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April 16, 2021

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Auburn-area man, a prominent Proud Boy, charged in Capitol insurrection

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SEATTLE — An Auburn-area man and prominent member of the far-right extremist group the Proud Boys, who was captured on video leading a mob of pro-Trump demonstrators to the U.S. Capitol just before it was breached and ransacked, was arrested and charged Wednesday for his alleged role in planning and participating in last month’s deadly insurrection.

Ethan Nordean, a 30-year-old bodybuilder known in right-wing circles by his alias, Rufio Panman, faces four federal criminal counts in the District of Columbia, including obstructing an official proceeding, aiding and abetting injury to government property, disorderly conduct and knowingly and violently entering a restricted building, according to a criminal complaint.

Nordean faces more than 30 years in prison if convicted on all counts.

Corey Endo, Nordean’s federal public defender, did not immediately respond to a voicemail left for her Wednesday afternoon. Attempts to reach Nordean in the week before his arrest were unsuccessful.

Charging documents identify Nordean as the self-described “Sergeant of Arms” of the Seattle chapter of the Proud Boys, a group that often wears yellow and black clothing, prohibits women from joining its ranks and is known in the Northwest for street brawls and violent clashes with antifascist activists.

Calling themselves a “pro-Western fraternal organization for men who refuse to apologize for creating the modern world; aka Western Chauvinists,” the Proud Boys have been condemned as a hate group by extremist watchdogs, racial justice advocates and others.

Just before the deadly riot on Jan. 6 that interrupted Congress’ certification of the presidential election results, Nordean was widely captured in videos and photographs as known Proud Boys members and other pro-Trump demonstrators rallied and marched on Washington.

One video taken by Eddie Block, a Proud Boys livestreamer, featured Nordean at various times speaking through a bullhorn and leading a large group to the Capitol, just before the mob broke through a police line and breached the building.

An FBI’s agent’s probable cause affidavit supporting Nordean’s arrest includes images of what appear to be Nordean, bearded and wearing a ballcap backwards, within the mob that pushed into the Capitol. The 21-page affidavit alleges Nordean was “among those who entered the U.S. Capitol building after rioters forced entry and pushed past Capitol Police officers.”

In the days leading up to the insurrection, authorities contend Nordean also wrote a post under his alias on Parler, the social-media platform widely used by Trump supporters and right-leaning groups, that indicated “he and other Proud Boys members were planning in advance to organize a group that would attempt to overwhelm police barricades and enter the United States Capitol building.”

Nordean allegedly posted on Dec. 27: “Anyone looking to help us with safety/protective gear, or communications equipment it would be much appreciated, things have gotten more dangerous for us this past year, anything helps,” according to the affidavit. The post then linked to a fundraising site called “Protective gear and communications by Rufio Panman,” the affidavit states.

On Jan. 4, Nordean also allegedly posted a link to his video podcast, “Rebel Talk with Rufio,” that included a variety of incriminating statements, as well as a video captioned, “Let them remember the day they decided to make war with us,” the affidavit alleges.

In Seattle, Chief Magistrate Judge Brian Tsuchida presided over Nordean’s initial appearance via Zoom on Wednesday afternoon. Since the allegations against Nordean originate in another district, Tsuchida said Nordean had the option of admitting he is the person wanted in D.C. or forcing the government to prove he is the same person named in the government’s complaint.

Tsuchida ordered Nordean to be temporarily held in detention until Monday, when a status hearing will be held to address the issues of detention and identity.

Nordean, a married father of one, lives with his wife on the same suburban street just outside of Auburn as his parents, about a 10-minute drive from Flaming Geyser State Park. An avid bodybuilder, he was selling protein powder through a since-dissolved business called Bangarang Elite Supplements about the time he started showing up at right-wing rallies in mid-2017, according to extremist watchdog groups.

Late last year, Nordean and his wife launched a new retail company, Rebel Life, state business records show. Shopify recently stopped hosting Nordean’s store, after receiving complaints from people monitoring Nordean and other Proud Boys on Parler.

