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'Back pain' didn't stop Proud Boy from threatening police with axe handle during Capitol riot, DOJ says

Attorneys for William Chrestman say their client hasn't been able to get proper care while in the D.C. Jail.

WASHINGTON — A Kansas Proud Boy charged in the Capitol riot has asked a judge to release him from jail due to chronic back pain – a condition, prosecutors say, which didn’t prevent him from allegedly wielding an axe handle against police outside the Capitol.

William Chrestman, 47, was arrested in February along with four others connected to the Kansas City chapter of the Proud Boys. Photos from the Capitol riot appear to show Chrestman in tactical gear and a respirator and carrying a wooden axe handle. He faces multiple charges, including conspiracy, civil disorder and threatening to assault a federal law enforcement officer.

A magistrate judge initially approved Chrestman’s pretrial release – but that decision was overturned by D.C. District Court Chief Judge Beryl A. Howell on February 23. Since then, the U.S. Army veteran has remained in custody in the D.C. Jail.

Chrestman’s attorneys have tried a number of strategies to explain his alleged actions and secure his release, including blaming former President Donald Trump. In a filing in February, Chrestman’s lawyers said he believed he had an “official endorsement” from Trump to participate in the storming of the Capitol.

“It is an astounding thing to imagine storming the United States Capitol with sticks and flags and bear spray, arrayed against armed and highly trained law enforcement. Only someone who thought they had an official endorsement would even attempt such a thing. And a Proud Boy who had been paying attention would very much believe he did,” they wrote.

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Late last month, one of Chrestman’s attorneys, Peter Cooper, filed a new motion asking another judge, U.S. District Judge Timothy Kelly, to reconsider Chrestman’s detention status. In the motion, Cooper says Chrestman was injured in 2010 while employed as a sheet metal worker after his honorable discharge from the U.S. Army. That injury resulted in “long-term chronic back pain,” Cooper said, which he says has gone untreated while in the D.C. Jail.

“Mr. Chrestman was receiving disability and [being] treated by the Veterans’ Administration,” Cooper wrote. “His current detention status places him in danger of losing those significant benefits.”

Cooper also said the residence Chrestman shares with his partner and their six children is now in danger of foreclosure due to his incarceration.

Lawyers for the Department of Justice, which opposes Chrestman’s release, pushed back on those arguments in a filing of their own this week – saying Chrestman was healthy enough on January 6 to participate in the Capitol riot.

“Interestingly, the defendant’s back pain did not prevent him from storming the United States Capitol while armed with an axe handle, threatening law enforcement officers, and attempting to prevent Congressional proceedings, among other conduct,” Justice Department lawyers wrote.

Credit: Department of Justice
Federal prosecutors say William Chrestman came to the Capitol armed with a wooden club or axe handle, and that he joined in tearing down barricades.

The Justice Department also argued against Chrestman’s attorneys’ attempt to paint him as someone peripheral to the alleged Proud Boys conspiracy related to January 6. Chrestman, the DOJ says, took an “active role in leading the co-defendants in his conspiracy and the crowd writ large in the attack on the Capitol.”

Capitol riot defendants seeking pretrial detention for medical reasons have met with mixed success. In March, alleged Virginia Oath Keepers leader Thomas Caldwell was released on bond to his farm due to his deteriorating health, despite being one of, at the time, nine Oath Keepers accused of conspiring to disrupt the joint session of Congress on January 6. That indictment has now grown to 16 members of the militia group.

Most other such requests have not received similar results, though. On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth rejected Proud Boy Christopher Worrell’s request for medical release. Worrell, who says he suffers from non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and claims he contracted COVID-19 while in the D.C. Jail, argued in a court filing that he was unable to get proper medical treatment while in custody. Lamberth wasn’t convinced by that argument, though – partially because Worrell’s doctor told the jail he didn’t keep records or dosage information for any of the treatments he provided.

Chrestman’s attorneys have until June 16 to respond to the government’s latest motion. A hearing to review arguments from both sides was set for June 24.

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