A federal judge will have to decide between two versions of Charles Joseph Donohoe presented during a hearing Wednesday — either Donohoe played a pivotal role in organizing a group of Proud Boys members to storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 or he had no real clue what was going to happen and decided at the last minute to go to Washington, D.C.
Donohoe, 33, a Kernersville resident who is the president of the Piedmont chapter of the far-right group Proud Boys, was in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday via video for a hearing to determine if he will remain in federal custody while awaiting trial. He is currently in custody in Oklahoma.
Along with three other men, Donohoe faces a slew of charges coming out of what happened on Jan. 6, when hundreds of people stormed the U.S. Capitol, damaged federal property and assaulted nearly 140 law-enforcement officers in an attempt to stop the U.S. Congress from certifying President Joe Biden’s electoral win. They falsely believed that massive voter fraud stole the election from former president Donald Trump.
The other men indicted with Donohoe were Ethan Nordean, 30, of Auburn, Wash.; Joseph Biggs, 37, of Ormond, Fla.; and Zachary Rehl, 35, of Philadelphia. U.S. Magistrate Judge G. Michael Harvey was scheduled to hold a detention hearing on Monday but postponed it after U.S. District Judge Timothy Kelly ordered Nordean and Biggs, who had been out on pre-trial release, back into federal custody.
During a hearing that lasted more than two hours Wednesday, Harvey continually interjected and pushed federal prosecutors to showcase evidence that proved Donohoe needed to remain in federal custody until trial. He also wanted Lisa Costner, Donohoe’s attorney, to spell out how Donohoe was distinct from his co-defendants, Nordean and Biggs. Harvey said he would make a decision about whether Donohoe remains in federal custody at 3 p.m. Thursday.
Though there’s no evidence that Donohoe actually went into the U.S. Capitol, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason McCullough argued that Donohoe led groups of people through trampled barricades into the U.S. Capitol grounds and helped people push through law-enforcement officers trying to protect the U.S. Capitol building.
Not only did he enter the U.S. Capitol grounds but he also “stepped into the void” in the days before the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, McCullough contended.
When Proud Boys national chairman Enrique Tarrio was arrested on Jan. 4, Donohoe voluntarily created a new Telegram messaging chat room and urged others to destroy earlier communications, he said. There was a Telegram messaging chat for a smaller group of people that included Donohoe, Biggs, Rehl, Nordean and others, he said.
“Much of the discussion and planning is part of that smaller group,” McCullough said.
After Jan. 6, Donohoe talked about trying to “nuke” encrypted communications, prosecutors said. When Harvey asked whether prosecutors had the chats that Donohoe tried to destroy, there was a long pause before McCullough said that prosecutors were not prepared to answer that question. Harvey said it would be significant if prosecutors had those chats and there was nothing incriminating in them.
McCullough cited Telegram messages from Donohoe in which he discusses logistics, such as meeting up at the Washington Monument on the morning of Jan. 6. He tells the group in Telegram messages that he has “the key,” indicating that he is in charge until Nordean and Rehl arrive, McCullough said.
Harvey asked whether Donohoe is a top leader in the Proud Boys, and McCullough said he isn’t. Still, he “speaks with a degree of authority that is followed,” he added.
What makes Donohoe dangerous is that he was able to organize a large group of people and get them to come to Washington, D.C. and march to the U.S. Capitol, where the plan was to disrupt the U.S. Congress from certifying the 2020 presidential election, he said.
He cited new Telegram messages sent by Donohoe. In one, Donohoe is reported to have said that “Facial recognition don’t mean s*** when you got a .556 green tip.” The green tip appears to be a reference to a kind of armor-piercing bullet, prosecutors said.
After the Jan. 6 incident, Donohoe and Nordean exchanged messages in which Donohoe said he could help Nordean relocate to North Carolina, McCullough said. He also cited an exchange where Donohoe responded to someone else who said that it was over because Biden won. “It’s never too late,” Donohoe is reported to have said, according to McCullough.
McCullough said that indicates that Donohoe and others could plan another event as part of an ongoing false belief that Biden stole the election.
Prosecutors also pointed to Donohoe holding a riot shield that Proud Boys member Dominic Pezzola is alleged to have stolen from a Capitol police officer. Authorities allege that Pezzola used that riot shield to break a window.
McCullough claimed that Donohoe interfered with law-enforcement by driving toward the stairs of the U.S. Capitol from the West Plaza to the West Terrace. At one point before anything happens, Donohoe is a few feet back from someone else who is getting into an altercation with law-enforcement officers, McCullough said. Donohoe pulls a mask over his face and looks intently at what is happening at the front of the line, he said. Then Donohoe pushes ahead.
McCullough said that push from Donohoe and others is what allows Pezzola time to use the riot shield to break the window and get people into the Capitol building.
But Costner pushed back on much of the prosecutors’ allegations. She said Donohoe was president of the Piedmont chapter of the Proud Boys, but he was the only one from that chapter to go to Washington, D.C.
And when he got to Washington, D.C., his primary concern was trying to find a place to stay, Costner said. After the Jan. 6 event ended, he had no ride back, she said. If he were such an influential leader, how come he had no place to stay and he had no ride, Costner asked.
She also asserted that prosecutors have no evidence from the Telegram messages that Donohoe planned anything.
Prosecutors cite statements that Donohoe made on Telegram that a second group was reforming, followed by several messages warning that the National Guard was coming. But Costner said at one point, Donohoe indicated he was five blocks away from the U.S. Capitol because he was trying to get service for his cellphone.
She also noted that in the weeks after the event, Donohoe did not hide. He went back to work at The Brewers Kettle in Kernersville, where he worked as a handyman, took care of his son and participated in the search for a missing Davidson County girl who had been abducted, Costner said.
“The actions and words of Mr. Donohoe, as compared to everyone else...I don’t think they rise to the level that he poses a threat to others, to the community,” she said.