NC men took part in the Capitol riot as teens. They could all be imprisoned as adults.
The FBI refers to them in a court affidavit as “The Group.”
Two years ago, North Carolina teenagers Aiden Bilyard, Chriss Carnell and David Bowman drove to Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, to hear Donald Trump speak and help keep the defeated president in office.
Prosecutors say the three then became among the very youngest participants in the ensuing Capitol riot. Bilyard and Carnell were both 18 and from Cary; Bowman, of Raleigh, was a year older.
Now the Raleigh-area men could soon be among the very youngest Capitol defendants sent to prison. All three have been charged with riot-related offenses that carry sentences of up to 20 years.
On Friday, Bilyard, now 21, goes first.
He attended the same high school as Carnell and another member of The Group who is identified in court documents only as “Ethan,” Bilyard’s best friend. Carnell introduced the others to Bowman.
But sometime after 1 p.m. Friday in a Washington, D.C., courtroom, Bilyard will stand alone before U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton, who will sentence the one-time Wake Technical Community College student for his Jan. 6 crime.
In October, Bilyard pleaded guilty to assaulting police with a deadly or dangerous weapon.
The massive two-year prosecution of the attack on the Capitol so far has led to more than 1,000 arrests. The average age of those charged is slightly more than 40, says Jonathan Lewis, a research fellow with the Program on Extremism at George Washington University.
Bilyard’s attorneys says he is the second youngest defendant overall.
Carnell and Bowman are of similar ages. They were arrested earlier this month and charged with felony obstruction of an official proceeding and four misdemeanors. They face a maximum of eight years in prison on the felony count.
Attorneys for the three either declined comment or did not respond to emails Thursday from The Charlotte Observer.
At least 28 North Carolinians have been federally charged so far.
The Group’s cases, according to Lewis, “showcase the pervasive nature of the broad Stop the Steal conspiracy,” specifically how Trump’s baseless claims of a stolen election stormed across social media platforms to reach not only an older audience but also “the younger generation who have become increasingly susceptible to these dangerous conspiracy theories and narratives.”
Under the terms of his plea deal with the Department of Justice, Bilyard faces 46 to 57 months in prison. In a court filing this week, federal prosecutors recommended 47 months, which still would be the longest sentence handed down to date to an N.C. defendant.
Bilyard’s attorneys, citing their client’s youth, remorse and lack of a criminal record, have asked the judge for an unspecified period of home detention and five years of probation.
Walton, a George W. Bush appointee, has the final say. But he made it clear at Bilyard’s plea hearing that the defendant’s age will not be a factor.
“Eighteen is old enough to know right from wrong,” the judge said, moments before ordering Bilyard jailed in a Virginia facility until his sentencing.
“... (T)o see this kind of violence, police fighting for their lives ... yet you don’t get to the mindset at some point that ‘This is wrong, and I’ve got to stop’? It is just something that is chilling and beyond the pale.”
‘A good kid’
After his November 2021 arrest, one of Bilyard’s neighbors in Raleigh described him as “quiet” and “a good kid.”
In a six-page letter to Walton seeking a lighter sentence, Bilyard’s mother said her son’s actions on Jan. 6 remain a radical departure from his lifelong concern for others.
“January 6th was such an exception to the intelligent, warm and kind boy I’d raised, and the mature, compassionate young man he is at 21,” Amy Bilyard wrote.
“He’d never been violent. He’d never NOT considered other human beings. He has ... always had a reverence for police and their difficult jobs.”
Yet on Jan. 6, Bilyard was caught on camera performing a veritable triathlon of violence outside the Capitol, most of it near the tunnel on the lower west terrace where some of the most intense hand-to-hand battles between police and rioters raged on for hours.
Bilyard, according to photos in court documents, repeatedly fired at police with a canister of “Home Defense Pepper Gel,” a powerful chemical agent that he said he received from another member of the mob. The liquid is heavier and thus easier to aim than pepper spray. It is also designed to cause “intense pain.”
Bilyard also was handed a metal baseball bat, which he used to break out a Capitol window. He then urged other rioters to join him in climbing through the opening.
