A West Virginia man originally charged with assaulting a police officer who died after defending the United States Capitol from a mob pleaded guilty on Wednesday to misdemeanors that could see him avoid more jail time. Another man accused of attacking the officer with bear spray is weighing a tougher plea deal that carries a prison sentence of more than six years.
A federal grand jury indicted George Pierre Tanios last year on a felony charge of conspiring with a Pennsylvania man, Julian Elie Khater, to assault and injure Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick with chemical spray during the riot of January 6, 2021.
Tanios, 40, pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors, each carrying a maximum sentence of one year in prison.
Prosecutors also offered Khater to plead guilty to felony assault charges. If he accepts the offer, the estimated sentence guidelines will recommend a prison sentence ranging from six years and six months to eight years and one month. Khater has not decided whether or not to accept this plea offer, one of his lawyers said during a virtual hearing on Wednesday.
The Washington, D.C. medical examiner’s office determined in April 2021 that Sicknick, 42, suffered a stroke and died of natural causes.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan is due to sentence Tanios on Dec. 6. Tanios was jailed for about five months after his arrest and could get credit for his time.
Khater remained jailed pending trial in October on felony charges, including assaulting a federal officer with a dangerous weapon. The prosecutors’ offer to Khater would force him to plead guilty to that charge. Offer expires August 17.
Tanios, of Morgantown, West Virginia, and Khater, of State College, Pennsylvania, have not been charged in Sicknick’s death. But the case against them was one of the largest brought by the Justice Department, which is prosecuting hundreds of people for their conduct on Capitol Hill on Jan. 6.
Sicknick and other officers stood guard behind metal bike racks as the crowd of pro-Trump supporters stormed the Capitol. Prosecutors said Khater doused Sicknick and other officers with pepper spray after retrieving a canister from Tanios’ backpack.
Lawyers for Tanios said he brought the chemical spray to Washington to defend himself at the Jan. 6 “Stop the Steal” rally. In a court filing last year, they said there was no evidence that Tanios and Khater planned to use the spray in “an ultra-coordinated attack” on police.
“Indeed, if Mr Tanios had been a violent member of a mob and a willing participant in a riot, he himself would have been running around spraying people. He never did because that was not the reason for his trip to Washington, DC,” they wrote.
Tanios pleaded guilty to two counts: entering and staying in a building or land with restricted access and disorderly and disruptive conduct in a building or land with restricted access. Both are misdemeanors that carry a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a fine of up to $100,000.
Tanios is not charged with entering the Capitol on January 6.
A trial for Khater is due to begin on October 5.
Hogan had refused to release Tanios and Khater from prison before the trial, calling them dangerous. The judge said Tanios “coordinated the direct assault” on Sicknick and two other officers.
“Mr. Khater did the spraying. Mr. Tanios didn’t, but he obviously worked with him on it despite the arguments of the (defence) attorney,” Hogan said during a hearing in May 2021, according to a transcript.
But a federal appeals court ruled in August 2021 that Tanios could be released from pretrial detention. A three-judge panel found Hogan erred in assessing the danger posed by Tanios, who had no felony convictions or ties to extremist organizations.
Tanios operated a sandwich restaurant in Morgantown, near the West Virginia University campus. Khater told investigators he had traveled from New Jersey to pick up Tanios in West Virginia before heading to Washington on the eve of the riot.
In a court filing last year, prosecutors said Tanios and Khater “carefully timed their assault on the officers to occur in tandem with an attack on the police barrier.”
“This allowed the defendants to assault the officers while distracted, maximizing their chances of landing a chemical spray in their eyes and thereby incapacitating them to the point where the police line would break,” they wrote.
More than 100 police officers were injured at the Capitol.
The medical examiner’s office concluded that a medical condition alone — not an injury — caused Sicknick’s death. U.S. Capitol Police said the medical examiner’s findings did not change the fact that Sicknick died in the line of duty, “courageously defending Congress and the Capitol.”
“The attack on our officers, including Brian, was an attack on our democracy,” police officials said in a statement last year.
More than 840 people have been charged with federal crimes related to Jan. 6. More than 340 have pleaded guilty, mostly to misdemeanors, and more than 200 have been sentenced. More than 260 people are charged with assaulting or obstructing law enforcement during the riot, according to the Justice Department.
So far, the longest prison term for a Capitol rioter is five years and three months.