W.Va. sandwich shop operator says he’s innocent in Capitol attack, wants release on bond

Defense attorneys for a Morgantown sandwich shop operator accused in the assaults of three U.S. Capitol police officers in the Jan. 6 mob are arguing that he should be released from jail while awaiting trial.

The lawyers for George Tanios contend he attended the Jan. 6 rally at the Capitol to support President Trump, but did not intend to harm any police officers or participate in a riot.

“Upon arrival, Mr. Tanios had no idea that such an incredibly wild riot would develop and, despite being there, he never condoned the violent and chaotic behavior he witnessed,” his lawyers wrote in a filing that asks for his release from jail.

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.

Of the thousands of protesters in Washington, D.C., that day, about 800 went into the Capitol, police have said. More than 400 people have been charged so far.

Tanios is accused of obtaining and carrying extremely strong pepper spray, and Khater is accused of spraying it at the officers, causing them to be injured and resulting in a distraction that enabled others to breach a bike rack barrier outside the Capitol.

“The defendants were spokes in the wheel that caused the historic events of January 6, 2021, and they are thus a danger to our society and a threat to the peaceful functioning of our community,” federal prosecutors wrote in their own filing, objecting to Tanios and Khater being released on bond.

Tanios and his attorneys participated in a two-hour bond hearing this morning, but still ran out of time to fully present their case. A continuation of the hearing has been scheduled for 9 a.m. May 6.

Today’s hearing was before U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan of the District of Columbia. It was a joint hearing with his alleged collaborator, Julian Khater. Bond for Tanios was denied at the conclusion of a hearing last month before a magistrate judge in West Virginia.

Time was limited for today’s hearing in part because the court system is processing hundreds of cases related to the breach of the U.S. Capitol. The judge announced at the beginning that today’s hearing needed to conclude by 11 a.m. because others were scheduled to use the video conferencing system from jail.

“The issue for me is the factual findings and what counsel asks me to conclude from the findings,” Hogan told the attorneys. “To give you justice we’ve got to have a little more time.”

Khater’s attorneys presented their case, saying he had reacted to being sprayed himself. His lawyers said he is not part of an extremist group and that he did not enter the Capitol.

Federal prosecutors presented video evidence depicting Khater instructing to Tanios to give him the bear spray and reaching into the backpack worn by Tanios. “Hold on, hold on, not yet, not yet…  it’s still early,” Tanios replies.

Then, said federal prosecutor Gilead Light, “Mr. Khater walked straight up to three police officers and sprayed them directly in the face.”

Light added, “They didn’t just walk up to a peaceful protest and suddenly were grabbed by impulse to spray officers. They saw exactly what was happening. The assault on the Capitol had begun.”

One of the three officers was Brian Sicknick, who died the following day. A medical examiner concluded earlier this month that Sicknick had a stroke and died of natural causes.

By the time Khater’s lawyers and the prosecutors had presented their parts of the hearing, little time was left today.

“I don’t think Mr. Tanios can get a meaningful hearing within the next 12 minutes,” said Elizabeth Gross, a defense attorney for Tanios.

Gross had time for brief testimony from two witnesses.

The first was Sean Ruth, a retired military officer, a close friend and an investor in Tanios’s shop, Sandwich U.

“He’s kindhearted. I look at him as a big Teddy bear. He’s not violent whatsoever,” Ruth said. “I was trained to see people that are violent, that are evil-spirited. He is none of those whatsoever.”

Ruth said he had intended to go to the rally at the Capitol on Jan. 6 but could not because of a work conflict.

“We were planning on going to just support Donald Trump and go to the rally,” Ruth said. “If he had more plans, I’m the one he would have confided in and told me about that.”

Ruth concluded, “Nowadays it’s hard to say you’re a Trump supporter without getting some type of backlash.”

The other witness for Tanios was Zyad Hage, a first cousin from New Jersey and a retired corrections officer.

“He’s a good-hearted father. His life was working every day, going home, taking care of the kids,” Hage said. “He doesn’t have a bad bone in his body. He’s looking forward to going to court and proving his innocence.”

Lawyers for Tanios are proposing bond conditions that include home detention with electronic monitoring, 24-hour monitoring by video surveillance, no use of smart phones or social media, and a restricted list of visitors that would only include family, lawyers and clergy.

“Mr. Tanios is an excellent candidate for pretrial release,” his lawyers wrote in a court filing.

Tanios has pleaded not guilty. His lawyers are arguing that he was not cooperating with Khater to cause harm, did not act to disrupt the federal government and would not be a risk of further harm.

“To begin, Mr. Tanios emphatically denies each charge and is eager for a jury trial. Mr. Tanios denies conspiring to injure officers. Mr. Tanios denies aiding and abetting his codefendant, Julian Khater, in any crimes. Mr. Tanios denies assaulting any officer with a dangerous weapon,” his lawyers wrote.

“Mr. Tanios denies any physical violence on restricted grounds, with or without carrying a dangerous weapon, and he denies causing bodily injury. Mr. Tanios asserts his innocence at this time and, given his non-violent background and minimal criminal history, respectfully submits he does not pose a danger to the community or any other person.”

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