April 14, 2024

In March 2021, two months after the F.B.I. arrested Dominic Pezzola, a New York Proud Boy, on charges stemming from the Capitol attack, one of the lead agents on the case made an unusual confession. On Lync, the bureau’s internal chat system, she said she felt sorry for the man she had helped take into custody.

“Is it bad i almost kind of feel bad for Pezzola?” the agent, Nicole Miller, asked one of her colleagues.

When the colleague told her that Mr. Pezzola was in jail because of choices he had made, Agent Miller seemed to agree. But then, she snapped back into work mode.

“Oh no i know that,” she wrote. “His decisions put him where he is. Just feel for his kids. Wonder if he is going to cooperate though.”

This behind-the-scenes exchange, and hundreds like it, were contained in a log of Agent Miller’s messages on Lync, tracking her chats with other agents from Jan. 6, 2021, when she was on duty at the bureau’s Washington office, to September 2022, a few months after she and her team helped bring sedition charges against Mr. Pezzola and four other members of the Proud Boys.

The log, obtained by The New York Times, provides a rare look into one of the Justice Department’s most important Jan. 6 investigations. It shows how Agent Miller and her colleagues scrambled after evidence and sought to recruit members of the far-right group all while trying to dealing with the odds and ends of life — everything from squeezing in workouts to coping with the bureau’s obsolete technology.

Some of the Lync messages emerged recently when Agent Miller took the stand at the trial of Mr. Pezzola and his co-defendants — Enrique Tarrio, Ethan Nordean, Joseph Biggs and Zachary Rehl — which is now unfolding in Federal District Court in Washington. On cross-examination, the men’s lawyers sought to use the log to suggest that other agents who chatted with Agent Miller had committed offenses like destroying evidence or scrutinizing emails between one of the defendants and his lawyer in a violation of the attorney-client privilege.

A lawyer for Mr. Pezzola described the messages as evidence of a “massive trail of F.B.I. corruption,” but Judge Timothy J. Kelly, who is presiding at the trial, blasted that assertion, saying it was “unfounded speculation that has no place in a courtroom.”

While the log obtained by The Times is missing several entries, it offers the most extensive portrait yet of the F.B.I.’s internal communications as agents investigated the sprawling Proud Boys case.

‘Dismantling Things’

Agent Miller, a former Florida police officer, had been with the F.B.I. for less than two years when the Capitol was overrun.

The messages show that she was quickly named to a “conspiracy squad” of agents examining the roles that far-right groups like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers militia had played in the attack.

The arrest of Mr. Pezzola and another New York Proud Boy, William Pepe, helped Agent Miller build a bigger case against several of the people now on trial: Mr. Rehl, who ran the group’s Philadelphia chapter; Mr. Nordean, the Seattle chapter’s so-called sergeant-at-arms; Mr. Biggs, a top-ranking Florida Proud Boy; and Charles Donohoe, a chapter president from North Carolina.

As early as March 3, 2021, Agent Miller and others in the bureau’s Washington office were already discussing searching Mr. Rehl’s home. A few days later, Agent Miller told her colleagues that the bureau had gotten cellphone location data on Mr. Rehl and was planning to take “the Rehl stuff” to a grand jury

Around the same time, she was juggling other tasks.

Agent Miller was also setting up a formal interview with a Proud Boy from New York and “reading backgrounds” on several other Proud Boys cases. In a separate matter, she was also working on a never-filed conspiracy indictment against the white nationalist Nick Fuentes and one of his allies, the far-right troll Anthime Gionet, better known by his nickname Baked Alaska.

Her fellow agents were impressed. “Wow,” one of her colleagues in the Washington field office wrote, “you’ve been in WFO for what, a year? and you are already dismantling things.”

Pressing Forward

After prosecutors obtained a conspiracy indictment against the Proud Boys leaders, Agent Miller pressed on with the case.

In the spring of 2021, she and her team began examining Proud Boys chapters in St. Louis and the Hudson Valley in New York. Around the same time, working with group chats obtained through their investigation, the team also identified a Proud Boy in Pennsylvania, John C. Stewart, who later pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges and cooperated with the government’s case.

Along the way, the messages show, agents kept in touch with their informants in the group. In April, one informant known as “Omlette” told his handlers that the Proud Boys would likely take part in an upcoming “White Lives Matter” rally. In June, another informant, Kenneth Lizardo from Massachusetts, provided information for a search warrant. The messages mention other informants in Cleveland and Salt Lake City.

Throughout that year, Agent Miller and her team were also trying to recruit new cooperators. One message suggests that Mr. Pezzola met with prosecutors in April 2021 for a formal interview known as a proffer but did not end up cooperating with the government.