Nordean’s father, Michael Nordean, who owns and runs two restaurants — Wally’s Chowder House in Des Moines and Wally’s Drive-In in Buckley — has publicly disavowed his son’s extremism and ties to the Proud Boys. In June 2020, the elder Nordean posted a lengthy statement to his restaurants’ website calling his son’s beliefs “misguided” and noting, “Ethan no longer works for our restaurants.”

Amid scrutiny of his son following the deadly insurrection, Michael Nordean issued another brief statement last week through a publicist hired by the family: “We absolutely do not support the actions of Ethan or the extremist group he belongs to,” it said.

In another statement Wednesday, the family said: “We have tried for a long while to get our son off the path which led to his arrest today — to no avail. Ethan will be held accountable for his actions.”

Extremist watchdog groups began taking notice of Nordean in the summer of 2017, when he started showing up at rallies in Seattle and Portland staged by the far-right Patriot Prayer group.

“He’s particularly noteworthy for the extraordinary levels of thuggish violence he brings to these events,” Dave Neiwert, an author and journalist for the progressive news website Daily Kos who has written about the radical right, noted in a recent social media post about Nordean.

Nordean’s celebrity in right-wing circles took off after a Proud Boys rally in Portland in June 2018 disintegrated into a street brawl between the group and counterprotesters.

When one black-clad activist swung a baton at him, Nordean appeared to knock the man out with one punch, a video that captured the moment shows. The Proud Boys quickly created a meme featuring the image of Nordean’s knockout blow that went viral. Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes posted a loop of it on social media and hailed the punch as “the turning point in our war against antifa,” reported Neiwert, a former contributor to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Soon after, Nordean was named “Proud Boy of the Week” and landed a guest spot on rightist conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ InfoWars broadcast. Nordean used the appearance to help recruit new members to the Proud Boys.

“If you want to get involved, there’s no better time than now,” Nordean said on the broadcast. “Get involved, find your local chapter, hit him up.”

Nordean’s alias, “Rufio Panman,” soon began showing up on the Proud Boys leadership lists, and he started taking an active role in organizing rallies and events for the group, said Devin Burghart, Seattle-based president of the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights.

“He’s been helping map the direction of the organization and recruiting members,” Burghart said. “In no small part, he’s been responsible for moving the group even more to the extreme far right and on a more violent path forward.”

In Block’s video taken just before the insurrection on Jan. 6, Nordean is featured in a leadership role among a large group of Proud Boys. At times, he can be seen talking through a bullhorn and alongside Joe Biggs, a Florida-based Proud Boys organizer who barked instructions into a walkie-talkie.

At one point, Nordean and Biggs appeared at the head of a large gathering of Proud Boys, as the group marched down a street toward the Capitol, the video shows.

“Two men on a mission, with about 500 behind them ready to kick some butt for the benefit of this country,” Block can be heard narrating, while Nordean and Biggs led the march.

An FBI probable cause affidavit supporting the Jan. 19 arrest of Biggs also named Nordean, raising speculation among extremist watchdogs and others that he, too, would be charged.

The attack on the Capitol temporarily halted Congress’ certification of Democrat Joe Biden’s election as president and led to the deaths of five people, including a U.S. Capitol Police officer. In a list that officials say is growing by the day, federal authorities have since identified some 400 suspects and arrested more than 165 in connection with the siege.

Nordean is the second Washington resident to be charged in connection with the Capitol siege. Mark Leffingwell, 51, of Seattle, a former Washington National Guardsman, was arrested inside the Capitol last month and charged with assaulting a federal officer and three other criminal counts.

The day before the riot, Nordean allegedly posted a message of forewarning to his Parler page:

“It is apparent now more than ever, that if you are a patriot, you will be targeted and they will come after you, funny thing is that they don’t realize is, is we are coming for them,” Nordean wrote, according to the FBI affidavit. “You’ve chosen your side, black and yellow teamed with red, white and blue against everyone else.”

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