Politics

North Carolina member of the Proud Boys pleads guilty to seditious conspiracy

Washington — A former leader of the far-right extremist group the Proud Boys pleaded guilty Thursday to seditious conspiracy for his role related to the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, becoming the first member of the organization to do so since the leader of the group and several of its members were indicted.

Jeremy Bertino, of Belmont, North Carolina, admitted in federal court to “knowingly combine, conspire, confederate and agree” with five members of the Proud Boys and its leader, Enrique Tarrio, “to oppose by force the authority of the government of the United States and to delay by force the execution of the laws governing the transfer of power, including the 12th Amendment.”

As part of his plea deal with federal prosecutors, Bertino has agreed to cooperate with the Justice Department’s ongoing investigation into the group. He also spoke with the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 assault, and his testimony was featured in its June hearing. Bertino told committee investigators that membership in the Proud Boys “tripled” after former President Donald Trump told the group to “stand back and stand by” during a September 2020 presidential debate.

According to the filing, Bertino also “unlawfully and knowingly” received and had several firearms, including two pistols, two rifles, a shotgun and a Mossburg .22 AR-15-style firearm with a scope, “which had been possessed, shipped and transported in and affecting interstate and foreign commerce.” The weapons were discovered in a court-authorized search of his residence in March, during which the FBI also found 3,000 rounds of ammunition, according to the Justice Department.

He pleaded guilty to one count of seditious conspiracy and one count of unlawfully possessing a firearm or ammunition due to a prior conviction, and admitted to conspiring to use force to prevent the peaceful transfer of power from Trump to President Biden. 

Bertino, 43, is the first Proud Boys member to plead guilty to seditious conspiracy, though he was not among the group’s members charged by the Justice Department in June. Tarrio, along with codefendants Ethan Nordean, Joseph Biggs, Zachary Rehl, and Dominic Pezzola, are accused of conspiring to obstruct and stop the counting of state electoral votes when Congress convened for a joint session Jan. 

The trial for the members is set to begin in mid-December.

Another leader of the group with close ties to Tarrio, Charles Donohoe, pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges and assaulting officers earlier this year. He, too, is cooperating with investigators. 

Members of another far-right group, the Oath Keepers, are currently on trial, facing numerous felonies including seditious conspiracy. A jury is currently hearing testimony in the case of Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and four codefendants, all of whom have pleaded not guilty to the charge. 

Bertino joined the Proud Boys around 2018 and served as the vice president of a local chapter in South Carolina. According to court filings, he traveled to Washington, D.C., numerous times for rallies in 2020, and during one trip on Dec. 12, 2020, he was stabbed after an altercation involving other Proud Boys members.

Bertino was hospitalized and released. On Jan. 6, 2021, the day of the assault on the U.S. Capitol, he was still recovering from his injuries, according to the Justice Department, so he did not participate in the events of that day.

Federal prosecutors said that in December 2020, Bertino accepted an invitation from Tarrio to join a new chapter called the “Ministry of Self Defense,” and participated in encrypted chats with members of the group’s leadership in the weeks before the Jan. 6 attack. Members believed the 2020 presidential election was stolen, and they agreed that the goal of traveling to Washington on Jan. 6 was to stop the certification of electoral votes, the Justice Department said.

The  so-called “Ministry of Self Defense” organization, with Tarrio at the top of the power structure,  “was to form the nucleus of leadership in a new chapter of the Proud Boys organization,” according to court documents filed earlier this year. 

The Justice Department said that as early as Jan. 4, two days before the Capitol insurrection, Bertino received encrypted messages indicating leaders of the “Ministry of Self Defense” were discussing the possibility of storming the Capitol. On Jan. 6, he posted messages to the organization’s leaders to offer assistance and encouragement, including urging those at the Capitol grounds to “form a spear.”

Bertino also publicly posted to a social media account “DO NOT GO HOME. WE ARE ON THE CUSP OF SAVING THE CONSTITUTION” and, the evening of Jan. 6, Bertino messaged Tarrio, writing “You know we made this happen,” and “1776 m*****f*****.”

He faces a maximum of 20 years in prison for seditious conspiracy and up to 10 years in prison for the firearms charge.

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