West Virginia sandwich shop operator pleads not guilty to U.S. Capitol insurrection accusations

George Tanios, the Morgantown sandwich shop operator who is accused in the Jan. 6 assault of three U.S. Capitol police officers, including one who later died, entered a not guilty plea this morning.

Tanios also asked for a jury trial and continues to pursue bond that could allow him to stay out of jail as he awaits trial.

He appeared remotely this morning before Judge Thomas F. Hogan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

George Tanios (Central Regional Jail)

Tanios is accused of cooperating with his childhood friend Julian Elie Khater, 32, of Pennsylvania to use the extremely strong pepper spray against officers while other rioters at the Capitol tried to push past  a bicycle rack barrier.

Tanios and Khater are charged with nine counts including assaulting three officers with a deadly weapon. The charges are punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

The hearing this morning in the District of Columbia was a fairly routine status hearing under extraordinary circumstances.

The mob storming the U.S. Capitol disrupted the constitutional duty of counting Electoral College votes and prompted the evacuations of representatives, senators and Vice President Mike Pence. One woman was fatally shot while trying to climb into the chambers, three others died from “medical emergencies” and more than 100 police officers were injured.

Hundreds of people now face charges from the breach of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. They are being processed in a court system still operating under coronavirus protocols.

Judge Hogan alluded to those challenges this morning in the Tanios case, saying he hopes to proceed in a timely manner.

“The speedy trial problems we have because of the pandemic are extensive,” Hogan said.

The judge asked Tanios several basic questions to lay the groundwork for the next steps.

“Do you understand the charges against you?” Hogan asked.

“Yes, sir I do,” replied Tanios.

“How do you wish to plead to these charges today?” the judge asked.

“Not guilty, judge,” responded Elizabeth Gross, one of the attorneys for Tanios.

“He wants a jury trial?” asked the judge.

“Yes,” Gross responded.

“Is that right, sir?” Hogan asked, making sure Tanios agreed.

“Yes, sir. Yes, your honor,” Tanios replied.

Tanios is the president of Morgantown’s Sandwich University, which advertises over-the-top foods. The photos that investigators used to identify him at the U.S. Capitol showed him wearing clothing with the logo for Sandwich University.”

He was arrested March 15. A federal agent wrote in an affidavit that he observed surveillance footage that showed Tanios and Khater “working together to assault law enforcement officers with an unknown chemical substance by spraying officers directly in the face and eyes.”

The agent said the two men appeared to time their spraying to coincide with other rioters’ efforts to remove bike rack barriers meant to prevent the crowd from moving closer to the Capitol.

The federal affidavit describes video showing men identified as Khater, wearing a beanie and dark jacket, and Tanios, wearing a red hat, black backpack and dark hooded sweatshirt walking from a south grassy area toward the Lower West Entrance shortly after 2 p.m. that day.

Khater instructs Tanios to give him the bear spray and reaches into the backpack worn by Tanios. “Hold on, hold on, not yet, not yet…  it’s still early,” Tanios replies.

The affidavit concludes, “This verbal exchange between Khater and Tanios, together with Khater’s retrieval of the spray can from Tanios, reveals that the two were working in concert and had a plan to use the toxic spray against law enforcement.”

Body camera video from Capitol Police officers shows Khater walking through the crowd within a few steps of the bike rack barrier and directly across from a line of law enforcement officers including three identfied as Sicknick, Edwards and Chapman.

As rioters begin pulling on the bike rack barrier, Khater can be seen holding his right arm up, apparently holding the canister and aiming it in the officers’ direction while moving his arm from side to side.

The surveillance footage shows the three officers reacting one by one to something striking them in the face, according to the affidavit. “The officers immediately retreat from the line, bring their hands to their faces and rush to find water to wash out their eyes,” the affidavit states.

The affidavit indicates all three officers were temporarily blinded, temporarily disabled from performing their duties and needed medical attention. Khater continued spraying in their direction, according to the affidavit, until another officer approached and started pepper spraying him back.

Officer Brian Sicknick collapsed later on and died at a hospital on Jan. 7. The cause of his death still has not been released.

Judge Hogan today made reference to the challenging review of evidence in the case, including the review of video from a variety of sources.

“The background in this case has tremendous amounts of discovery,” Hogan said.

Federal prosecutor Anthony Scarpelli said the government is steadily working through the evidence.

“We’re in the process of keeping that moving,” Scarpelli said, alluding to some video clips that were shown in an earlier hearing for Tanios in Clarksburg. “We’ll endeavor to get the discovery together as quickly as possible.”

In that earlier hearing in West Virginia, a U.S. magistrate judge denied bond for Tanios, citing the serious and historic circumstances surrounding the allegations. That decision meant Tanios would remain jailed until trial.

This morning, Hogan said he is still willing to consider bond for Tanios and Khater.

Gross, speaking for Tanios, said an appeal is planned on the earlier bond ruling. “We are prepared to file something fairly quickly, depending on when the court would like to see that filed,” Gross said.

Hogan asked that motions for bond be filed for Tanios and Khater within a week, by April 20. He then asked for response by prosecutors by April 26.

A bond hearing was set for 9:30 a.m. April 27.

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