Political News

Former Chapel Hill man charged with assaulting Capitol officer who died after riot

Posted March 15, 2021 3:31 p.m. EDT
Updated March 15, 2021 7:35 p.m. EDT

— U.S. officials have arrested and charged two men with assaulting U.S. Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick with bear spray during the Jan. 6 riot, but they do not know yet whether it caused the officer's death.

Julian Elie Khater, 32, formerly of Chapel Hill, and George Pierre Tanios, 39, of Morgantown, W.Va., were arrested Sunday. They were expected to appear in federal court Monday. The idea that Sicknick died after being sprayed by a chemical irritant has emerged in recent weeks as a new theory in the case.

The arrests are the closest federal prosecutors have come to identifying and charging anyone associated with the deaths that happened during and after the riot. Five people died, including a woman who was shot by a police officer inside the Capitol. But many rioters are facing charges of injuring police officers, who were attacked with bats, sprayed with irritants, punched and kicked, and rammed with metal gates meant to keep the insurrectionists from the Capitol.

Investigators initially believed that Sicknick was hit in the head with a fire extinguisher, based on statements collected early in the investigation, according to two people familiar with the case. But as they’ve collected more evidence, the theory of the case has evolved and investigators now believe Sicknick may have ingested a chemical substance — possibly bear spray — that may have contributed to his death, officials have said.

Khater is the man in a video obtained by the FBI that showed him spraying Sicknick and others with bear spray as they guarded bike racks used to barricade the Capitol, according to court papers.

“Give me that bear (expletive)," Khater said to Tanios on the video, before grabbing a canister from Tanios' backpack, according to court papers. A photo shows him holding a white can with a black top that prosecutors said ”appears to be a can of chemical spray."

The exchange "reveals that the two were working in concert and had a plan to use the toxic spray against law enforcement," a court document states.

"The officers were temporary blinded by the substance, were temporary disabled from performing their duties and needed medical attention and assistance from fellow officers," the document states. "They were initially treated with water in an effort to wash out the unknown substance from their eyes and on their face. All three officers were incapacitated and unable to perform their duties for at least 20 minutes or longer while they recovered from the spray."

Sicknick collapsed later on and died at a hospital on Jan. 7. He died after defending the Capitol against the mob that stormed the building as Congress was voting to certify Joe Biden’s electoral win over Donald Trump. It came after Trump urged supporters on the National Mall to “fight like hell” to overturn his defeat.

The circumstances surrounding Sicknick’s death remain unclear, and a final cause of death has not been determined. Capitol Police have said he died after he was injured “while physically engaging with protesters” and the agency’s acting chief said officials consider it a line-of-duty death.

The Justice Department opened a federal murder investigation into his death, but prosecutors are still evaluating what other specific charges could be brought in the case and the probe continues, officials have said.

The FBI has already released about 250 photos of people being sought for assaulting federal law enforcement officers during the riot. Some have already been arrested, and the Justice Department said about 300 people have been charged with federal offenses related to the riot.

A tipster provided information to the FBI that Khater and Tanios knew each other and grew up together in New Jersey.

According to his LinkedIn profile, Khater co-owned and managed the Frutta Bowls health food cafe in Chapel Hill from January 2018 to January 2019, when he moved to a different franchise of the chain in State College, Pa. The FBI spoke to a witness who knew Khater "from working together at a food establishment in State College" and positively identified him in photos taken at the Capitol, according to a court document.

A former University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill student who worked with Khater at the Chapel Hill Frutta Bowls, which closed last year, said Khater engaged in political banter with his staff, although she couldn't recall specifics.

"I never got to know him outside of the business side of things. Overall, he was a good boss," the former employee told WRAL News. "He seemed like a regular manager and someone excited to open up a new place in a new area."

Khater and Tanios are each charged with one count of conspiracy to injure an officer; three counts of assault on a federal officer with a dangerous weapon; one count of civil disorder; one count of obstructing or impeding an official proceeding; one count of physical violence on restricted grounds, while carrying dangerous weapon and resulting in significant bodily injury; and one count of violent entry and disorderly conduct, act of physical violence on Capitol grounds.

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