In March 2021, as prosecutors were scouring for answers about what ignited the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, they received a bombshell allegation from a notorious inmate: Proud Boy Dominic Pezzola.
Pezzola, who surged to infamy after images circulated of him smashing a Senate-wing window with a riot shield, told prosecutors he was an eyewitness to an exchange between fellow Proud Boy Joe Biggs and another member of the crowd, Ryan Samsel. Minutes after they spoke with Samsel’s arm draped around Biggs’ neck, Samsel charged toward police lines and triggered the first breach of the barricades, sending the pro-Trump mob swarming onto Capitol grounds.
Pezzola, who has been incarcerated since his January 2021 arrest, told FBI investigators he had seen Biggs flash a 9mm Beretta and goaded Samsel, telling him to “defend his manhood” by attacking the police line.
It seemed at the time to be smoking-gun evidence linking the Proud Boys to the earliest moments of violence on Jan. 6. But Pezzola now says he wasn’t telling the truth.
On Thursday, on the witness stand in his seditious conspiracy trial — alongside Biggs and three other Proud Boys leaders — Pezzola acknowledged he lied to the FBI about that episode, claiming he believed it would persuade investigators to relax the harsh conditions of his pretrial detention.
“I basically felt like my conditions at the jail wouldn’t improve unless I gave them more,” Pezzola said under questioning from his attorney Steven Metcalf.
The brief exchange between Biggs and Samsel, captured on widely circulated video of the earliest moments of the riot, has been the subject of intense scrutiny because of the role Samsel played in setting off the melee along with Biggs’ leadership role in the Proud Boys. It remains unclear what the two said to each other.
Pezzola said he was initially incarcerated in Washington, D.C., in a cell immediately next to Samsel, who he said told him that Biggs had goaded him to attack the police line. Pezzola said he knew it was false but relayed the story to the FBI anyway, hoping they would relax his conditions of confinement, which were particularly harsh amid the Covid pandemic. (Samsel is slated to go on trial later this year for his role in the events of Jan. 6.)
In the version of events that Pezzola told the FBI during the March interview, he witnessed Proud Boys harassing a boy wearing a “Black Lives Matter” shirt just before Biggs had his exchange with Samsel. He told investigators “Mr. Biggs told Samsel that if he wasn’t antifa, he should prove it by pushing down the barricades,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Kenerson indicated when he grilled Pezzola about the episode.
Prosecutors agreed that they had no evidence Biggs possessed a gun on Jan. 6 but pointed to the episode to underscore Pezzola’s lies to authorities — which they say undercut his attempts to portray himself as honest and honorable. Pezzola said he retracted the story during a third meeting with the FBI while the bureau was still seeking to gain his cooperation.
The exchange about the Samsel episode kicked off a contentious turn for Pezzola on the witness stand. Pezzola spent Tuesday and Wednesday, under questioning from Metcalf, expressing contrition about aspects of his conduct at the Capitol — from his decision to smash the window to a celebratory selfie video he shot inside the Capitol while smoking a cigar.
He repeatedly sniped at prosecutors, accusing them of lodging “fake charges” against him and bringing him to a “corrupt trial.”
“You’re just twisting my words, Mr. Kenerson,” he said at one point during the questioning.
Pezzola leveled conspiracy theories, repeatedly attempting to work in mentions of Ray Epps, a former Oath Keeper from Arizona who has become the subject of Trump allies’ false claims that he acted as a government operative. (Epps was visible in several videos nearby Pezzola and other Proud Boys leaders.)
After several references, Kenerson pressed Pezzola on the point.
“Mr. Pezzola, you have absolutely no evidence that Ray Epps is a government informant, do you?” Kenerson said.
“I’ve seen no evidence that he isn’t,” Pezzola replied.
Kenerson spent hours undercutting Pezzola’s claims that he spent most of his time at the Capitol spontaneously reacting to “police brutality” and attempting to protect himself and others from unjustified force. The prosecutor pressed Pezzola on how he was able to judge that the efforts by outnumbered police to control the crowd were unjustified, and Pezzola repeatedly acknowledged he had no expertise in the munitions that were used or how police chose to deploy them.
Pezzola also repeatedly quibbled with Kenerson about whether his attempt to rip a riot shield away from an officer who had waded into the crowd was really an attempt to “take possession” of it. Rather, Pezzola said he merely wanted it to protect himself from a hail of rubber bullets and flash bangs that he said agitated the crowd.
But Kenerson challenged Pezzola on these points, noting that in all the video, there are no images of him using the shield to cover his face or head. He posed for a photo with it before rushing with the mob to the base of the Capitol and using it to smash a window.
Pezzola returned the shield to an officer as he exited the Capitol about 20 minutes after he went inside, stopping to blow a smoke ring in the general direction of police after they took it from him, Kenerson noted.
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