At 6 feet 6 inches and nearly 300 pounds, the force of Kenneth J. Bonawitz launching himself through the air and slamming his forearms into the throats of two police officers standing below him during the Jan. 6 Capitol riot must have been enormous. One officer suffered back injuries such that he was forced to retire in permanent pain.
Bonawitz, 58, wasn’t done. As other officers rushed in, they spotted an eight-inch hunting knife on Bonawitz’s hip and seized it from him. But the police were too overwhelmed to arrest Bonawitz and returned him to the crowd on the Capitol’s West Terrace, where he proceeded to fight with more officers, including putting one officer in a chokehold and lifting her off the ground. He ultimately assaulted six officers before retreating after being hit with chemical spray. Prosecutors called him “one of the most violent Jan. 6 rioters” and said his attacks “were barbaric and left his victims with lasting physical, emotional and psychological injuries.”
Prosecutors asked U.S. District Judge Jia M. Cobb to sentence Bonawitz, a member of the Proud Boys, a far-right group with a history of violence, to nearly six years in prison, above the average sentence of slightly less than four years for assaulting police on Jan. 6.
Cobb imposed a sentence of five years, calling Bonawitz’s actions “really inexplicable to me.” She addressed the view held by some that defendants such as Bonawitz are political prisoners. “I don’t care about your political beliefs,” the judge said. “It’s your actions that you’re facing sentencing for.”
Two officers assaulted by Bonawitz said his actions changed their lives.
“As a direct result of Bonawitz’s actions, I have been sentenced to a lifetime of medical issues that include physical pain and mental and emotional distress,” said Sgt. Federico A. Ruiz of the Capitol Police in a letter to Cobb. “The simple act of sitting or walking has become a painful ordeal that has diminished my quality of life.” The officer suffered injuries to his neck, shoulders, back and legs that ultimately forced him to retire last month.
“Bonawitz has ended my career long before I was ready,” Ruiz wrote.
Ruiz appeared at the sentencing hearing, but he told the judge he couldn’t stand for long. Cobb invited him to sit down. “It’s worse when I sit down,” Ruiz said.
The former officer told Cobb that he had served in the Army and was part of a rescue unit from Fort Belvoir that searched the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. He said he considered Bonawitz “in the same category as the people who attacked us on 9/11. People who are traitors to this country.”
Ruiz was one of the two officers whom Bonawitz charged as they stood at the foot of a short staircase on the West Terrace. But investigators pieced together more of Bonawitz’s assaults through police body-camera footage. He placed one officer in a chokehold, hit another in the face, which caused him to fall, jammed his left hand behind one officer’s face shield and into his ear, and tried to swing a flagpole at a sixth officer. Prosecutors said Bonawitz repeatedly questioned why the police were defending the Capitol, yelling “What are you guys doing?”
FBI agents were tipped to Bonawitz’s identity in March 2022 and interviewed him at his home in Pompano Beach, Fla., where he lied about his actions at the Capitol, denying any physical confrontations with police, according to his arrest warrant. Not long after that, Bonawitz appeared on a poster for a Proud Boys meeting in South Florida, and prosecutors said he had previously been photographed with Henry “Enrique” Tarrio, the former leader of the Proud Boys who was sentenced last year to 22 years in prison for his role in organizing the group’s actions on Jan. 6.
Bonawitz told the FBI he had taken a bus from South Florida on Jan. 5, 2021, and arrived in D.C. on Jan. 6. He did not enter the Ellipse for the “Stop the Steal” rally headlined by then-President Trump, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Sean P. McCauley said in his sentencing memo that Bonawitz probably knew he could not pass through the metal detectors there with his 8-inch knife and a second folding knife in his pants.
When the rally ended, Bonawitz was photographed walking to the Capitol. Once there, he joined the front lines of battle against the police, and after barricades fell on the lower West Terrace, Bonawitz was one of the first rioters to enter the upper West Terrace, prosecutors said. It was there he made his flying leap onto Ruiz and another officer.
McCauley played the video of Bonawitz’s flying tackle for the judge. When it was done, McCauley said, “What we just saw was a man’s life change forever.”
Detective Erika Magnuson of the D.C. police was victimized after Ruiz. In a letter to Cobb, she wrote, “I was attacked from behind by Mr. Bonawitz. Mr. Bonawitz shoved me, wrapped his arms around me, and lifted me off the ground before I was able to break free from his grip. Soon after, an MPD official told me and those around me to retreat up a flight of stairs. From the top, we watched what was left of the police line disintegrated before our eyes.”
Bonawitz pleaded guilty in August to two counts of assaulting police officers and one count of civil disorder. But after that, he said in an October interview from jail on the Rumble website that as he approached the Capitol, “people are starting to yell from the top of the stairs that ‘they’re shooting people — they shot a woman — someone shot dead.’” The shooting of Ashli Babbitt, however, occurred after Bonawitz fought with police.
“I got into a little bit of a rugby match with a couple officers and, um, that was about all,” Bonawitz told the interviewer. He said he was at the Capitol for less than two minutes. “And they portray that I was trying to hurt people and stuff like that,” he said.
“I’m a football coach for 30-plus years,” he said. “I know how to hit people. I know how to tackle people. I know how to use my body and my weight. I bounced for years.”
Prosecutors asked Cobb to not reduce Bonawitz’s sentence for “acceptance of responsibility,” a standard reduction in most guilty pleas, because Bonawitz had been untruthful even after he pleaded guilty and admitted assaulting six officers.
Cobb seemed troubled by the interview, raised it repeatedly and did not give Bonawitz what would have been a reduction of his sentencing range by 16 to 20 months.
Bonawitz provided a lengthy account of his actions before reaching the Capitol, again claiming he had heard about the shooting of Babbitt before it happened. He then turned to face Ruiz and said: “I am so sorry for my actions. I am disgusted by my actions. I hope you can forgive me someday.”