WASHINGTON — A key witness for prosecutors at the federal trial of five members of the far-right Proud Boys militia facing sedition charges related to the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol said Monday that while he never heard the group or its leaders outline a specific plan for violence on Jan. 6, 2021, the outbreak of violence that day did not surprise him.
In his fourth day of testimony at the trial of Proud Boys leader Henry “Enrique” Tarrio and four other defendants affiliated with the group, Jeremy Bertino, operator of a North Carolina trucking company, told a jury that he believed that the November 2020 election had been stolen from Donald Trump and that he was afraid that as a result, the U.S. would be taken over by an outside entity, such as the Chinese Communist Party.
Bertino pleaded guilty last October to a riot-related charge of seditious conspiracy, a serious offense that fellow members of the group have also been charged with. In December, the leader of the Oath Keepers, another right-wing group that participated in the Capitol riot, was convicted of a seditious conspiracy charge.
In the wake of the 2020 election result, Bertino said he believed that the Proud Boys, which he had joined in 2018, would serve as the tip of a spear that would somehow ensure that Trump remains in the White House.
Within days of the election, according to testimony Monday by Bertino in Washington federal court, he and Tarrio had initiated discussions about the possibility of the Proud Boys going to Washington on Jan. 6, the day the Electoral College was scheduled to meet to confirm Joe Biden’s election victory, and also possibly on Jan. 20 — Inauguration Day.
Bertino and other Proud Boys had begun to contemplate the possibility of violence within days of Election Day (Nov. 3, 2020). On Nov. 9, Bertino allegedly told Tarrio via text message, “Well I’m sure on Saturday things are going to get crazy so I’ll have a chance to get on video smashing people.”
Five days later, Bertino was part of a group of Proud Boys who served as bodyguards for a visit by conspiracy theorist and Trump supporter Alex Jones to the outside of the Supreme Court building not long before Trump supporters and left-wing counterprotesters engaged in violent clashes that began near the White House. Once his group had escorted Jones safely back to his hotel, Bertino testified, he put on personal protective gear and headed to a bar closer to the White House frequented by Trump-supporting militants, where they engaged in clashes with people they believed were connected with the left-wing movement known as antifa.
Bertino told the court Monday that he and his fellow militants expected more violence when they organized themselves for another rally in Washington on Dec. 12. Bertino said he thought he was well prepared for possible clashes, having donned combat gear including what he thought was a stab-proof vest and gloves with carbon fiber tabs to stop his knuckles from breaking.
As the event unfolded, however, a protester emerged from the crowd and stabbed him in the ribs, Bertino testified. He was rushed to an emergency room, where medics determined he had suffered a punctured lung and diaphragm injuries. Waking up several days later, Bertino learned that his body had 150 staples that doctors had used to put him back together.
Bertino told the court that he was angry at everyone except the Proud Boys after being stabbed. He said he still considered the Proud Boys to be his brothers, and he got “hundreds” of supportive phone calls from group members, including Tarrio, who Bertino says was upset about the stabbing.
In the following weeks, as he continued to recover at home, Bertino told the court he came to believe that police were the enemy. One issue contributing to this assessment was his belief that the person who stabbed him had somehow avoided a serious arrest by law enforcement, though it’s unclear whether anyone was arrested in connection with the alleged assault.
Some Proud Boys were so angry at what they perceived to be law enforcement hostility to their movement that one group supporter circulated messages labeling police with the nickname “Coptifa” (insinuating that police are in cahoots with or protecting antifa), Bertino said, adding that he believed he was on the “side of freedom” and that he and other Trump supporters might have to take over the country.
But Bertino repeated during his testimony that he was unaware of, and never heard anyone discussing, any specific plan for Proud Boys members to engage in violence in order to somehow overturn the election result and keep Trump in office. “I don’t think anybody specifically ever said it like that,” he said.
Neither Bertino himself nor Tarrio, who was arrested following an incident a couple of days before Jan. 6, were present at the Capitol or related events that day, though Bertino testified that he was in contact with Tarrio around that day as well as with co-defendant Dominic Pezzola.
On Jan. 4, however, in audio messages sent to a messaging group whose access was supposed to be limited to a group of Proud Boy insiders known as the “Ministry of Self Defense,” Bertino, using the nickname “NobleBeard,” said, “dude this is where the rubber meets the road. now does the military and the National Guard f*** up Trump supporters or do they f*** up Antifa ? I guess that’s what we are going to have to see.” The messages were introduced into evidence by prosecutors.
After helping to create a “Boots on the Ground” chat on Jan. 5, Bertino relabeled himself “NobleBeard the Immortal” and appeared to openly cheer violence from rioters.
“We are the people…F*** these commie traitors …. F*** it let them loose,” Bertino messaged fellow insiders around 7:30 a.m. on the morning of Jan. 6.
At 1.00 p.m. that day, Bertino messaged Boots on the Ground: “Storming the Capitol right now….Get there.” “They are moving the cops back,” he messaged at 1:36. “God damnit I wanna be there,” he later said.
In a video message shortly before 2:00 p.m., Bertino declared, “Yo they got in. they’re- they’re- they pushed the cops back, the cops are retreating up the stairs, they’re ripping apart the construction barriers. They’re getting in.”
“I have tears in my eyes,” Bertino soon added. “Yes. [They] are taking it back.”
He subsequently exchanged one-on-one messages with Tarrio in which Bertino declared “Brother. You know we made this happen. I’m so proud of my country today.” “I know,” Tarrio replied.
In a cross-examination last week by defense lawyers, Bertino acknowledged that in his initial discussions with the FBI shortly after agents raided his residence in March of last year, he was not fully forthcoming. He said that he hoped his subsequent cooperation with investigators would help him get a reduction in his sentence but said nobody had promised him what his sentence would be.
The Proud Boys trial was originally expected to conclude by the end of February but prosecutors are still presenting government witnesses. Lawyers have said the trial is now expected to continue through March, and perhaps into April.