More than a dozen Southern California Jan. 6 defendants admit guilt as of 2-year anniversary

More than a dozen people with Southern California ties have admitted their roles in the breach of the U.S Capital over the past year, even as other local residents facing more serious charges still await jury trials two years after the Jan. 6 insurrection.

A high-profile conviction and landmark verdict in Washington D.C., the opening of a key Jan. 6 trial and most of all the release of the findings of the House committee’s long-running investigation into the January 2021 attack on the Capital have all brought renewed attention in late 2022 to the attempt by thousands of pro-Trump supporters to breach Congress and temporarily halt the certification of President Joe Biden’s electoral victory.

The late November sedition conviction of Stewart Rhodes — leader of the extremist, far-right Oath Keepers militia — marked the first time a jury found that the violence of Jan. 6, 2021 was the result of a planned and organized conspiracy. The current trial of five high-level members of the Proud Boys — another far-right group — is also expected to revolve around an alleged plot to stop the transfer of presidential power by turning the crowd at the Capital into a mob pointed at lawmakers.

Meanwhile, the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack in late December made the historic decision to formally accuse former President Donald Trump of inciting the insurrection, in the process depicting the violent events of Jan. 6 not as a crowd grown out of control but as the culmination of a months-long effort by the former President and his allies to remain in power despite losing the 2020 election.

Even as the debate over the events on Jan. 6 has continued over the past year in the halls of Congress and the federal jury rooms of Washington D.C., at least 13 Jan. 6 defendants from Southern California admitted to their roles in the breach of Capital building in 2022, a review of related records shows, part of an apparent effort by prosecutors to resolve cases involving lower-level charges that most often amounted to trespassing in restricted areas.

Eight of those Southern California-tied Jan. 6 defendants were sentenced this year, receiving short stints behind bars or supervised release and community service, while another four have pleaded guilty and await sentencing.

Meanwhile, a Santa Ana man recently became the first Southern California-tied Jan. 6 defendant — as well as being among the first three defendants nationally — to be convicted of assaulting police officers with Pepper Spray during the Capital riot.

But most of Southern California’s most notorious Jan. 6 defendants — those facing the most serious charges — are still awaiting trial. They include local conservative leaders who moved from organizing anti-mask rallies in Orange and Los Angeles counties to allegedly teaming up with members of militant groups in the Inland Empire to join the mob in Washington D.C. They also include local residents accused of attacking law enforcement in the midst of the Capital riot.

Admitting guilt

Nationally, around 900 people have been arrested in connection with the Jan. 6 riot, according to Department of Justice statistics released in December. That includes more than two-dozen people with ties to Southern California.

So far, about 470 Jan. 6 defendants have pleaded guilty, according to the DOJ, and around 335 have been sentenced.

Among those who admitted their role in the insurrection over the last year have been several people with Southern California ties who drew widespread attention to their Jan. 6 actions.

Simone Gold, a doctor formerly based in Beverly Hills and founder of the anti-vaccine group America’s Frontline Doctors, and who gained a reputation during the pandemic as one of the leading purveyors of coronavirus misinformation, pleaded guilty to entering and remaining in a restricting building or grounds, and was sentenced to 60 days in jail and a year of supervised release.

John Strand, another former Beverly Hills resident, as well as a model, actor and spokesman for the anti-vaccine group who accompanied Gold to the Capital on Jan. 6, was convicted for his role in the insurrection and is awaiting sentencing.

Christian Alexander Secor, a Costa Mesa man and former UCLA student who gained infamy for sitting in former Vice President Mike Pence’s vacated seat while storming the U.S. Capital, received the longest of the sentences given out to local Jan. 6 defendants. He was ordered to serve three and a half years in prison after admitting to obstructing an official proceeding.

Michael Aaron Carico, an actor who filmed himself explicitly cursing out House Speaker Nancy Pelosi while taking part in the breach, was sentenced to two years probation.

Philip Kramer — a Yorba Linda man who stole a “Do Not Enter” sign from the Capitol during the insurrection, was sentenced to 30 days in jail.

Kevin Strong, an FAA employee and self-described “Qanon” conspiracy believer from Beaumont, was sentenced to two years of probation and 60 hours of community service for breaching the restricted grounds.

David Ticas, a former Placentia resident who could be heard telling his daughter, “Let’s go in for a tour and come out” before entering the Capitol building, was sentenced to two weeks behind bars and two years probation.

Hunter Ehmke, a Glendora man who admitted to breaking a window at the Capitol, was sentenced to four months in prison and 36 months of supervised release.

Lois Lynn McNicoll, a San Clemente resident and now-retired Los Angeles County Department of Public Services employee who admitted to recording portions of her walk through the Capital building, was sentenced to two years probation and 80 hours of community service.

Jacob Lewis, a former Victorville gym owner whose fitness facility resisted state closure orders during the pandemic, and who was caught on security camera footage amidst the mob storming the Capital, was sentenced to two years probation and 60 hours of community service.

Still awaiting sentencing after agreeing to plea deals are Bryan and Alexis Bustos, Long Beach brothers who entered the Capitol building on Jan. 6, as well as Derek Sulenta, who was arrested in Long Beach after posts in which he wrote, “Inside the capital building. This is wild!” were found on his Facebook account, and Andrew Hernandez, a Jurupa Valley man who was caught on camera carrying through the Capital an American flag with a Go-Pro camera zip-tied to it.

The most serious conviction so far among the Southern California-based defendants is Jeffrey Scott Brown, who in early December was convicted of assaulting police officers with Pepper Spray during the Capital breach and is currently awaiting sentencing.

According to the Department of Justice, Brown was among three rioters who sprayed officers in a police line that was struggling to hold back the crowd, including an officer whose gas mask had been ripped off by another rioter.

