Former Philly Proud Boys president Zach Rehl sentenced to 15 years for his role in Jan. 6 Capitol attack

WASHINGTON — Zach Rehl, president of the Philadelphia chapter of the alt-right Proud Boys, was sentenced Thursday to 15 years in federal prison for his role in fomenting the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

by Jeremy Roebuck
Published Aug. 31, 2023, 4:29 p.m. ET
Updated 7:06 p.m. ET

The punishment — handed down by U.S. District Judge Timothy Kelly — fell just shy of the longest prison term imposed against any of the hundreds of people sentenced in connection with the riot so far.

It is exceeded only by the 17-year sentence Kelly gave to Rehl’s codefendant — Joseph Biggs, a Proud Boy leader from Florida — who was sentenced earlier in the day, and the 18-year prison term handed to Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes in May.

Still, the sentence Rehl received was half the minimum term recommended by federal sentencing guidelines and the 30 years that prosecutors sought for what they described as “an effort to change the course of American history” by force.

» READ MORE: Zach Rehl, former president of the Philly Proud Boys, faces a potentially record sentence for the Jan. 6 riot
Philly Proud Boys President Zach Rehl (center, in camouflage hat) and Joe Biggs, a leader of the group from Florida (left, in gray plaid shirt) at the forefront of a crowd of members of the organization that marched on the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021.

Kelly acknowledged that disparity as he announced his sentencing decision, explaining that while he found Rehl’s crimes should be punished as an act of terrorism — a factor that dramatically increased the possible prison time under sentencing guidelines — he did not believe that Rehl intended the type of “mass casualty” event typically associated with a terrorist act.

“I probably never will sentence someone 15 years below the guidelines again in my entire career,” the judge said. Still, he remarked: “It’s a miracle — a miracle — that there wasn’t greater loss of life.”

For his part, Rehl, 37, of Port Richmond, described Jan. 6 as a “despicable day” as he read from a prepared statement through tears. With his lawyer, Norman Pattis, consoling him, Rehl told the judge he fell “hook, line, sinker” for politicians spewing lies about the 2020 election, causing him to lose sight over what was truly important in life — his family.

“I’m done with all of it,” Rehl said. “I’m done with politics. I’m done peddling lies for other people who don’t care about me.”

Philadelphia Proud Boys president Zachary Rehl, left, and Ethan Nordean, a regional leader of the group from Washington state, lead a crowd toward the U.S. Capitol in Washington, in support of President Donald Trump, on Jan. 6, 2021.

Thursday’s hearings came three months after a federal jury convicted Rehl, Biggs, and two other Proud Boys leaders on seditious conspiracy charges, concluding that they spearheaded a plan to keep former President Donald Trump in power by riling up the mob that disrupted Congress’ certification of President Joe Biden’s victory.

The verdict delivered one of the most significant victories to date in the Justice Department’s push to hold accountable those who participated and organized the Jan. 6 attack. And among the hundreds charged so far, the Proud Boys have emerged as a focus.

Investigators placed the group’s members at nearly all the central flashpoints at which violence unfolded, and more than 20 members face charges.

But Rehl, Biggs, and their codefendants — the Proud Boys former national chairman, Enrique Tarrio, and Ethan Nordean, a chapter leader from Washington state — led a 200-man force in Washington that day and should shoulder much of the blame for what played out, Assistant U.S. Attorney Erik Kenerson said in court Thursday.

Nordean is scheduled for sentencing Friday and Tarrio’s hearing is set for Tuesday.

“These defendants … knew the effect that they had on the people they referred to as the ‘normies,’” Kenerson said. “They’re lucky that Jan. 6 did not turn into a mass casualty event.”

Rehl, in particular, did little to help himself during the trial.

Going into the proceedings, prosecutors had not accused him of personally committing acts of violence during the Capitol attack. But as he testified in his own defense, they confronted him with newly surfaced body camera footage that appeared to show him pepper spraying police.

Pressed on the witness stand, Rehl — a former Marine and the son and grandson of Philadelphia police officers — insisted he couldn’t recall whether he’d assaulted police during the melee.

“If you believe I did anything wrong that day,” he told the jury, “I really do truly apologize.”

But it was Rehl’s comments in the run-up to and aftermath of the riot that the judge described as “chilling.”

In the days before, he endorsed “firing squads for the traitors that are trying to steal the election” on social media.

And once the riot was quelled, Rehl expressed regret that the mob hadn’t succeeded in stopping Congress’ certification vote.

“Looking back, it sucked,” he texted other members of the Philadelphia Proud Boys chapter on Jan. 7. “We should have held the Capitol. … Everyone shoulda showed up armed and took the country back the right way.”

Reading the text in court Thursday, Kelly was taken aback.

“I mean, my God,” he said in response. “My God.”

But Pattis, Rehl’s lawyer, said his client’s statements and actions were based in a well-meaning, if misguided, belief that the 2020 presidential election had been stolen.

“If there’s a direct threat to democracy greater than an insurrection, I’d say it’s a stolen election,” he said. “They decided to engage in behavior that reflected our highest ideals.”

He defiantly likened the Proud Boys’ actions to those of the Founding Fathers who took up arms to fight tyranny and predicted that a stiff sentence for Rehl would be “the equivalent of burning Waco down” — a reference to the 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, that resulted in the deaths of 82 members of that group and spawned a generation of antigovernment militia groups.

“It’s just disproportionate, uncalled for,” Pattis said of the 30-year sentence prosecutors sought Thursday. “It will not promote respect for the law. It will create a martyrdom syndrome.”

When it was his turn to address the judge, Rehl struck a considerably different tone. He apologized to his wife, seated feet away in the courtroom gallery, and their daughter, who was born shortly after his arrest and whom Rehl has not had the chance to hold since he remains in prison.

“It’s my fault, it’s my fault,” he said. “There’s no other way to slice it. … I wasted my time with politics for people who aren’t even here today. ”

What his sentence means for the Philadelphia chapter of the Proud Boys — an organization Rehl has led since 2018 — remains to be seen.

During his trial, Rehl told jurors he joined the Proud Boys hoping to expand his professional network and transform the Philadelphia chapter into one more engaged in politics and less in drunken street fighting with left-wing demonstrators.

In 2018, he led a pro-Trump “We the People” rally outside Independence Hall that drew a minuscule crowd of supporters but provoked heated clashes with counterprotesters.

He was among the group of Proud Boys spotted drinking beer, carrying the group’s flag, and chanting with police officers at a “Back the Blue” rally outside the Fraternal Order of Police lodge in Northeast Philadelphia shortly after the city’s racial justice protests in 2020.

But shortly before Rehl was led away by U.S. Marshals at the end of Thursday’s hearing, he told Kelly he was prepared to leave all that behind.

“January 6 was a despicable day,” he said. “I did things I regret, and I made my family suffer because of it. … I would do anything to be a part of their lives again.”

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