Nicholas Ochs, who ran the Proud Boys’ chapter in Hawaii and was charged with conspiracy one month after the Capitol attack, also met with prosecutors for a proffer interview in the fall of 2021. But the messages show the meeting did not go well either.

“Ochs didn’t offer us anything,” Nicholas Hanak, another agent on the case, wrote to Agent Miller.

“Yea,” Agent Hanak concluded, “no deal for him.”

‘Help’

The breakneck pace of the investigation was taking a toll.

By the summer of 2021, Agent Miller was expressing worry to a colleague about losing the comp time she had accrued. Other agents complained about gaining weight, missing family events and feeling overwhelmed by the avalanche of leads they had to follow.

“Help,” a colleague wrote to Agent Miller in July.

The team found solace where they could. Colleagues often asked Agent Miller if they could come visit her dog. Others talked about the distractions to be found in Mexican food and the TV show “Ted Lasso.”

In October, in a punchy exchange, one of Agent Miller’s colleagues said she had been listening to Mr. Rehl fighting with his wife — presumably on a monitored jailhouse line. Agent Miller wondered if the jailed Proud Boy had discovered his wife was cheating on him, prompting the colleague to write, “hahaha i’ll bring beer.”

In the same conversation, the other agent said she had read a series of emails between Mr. Rehl and his lawyer at the time, Jonathon Moseley. The messages indicated that Mr. Rehl was planning to fight his charges at trial — a fact that the other agent asked Agent Miller not to reveal to the prosecutors on the case, lest they “freak out.”

Mr. Rehl’s current lawyer, Carmen Hernandez, has accused the F.B.I. of violating her client’s rights by illegally looking at privileged communications with his former lawyer. Prosecutors say Mr. Rehl had used a jailhouse email system that clearly stated that all of its messages were monitored just like the phone lines — a measure, they say, that amounted to a waiver of attorney-client privilege.

The Conspiracy Hurdle

As the first anniversary of Jan. 6 came and went, Agent Miller and her team continued to investigate new subjects.

They began to focus on a group of Proud Boys who had been particularly violent at the Capitol: Ronald Loehrke, who had been in touch with Mr. Nordean before the attack took place; James Haffner, who had moved in tandem with Mr. Loehrke on Jan. 6; and two Proud Boys from Florida, A.J. Fischer and Zachary Johnson.

All four men were ultimately charged.

In February 2022, Agent Miller finally caught a break in her investigation of one of her top targets: Enrique Tarrio, the former leader of the Proud Boys. At the beginning of the month, she told a colleague that bureau technicians had extracted a Telegram group chat called the “Ministry of Self-Defense” from Mr. Tarrio’s cellphone. Participants in the chat played a central role in the run-up to the Capitol attack and on the ground on Jan. 6.

“It’s really good,” Agent Miller wrote of the salvaged chat, adding, “Enrique didn’t delete anything.”

Something else was on the phone, she said: a “plan” that Mr. Tarrio and one of his girlfriends had “worked on.” That appeared to be a reference to a document called “1776 Returns,” which contained a detailed plan to surveil and storm government buildings around the Capitol on Jan. 6.

After calling Mr. Tarrio “an idiot” for leaving such material on his phone, Agent Miller’s colleague asked if the newly discovered information would “get us over the hurdle of the conspiracy charge?”

Agent Miller said they could press forward with a conspiracy case.

“We DEF can now,” she wrote.

One month later, Mr. Tarrio was arrested on an indictment charging him with conspiracy.

A Final Break

There was one more big break.

Two days after Mr. Tarrio was charged, one of Agent Miller’s colleagues wrote to say that a lawyer for Jeremy Bertino, a Proud Boy from North Carolina, had reached out, suggesting that his client was interested in talking to investigators. The F.B.I. had executed a search warrant at Mr. Bertino’s home the day before Mr. Tarrio’s arrest and discovered three AR-15-style rifles and a shotgun hidden behind a wall in the basement.

Agent Miller and her team eventually determined that some of the weapons were unlicensed and could be subject to a criminal charge. The messages also show that agents found a video of Mr. Tarrio chatting with Mr. Bertino while Mr. Bertino was at a shooting range with his wife.

“We cant make this stuff up!!” Agent Miller wrote.

Over the next several weeks, Mr. Bertino was interviewed at least three times by prosecutors working on the case; and in October 2022, he formally pleaded guilty not only to a gun charge, but also to seditious conspiracy.

In February, a few weeks before Agent Miller herself testified at the Proud Boys trial, Mr. Bertino took the stand as the government’s star witness.

The post Inside the F.B.I.’s Jan. 6 Investigation of the Proud Boys appeared first on New York Times.