The arrests this week of five Florida militiamen who called themselves the “B Squad” for their violent actions on Jan. 6, 2021, at the U.S. Capitol serve as a helpful reminder that the Justice Department is still in the process of bringing the insurrectionists who attacked American democracy that day—now over 860 and counting—to justice.
The details of their case, moreover, are chilling reminders of just how close the nation came to catastrophe that day, saved largely by the valor of police officers who defended the Capitol—and the deep implications of these unfolding arrests for the Republican Party, after NBC News identified the ringleader of the B Squad as a recently defeated GOP legislative candidate, a man who has not yet been charged.
The affidavit filed by prosecutors features a number of screenshots from videos of the B Squad undertaking paramilitary exercises to prepare for Jan. 6, including several of the man it identifies only as “B Leader,” who is not among the five men arrested Wednesday. NBC News’ Ryan J. Reilly identified B Leader as Jeremy Liggett, who ran for Congress this year in Florida’s 7th Congressional District, but dropped out in March and did not qualify for the August GOP primary.
Liggett is a former Atlanta Metro police officer who sounded various pro-Trump notes when he announced his candidacy. "The Second Amendment community has been dealing with censorship for a lot longer than everyone else," he declared.
FBI agents arrested five members of his crew, all from Florida: Benjamin Cole, 38, of Leesburg; John Edward Crowley, 50, of Windermere; Brian Preller, 33, of Mount Dora; Jonathan Rockholt, 38, of Palm Coast; and Tyler Bensch, 20, of Casselberry.
Cole, Crowley, Preller, and Rockholt face felony charges for interfering with a law enforcement officer during a civil disorder, as well as misdemeanor trespassing and disorderly conduct charges. If convicted, they face a maximum of six years in prison and $250,000 fine. Bensch is charged with entering a restricted building or grounds, a misdemeanor, and faces a maximum of one year in prison and a $100,000 fine.
On Thursday, after the arrests were announced, Liggett posted on Facebook that the FBI had searched his home: “The FBI served a search warrant on my home today. I have put on the Armor of God.”
The B Squad, according to prosecutors, comprised “Patriot” militiamen affiliated with the “Three Percenters,” a loose national coalition of “constitutionalist” gun fanatics. They wore patches on Jan. 6 identifying themselves as “Guardians of Freedom,” but had adopted the name “B Squad” among themselves as a reference to “Plan B”: their self-conception as a paramilitary force designed to respond a situation where Vice President Mike Pence failed to prevent certification of the Electoral College votes in order to preserve Donald Trump’s presidency, as they had hoped.
They had prepped fanatically for the Jan. 6 event. Three days before, Liggett had posted a Facebook video “intended for those traveling to Washington, D.C.,” the affidavit explains. “The video was accompanied by the following written comment: ‘Quick safety video for your trip to DC! […] See you all January 6th #patriotsriseup.'”
Throughout the video, Liggett stands in front of a group of men wearing military-style gear and face coverings and brandishing assault rifles. The affidavit says that Liggett:
1. Advised that the video was for “all of you Patriots out there that are going to Washington, D.C., [...] to support Trump, to have your voices heard” and that “we are going to have four more years of Trump, we all know that”;
2. Warned that “we all know in D.C., once the sun goes down, things get a little bit violent and the reason why things get a little bit violent is because you have socialist, leftist, Marxist, communist agitators like Black Lives Matter and Antifa […]”;
3. Described so-called “defensive tools” to take to Washington, D.C., including “the strongest pepper spray commercially available to use,” an ASP baton (i.e., an expandable metal baton), knives with blades that were 3 inches or less, a walking cane, and a taser, all items that B Leader incorrectly claimed were legal in Washington, D.C.; and
4. Said that he was “super excited about DC on the 6th of January,” and he advised “patriots [to] keep up the fight.”
The men arrived in Washington fully prepared for combat. As a Department of Justice press release explains:
Cole wore a tactical vest. Preller wore a tactical vest with a chemical irritant spray attached to the front, as well as large goggles and a green helmet with the word “monster” on the back. He also carried a long black walking stick and wore a shirt that read “waterboarding instructor.” Rockholt wore a tactical vest and carried what appeared to be a knife in his front right pocket; he also wore a baseball helmet. Bensch wore a tactical vest, as well as a military-style helmet with goggles and a black gas mask. He also carried a chemical irritant in front of the vest.
The affidavit also provides a disturbing view into how close these men came to wreaking real havoc on Jan. 6. The B Squad helped lead the attack on the entrance to the tunnels beneath the Capitol—tunnels that likely led to areas where members of Congress were sheltering in place. The affidavit reads:
Cole, Crowley, Preller and Rockholt were in a group that engaged in a confrontation with law enforcement officers in the tunnel area of the Capitol’s Lower West Terrace. Bensch remained just outside. While inside the tunnel, Cole, Preller, Crowley and Rockholt confronted and assisted the crowd in confronting the officers that were preventing the tunnel and Capitol from being breached. They added their force, momentum, bodies, and efforts to the other rioters in a “heave-ho” effort that put pressure on the police line. As a direct result of the actions of the rioters in the tunnel at that time, the mob penetrated deeper, pushing the police line back.
Eventually the police line held, and the mob was prevented from getting into the tunnels. But the Capitol’s defenders were perilously close to being overwhelmed that day.
The affidavit describes the scene as a siege that lasted for more than two hours during which rioters “pushed into The Tunnel and were repelled in a constant back-and-forth of heave-ho efforts by the rioters and resistance by the officers.”
It’s not clear where Liggett was when all this occurred, but the results of Thursday’s warranted search may provide answers.