A month before the Jan. 6 Insurrection, Brown staged a loud, one-man protest inside a Costco in Tustin where he was captured on video standing on a table full of clothes and yelling about the state’s COVID-19 restrictions.

Reasons and regrets

The local Jan. 6 defendants who have accepted plea deals so far generally admitted to limited roles in the insurrection, with no indications of violence against officers, prior planning of the Capital breach or serious vandalism. The briefs submitted by their attorney’s prior to their sentencings have also laid out a fairly consistent explanation for their actions on Jan. 6.

Some were described by their attorneys as followers who were ignorant of the laws they were breaking. Secor’s attorney wrote that he was told to get out of Pence’s seat by an older protestor, and as a student in his early-20s did not understand concepts such as “aiding and abetting.”

“When admonished by others to show more respect, Mr. Secor did as he was told,” his attorney wrote.

Others were described by their defense attorneys as otherwise law-abiding people who got caught up in the crowd. Ticas’ attorney wrote that he went to the Capital not to be violent but to express his grievances as a citizen.

“Mr. Ticas was undoubtedly emotional during his time in the Capital, but his emotions simply mirrored the rapidly escalating emotion of the crowd present that day,” his defense attorney wrote.

Others were misinformed by those urging on the crowd, their attorneys alleged. Ehmke’s attorney, for example, describe him as being “fed lies and disingenuous directions by people who should have known better.”

Other defendants expressed their direct regrets on getting involved with the events of Jan. 6.

“I went to Washington D.C. to hear President Trump speak and do some sightseeing,” McNicoll wrote to the judge who sentenced her. “It was important to me to see the Vietnam Wall because both my ex-husband and nephew fought over there. I regret entering the Capital on that day. I am very remorseful about this action. I would never do this again.”

Beverly Hills salon owner Gina Bisignano agreed to a plea deal in late 2021 admitting to her own role in the Capitol riot, but has spent the last year trying to back out of the agreement, now saying she had “smoked some marijuana and drank alcohol” prior to joining the mob that breached the Capitol building and was just following the crowd. Prosecutors have accused Bisignano of inciting the crowd, among other things telling them, “We the people are not going to take it anymore, you are not going to take away our Trumpy Bear, you are not going to take away our votes.”

Awaiting trial

Still awaiting trial are the most high-profile Jan. 6 defendants, including those related to an alleged insurrection-related conspiracy that prosecutors say was born in Orange County.

Alan Hostetter, a former police chief turned Yoga instructor and conservative activist, and Russell Taylor, a Ladera Ranch entrepreneur, are accused of working with four suspected members of the extremist, right-wing Three Percenters militia from Riverside County to both plan for and take part in the Jan. 6 riot.

Hostetter has opted to represent himself in the court proceedings, and has seemingly turned on his former allies, accusing Taylor and others of being government informants, though providing no evidence to back up such an assertion. Hostetter’s own court filings have drawn a straight line from his anti-mask protests during the pandemic to his “Stop the Steal” protests surrounding the 2020 election and ultimately to his joining the Jan. 6 crowd as “patriots taking back their house.”

Another member of the conservative activist community active during the anti-mask protests who is still awaiting trial for Jan. 6-related charges is Kim Sorgente, a Huntington Beach activist accused of fighting with police officers at the Capitol.

See also: List: These Southern California residents are accused of taking part in the Capitol riot

From Los Angeles County, pro-Trump and anti-mask activists Edward Badalian and Daniel Rodriguez — accused of creating a group chat on a Telegram app called “Patriots 45 MAGA gang” that prosecutors say was used to advocate violence against those who supported the results of the 2020 presidential election — are still awaiting trial.

Both Badalian and Rodriguez are accused of being involved in the Jan. 6 riot. Badalian is also accused of writing messages to others about needing to “violently remove traitors” in order to replace them with “able-bodied patriots,” while Rodriguez is alleged to have used an electroshock weapon on an officer.

While some of the local Jan. 6 defendants are accused of taking part in planning and organizing prior to Jan. 6, none of those with direct ties to Southern California have been accused of the most serious sedition charges that prosecutors have brought against senior leaders of the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys.

Political and court battles to come

The House committee’s investigation into Jan. 6 also spells potential trouble for former Orange County law professor John Eastman, who served as an election law attorney for Trump and advanced a plan to overturn the 2020 presidential election results. The House committee recommended that Eastman, like Trump, face criminal charges for obstructing an official proceeding and conspiracy to defraud the United States.

Memos written by Eastman, a former constitutional law professor at Chapman University, regarding scenarios where he believed Pence could have prevented Biden from being formally declared the winner of the presidential election led to him being championed as a freedom fighter by Trump supporters and denounced as the architect of a failed coup by others.

That schism reflects the wider partisan debate over the events of Jan. 6.

Trump responded to the Jan. 6 House committee’s findings by calling it a “Kangaroo court” during an interview with a conservative podcaster and ally, adding that “the people aren’t going to stand for it.”

With Republicans taking control of the House in January, party leaders have vowed to investigate the Jan. 6 committee itself. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., who holds the third highest post among House Republicans, described the Jan. 6 committee as being a “partisan charade” and in the wake of the report released by the committee in late December said House Democrats will be held accountable for their “illegitimate abuse of power.”

Meanwhile, while the pace of new arrests tied to Jan. 6 has slowed considerably, a handful of new defendants with Southern California ties have been announced over the past year, including Vincent Ardolino, Michelle Estey, Melanie Belger, Brandon Cavanaugh, all from Orange County, and Jerry Braun of El Monte.

It isn’t clear when the remaining Southern California Jan. 6 defendants will see their cases go before a federal jury, especially with so many similar cases involving defendants from across the country filling up the dockets of federal judges in Washington D.C.

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