The Proud Boys “did not do it, nor inspire,” the informant texted his handler. “The crowd did as herd mentality. Not organized.”
The handler’s response was redacted from a screenshot that a defense attorney showed to jurors.
“Barriers down at capital building. Crowd surged forward, almost to the building now,” the informant texted.
The informant said he contacted the agent because he saw it as an “emergency situation.” He testified that the FBI didn’t ask him to go to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6 or march with the Proud Boys that day.
“If there was any violence and all that, they would have wanted to know,” he said of the FBI.
“Aaron,” who was allowed to withhold a last name when he testified, is one of several Proud Boys associates who were FBI informants before or after the Jan. 6 attack. He is the first to testify at the trial, one of the most important to come out of the Justice Department’s massive investigation of the Capitol riot.
Prosecutors have employed an unusual theory that Proud Boys leaders mobilized a handpicked group of foot soldiers — or “tools” — to supply the force necessary to carry out their plot by overwhelming police and breaching barricades. The informant who testified on Wednesday wasn’t one of those “tools.”
Defense attorneys have argued there is no evidence the Proud Boys plotted to attack the Capitol and stop Congress from certifying Democrat Joe Biden’s electoral victory during a joint session on Jan. 6.
The informant testified that marching from the Washington Monument to the Capitol appeared to be a photo opportunity for the Proud Boys.
“I didn’t know the specific purpose other than just being on the streets and being seen,” he said.
Earlier in the trial, jurors heard testimony from two former Proud Boys members who agreed to cooperate with the government after they were charged with riot-related crimes. Those government witnesses, Matthew Greene and Jeremy Bertino, both testified they didn’t know of any specific plan to storm the Capitol. Greene said group leaders celebrated the attack but didn’t explicitly encourage members to use force.
Tarrio, a Miami resident who served as national chairman of the group, and the other Proud Boys could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted of seditious conspiracy.
Also on trial with Tarrio are Ethan Nordean, Joseph Biggs, Zachary Rehl and Dominic Pezzola. Nordean, of Auburn, Washington, was a Proud Boys chapter leader. Biggs, of Ormond Beach, Florida, was a self-described Proud Boys organizer. Rehl was president of the Proud Boys chapter in Philadelphia. Pezzola was a Proud Boys member from Rochester, New York.
The informant, who joined the Proud Boys in 2019, said he wasn’t a group leader and didn’t know any of the leaders on trial.
The trial started in January. Prosecutors rested their case on March 20. Jurors are expected to hear several more days of testimony from defense witnesses before they hear lawyers’ closing arguments.
Nordean’s attorney, Nicholas Smith, called the informant as a witness. The witness said the FBI interviewed him within 10 days of returning home from Washington.
“It wasn’t very specific,” he said. “Just a lot of random questions.”
The informant entered the Capitol on Jan. 6 and remained inside for roughly 20 minutes. He said he felt justified in entering the Capitol because he thought he could prevent rioters from destroying items of “historic significance.”
“I didn’t want to be in there any longer than I had to,” the informant testified.
“When you entered the Capitol, did you think that was something minor?” defense attorney Carmen Hernandez asked him.
“I wasn’t thinking like that at the time,” the informant said.
The informant said he believed he wouldn’t get into trouble with the FBI for something “minor” like breaking a window as long as it could be seen as an “act of self-preservation” during a confrontation with antifascist activists.