He stayed inside the Capitol for about 15 minutes but became worried when he heard other members of the mob talk about bringing assault rifles into the fray, according to documents. He exited the building after texting Ethan, who advised him to leave immediately.
Bilyard drove back to Cary that night, bringing the Home Defense canister with him. He left it on the kitchen counter of his home.
His mother texted him a photo of it the next day.
“I would have rather had a T-shirt,” she wrote, according to court filings.
A Maryland psychologist, who interviewed Bilyard at the request of his attorneys, describes him in her report as a somewhat aimless 2020 high school graduate who lacked positive male role models.
In her report, Dr. Carole Giunta concludes that Bilyard, who never knew his father, was drawn to strong masculine figures such as Trump, and that earning the approval of the older male members of the mob had been a major catalyst for his criminal actions on Jan. 6.
She concluded that Bilyard’s “risk of re-offending” is low, but that “he remains vulnerable to following others and is at risk (of) attaching himself to men in prison who embrace violent attitudes.”
Bilyard was first questioned by the FBI in August 2021 when he was attending Air Force basic training in Texas. Prosecutors say he initially lied about his conduct during the riot, then walked out of the interview after being shown evidence of his criminal acts. The Air Force discharged him that month, and he returned to Cary.
He was arrested in Raleigh on Nov. 22, 2021. After Bilyard turned over his cell phone, the FBI used a search warrant to see what — or who — was inside.
Agents were about to meet The Group.
The FBI says it first became aware of Chriss Carnell and David Bowman when their texts and photographs popped up during the search of Bilyard’s phone.
The pair went to Washington twice — first on Nov. 14, 2020, for the “Million MAGA March” to protest Trump’s election loss to President Joe Biden.
There they mugged for selfies with white nationalist and neo-Nazi social media celebrities Nick Fuentes, who would make headlines later that month by dining with Trump and Kanye West at Mar-a-Lago, and Tim “Baked Alaska” Gionet, who was sentenced to 60 days in jail for livestreaming inside the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Two weeks before the riot, Carnell copied a text to The Group from Bowman, who went by the handle of “Daniel, Stop the Steal.”
“January 6th is going to be historic,” Bowman wrote, according to documents. “Congress has ignored us for far too long, but what they cannot ignore is hundreds of thousands Patriots rallying outside ...”s
On Jan. 3, Carnell followed up with a another text: “Ethan and Aiden January 6 DC trip you guys coming? Me and David are down.”
Ethan was a scratch; Bilyard decided to go at the last minute. Carnell and Bowman drove up together.
Closed circuit television footage viewed by the FBI tracked Carnell and Bowman to the floor of the U.S. Senate. Carnell wore a MAGA cap and a red backpack that bore his family name in big white letters, as if he did not want to lose it in PE class. The friends rifled through papers on the senators’ desks.
Bowman would later text The Group a photograph of a letter Sen. Mitt Romney sent to Vice President Mike Pence that appeared to be Romney’s speech in February 2020 when he voted to impeach Trump.
While neither Bowman or Carnell are charged with violent acts, video from another defendant’s phone shows Carnell’s face popping up in a crowd near the Capitol Rotunda shouting, ‘Treason!”
At 4:19 p.m., Carnell texted his friends. “We’re safe heading home.”
Two days later, The Group got back together online. The conversation became light-hearted, as if the three had gotten away with a prank that would one day make them the talk of the town. But their language was also cagey, the teens apparently aware that someone else might one day read it.
Bowman texted his friends a link to a news story on the riot that included a photo from the floor of the Senate, where he and Carnell had been 48 hours before. Bowman told them to delete the group text.
“It would be so funny if you all deleted this as a funny ironic joke,” he wrote.
Bilyard replied, “did you get inside? Hypothetically speaking.”
Ethan sent an image of the Capitol. “Did you get inside this cool Minecraft Building?” he asked, referring to a popular video game that allows users to design and build.
Bowman chimed back in:
“if I was buying textbooks for next semester, I would have hypothetically gotten into the book store and even walk(ed) the checkout floor where all the professors usually buy books and sometimes choose books their students would read.
“But no that was just a joke(.) delete the chat because it’s funny.”