WASHINGTON (CN) — "Form a spear," Jeremy Bertino advised fellow Proud Boys in a group chat on Jan. 6, 2021, after he first received word that the mob protesting the results of the presidential election had just breached the U.S. Capitol.
Testifying Wednesday against members of the group who have pleaded not guilty to seditious conspiracy and other charges, Bertino explained that the rioters could be better able to get through the crowd if they moved in the spear, or wedge-like, formation.
“I was excited,” Bertino said. “I thought I was watching history, and I thought I was watching the guys about to go into the building.”
The jury heard a day earlier why Bertino was unable to join the riot in person. Having been stabbed in a different rally on Dec. 12, Bertino was hospitalized for about a week with a punctured lung and diaphragm, as well as a broken rib. That didn't stop him from getting indicted last year, but Bertino opted to plead guilty rather than go to trial with his co-defendants, a group that includes the Proud Boys' leader, Enrique Tarrio.
Bertino spoke Tuesday about how his injuries caused him to begin seeing law enforcement as the enemy, and that the Proud Boys specifically formed a new chapter called the Ministry of Self Defense to keep its members safe at rallies as the police could no longer be trusted to do so.
Each member of the new chapter was hand-selected for the posting.
Bertino testified Wednesday about how he monitored the group's activity on Jan. 6 through several online live feeds, including streams of rallies being held in Washington for President Donald Trump. Members of the Proud Boys were also sharing information on Telegram, an alternative social media platform that saw an uptick in extremist right-wing users after the more popular Twitter began cracking down on users for violating the company's terms of service.
At around 9:30 a.m. on Jan. 6, Bertino said he alerted members in a Telegram chat for the Ministry of Self Defense that the Capitol did not appear to have attracted any "Antifa," the monicker given to far-left-leaning militant groups that resist neo-Nazis and white supremacists at demonstrations and other events. Unlike the Proud Boys, Antifa is considered an umbrella descriptor for a movement with no central governing body.
Charging papers note that it was at about 10 a.m. that two of the defendants, Ethan Nordean and Joe Biggs, led a group of about 100 or more members of the Proud Boys on a march toward the Capitol from the Washington Monument.
By 12:53 p.m., Nordean, the group's at-large sergeant-at-arms, and Biggs, an organizer, had brought the group back to the Capitol’s First Street pedestrian entrance.
Authorities say it was shortly after the group's arrival near the Peace Monument that the mob began to breach police barriers. By 12:59 p.m., someone in one of the Ministry of Self Defense chats notified the group about the breach: “Oops looks like we just stormed the capitol building.”
Bertino posted with urgency in a Proud Boys chat about a minute later.
“Storming the capital building right now!!” he noted in one. “Get there,” in another.
On the stand Wednesday, he explained his thinking. “I wanted everyone to get to the Capitol building,” Bertino testified, “because that’s where everything was happening.”
About 50 minutes later, Bertino warned in another Proud Boys chat that, “they are moving the cops back.”
At one point, Bertino texted a video to Tarrio showing a member of their group using a stolen riot shield to break a window of the Capitol building. This individual was Pezzola, one of the defendants. Prosecutors say that broken window was the entry point to the Capitol for the first wave of the mob, which included Nordean, Biggs and the fifth defendant, Zachary Rehl. Tarrio was not among this group because he was not even in Washington, having been barred from entering the nation's capital under an unrelated court order.
Telegram chats show that he still was monitoring the riot closely.
“I’m in tears bro,” Bertino texted, to which Tarrio replied, “This is it…”
He advised Bertino to keep a cool head when the latter asked if they influenced history. “Let’s first see how this plays out.”
As a cooperating witness, Bertino has told prosecutors that talk within the Proud Boys about storming the Capitol began at least as early as Jan. 4. The plans were relayed, he said, in encrypted chats among members of Ministry of Self Defense leadership. The riot caused Congress to abandon, albeit only temporarily, a ceremony in which it planned to certify that Trump had lost the election. Bertino noted that this was the intended outcome, that the Proud Boys “had to take the reins and pretty much be the leaders that we had been building ourselves up to be” after the Supreme Court refused to take up various lawsuits in which Trump supporters claimed without evidence that the election had been stolen.
“Everyone felt very desperate,” Bertino said, asserting that the 2020 election was a topic of conversation among the Proud Boys every single day in the weeks leading up to Jan. 6.
When Tarrio was arrested on Jan. 4, resulting in the court order that barred him from Washington, Bertino said he felt like “everything was shifting around us,” and the Proud Boys “were becoming enemies of the people.”
While the court has barred prosecutors from telling the jury what crime Tarrio had committed — burning a Black Lives Matter flag at the same protest in December that ended with Bertino getting stabbed — prosecutors did call a police officer witness earlier in the trial to testify about taking Tarrio into custody on Jan. 4.
After the insurrection, Tarrio pleaded guilty to the flag-burning offense. He was given a five-month sentence while awaiting the trial now underway. Bertino, who owns a trucking company in South Carolina, is still awaiting sentencing for his plea to the seditious conspiracy charge.
Tarrio and the other four defendants have pleaded not guilty. They could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted of the top charge.
The government has so far charged approximately 985 people in connection with the Capitol riot. As of Feb. 6, about 375 people had pleaded guilty to misdemeanors, and about 125 had pleaded guilty to felonies. Approximately 220 people have been sentenced to prison time.
U.S. District Judge Timothy Kelly is presiding over the ongoing trial, which is expected to resume Thursday with cross-examination of Bertino.
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