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Prosecutors put Philly Proud Boys president Zach Rehl at heart of Jan. 6 planning in new Capitol riot filing

A new government court filing alleges that Rehl, 35, was part of a six-man "upper-tier leadership" team selected weeks ahead of the attack on the Capitol to lead Proud Boys' activities that day.

In this Jan. 6 file photo, Philly Proud Boys president Zach Rehl, left, and Ethan Nordean, right, a Proud Boy leader from Washington, lead a crowd toward the Capitol building hours before the deadly riot.
In this Jan. 6 file photo, Philly Proud Boys president Zach Rehl, left, and Ethan Nordean, right, a Proud Boy leader from Washington, lead a crowd toward the Capitol building hours before the deadly riot.Read moreCarolyn Kaster

A week before the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol riot, top leaders of the Proud Boys convened a video chat to discuss the organization’s plans for Washington that day. And Zach Rehl, president of the group’s Philadelphia chapter, took a leading role in guiding that conversation, federal prosecutors now say.

Hoping to avoid mistakes from past rallies that had devolved into open street brawls with far-left activists, the group decided this time they would maintain a lower profile. They’d leave their traditional black-and-gold polo shirts at home, equip themselves with encrypted radios, and focus their attentions on riling up “normies” — or unaffiliated supporters of President Donald Trump — they could hide behind.

“We’re doing a completely different operation,” Rehl allegedly told the others. “There’s gonna be a lot of contingencies and plans that are laid out. There’s gonna be teams that are gonna be put together.”

Details of that Dec. 30 video conversation emerged late Thursday in a government court filing that revealed for the first time just how central prosecutors believe Rehl was in directing the Proud Boys’ actions during the deadly insurrection.

While the 35-year-old former Marine was arrested in March and charged in a federal conspiracy case along with three other top leaders of the organization, authorities had — up until Thursday — released few details putting him at the center of the Proud Boys’ planning.

Instead, prosecutors primarily directed their fire at two of Rehl’s codefendants: Joseph Biggs, a Proud Boys organizer from Florida, and Ethan Nordean, of Auburn, Wash., whom authorities have described as the organization’s “de facto leader” on Jan. 6.

Nordean has recently accused the government of withholding records of conversations the men had on private messaging apps that would minimize their role in fomenting violence. Prosecutors responded to that claim with their new filing Thursday, quoting excerpts from thousands of pages of the group’s communications, in some cases more damning than any that had been released so far.

The excerpts paint Rehl as not only standing beside Biggs and Nordean as they stormed the Capitol building but also as one of a small inner circle selected weeks in advance to help lead the charge.

According to the filing, the group’s national president, Enrique Tarrio, chose Rehl, Nordean, Biggs, and two other Proud Boys leaders prosecutors did not name to form a six-man “upper-tier” leadership team to organize for the riot.

One member of that group said on the Dec. 30 video call that Rehl spoke with the same authority as Tarrio himself.

Tarrio “is not going to tell you something different than Zach is going to tell you,” the unnamed leader said. “It’s all one operation plan.”

Lawyers for Rehl, Nordean, and Biggs maintain that “the plan” their clients were discussing was simply to rally in Washington in support of Trump. None of the men, they argue, arrived with the intention of committing violence or breaching the Capitol perimeter.

The communications quoted in the government’s filing Thursday tell a different story.

“Drag them out by the f—ing hair, if they steal it,” one of the unnamed members of the inner circle wrote two days before the riot.

Hours before the Capitol’s perimeter was breached, another Proud Boys leader messaged the group saying he wanted “to see thousands of normies burn that city to ash.”

“It’s going to happen,” one of his colleagues responded. “These normiecons have no adrenaline control. … They are like a pack of wild dogs.”

Photos and videos that have circulated widely on social media show what happened next.

Rehl, Nordean, Biggs, and Rehl — wearing a camouflage “Make America Great Again” cap and carrying a Temple Owls backpack — led a crowd of roughly 100 Proud Boys members from the Washington Monument toward the Capitol security lines.

They threw themselves into the fray as a mob of Trump supporters attacked police and smashed their way into the building. A photo would later surface showing Rehl inside the Capitol, smoking a cigarette amid a mob of rioters carousing in the office of Sen. Jeff Merkley (D., Ore.).

If there was any doubt as to the Proud Boys’ intentions from the start, prosecutors wrote Thursday, it was put to rest by the leadership team’s communications in the hours after the Capitol was cleared.

“I’m proud ... [of] what we accomplished,” Rehl wrote, according to the filing.

Another member of the group shared video of a clash between rioters and police outside the Capitol after the Proud Boys had entered. “This could have been us,” the man complained.

Tarrio defended their choice to hang back and let others commit the violence. “Make no mistake,” he wrote, according to the filing. “We did this.”

And when Congress reconvened later that evening to resume certifying President Joe Biden’s victory, one member of the six-man leadership team messaged the others: “We failed. The House is meeting again.”

That sense of disillusionment only grew in the weeks that followed.

Many members of the Proud Boys inner circle had expected they would be hailed as heroes on the right for their actions, their internal communications suggest. But as even some Republicans began condemning the riot as sedition, a sense of betrayal spread.

Within weeks, the FBI began arresting people, including Biggs, who was taken into custody Jan. 20 in Florida — a development that prompted Rehl to message the others to describe the case against their colleague as a “steaming pile of dog” excrement.

Rehl, Nordean, and a third Proud Boys member, Charles Donohoe, of North Carolina, would soon join Biggs as defendants in a case that now threatens to send them to prison for decades. All four remain in custody pending trial. Tarrio, who was arrested on unrelated charges two days before the riot, has not been charged with participating in the planning.

But as the dragnet closed around them, Nordean apparently had a change of heart.

In one of the last communications quoted by prosecutors in their filing, Nordean cursed the president they had headed to Washington to support, writing: “I’ve followed this guy for 4 years and given everything and lost it all. ... He led us to believe some great justice was upon us … and it never happened.”

“F— you, Trump,” he added. “You left us on the battlefield bloody and alone.”