Michigan GOP gubernatorial candidate Ryan Kelley arrested on Jan. 6 riot-related charges

Allendale — FBI agents arrested Republican gubernatorial candidate Ryan Kelley on Thursday on misdemeanor charges related to the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol, injecting a new round of turmoil into Michigan's upcoming primary election. 

Kelley, 40, became one of the highest-profile individuals nationally to face charges so far in federal authorities' ongoing investigation. Federal court records describe Kelley as being an active participant in the riot, climbing onto portions of the Capitol, encouraging yelling, gesturing to participants and removing a covering from a temporary structure outside the Capitol. 

Kelley declined to answer reporters' questions after he was released on bond Thursday afternoon following a brief hearing in federal court in Grand Rapids. He was greeted by a crowd of his supporters outside the federal courthouse, including GOP attorney general candidate Matt DePerno.

"We love you, Ryan," said one of Kelley's backers at the end of his initial hearing in a courtroom.

Michigan gubernatorial candidate Ryan Kelly leaves the U.S. District Court in Grand Rapids, Mich., with his family and supporters on Thursday, June 9, 2022. Kelley, a Republican candidate for Michigan governor and ardent defender of former President Donald Trump was charged with misdemeanors Thursday for his role in the 2021 post-election riot at the U.S. Capitol, further complicating an already messy GOP primary.

Prosecutors filed four charges against Kelley. They are knowingly entering or remaining in a restricted building; disorderly and disruptive conduct; knowingly engaging in any act of physical violence against person or property in a restricted building or grounds; willfully injuring or committing depredation against property of the U.S.

If convicted, Kelley faces a maximum punishment of up to one year in federal prison and a fine of up to $100,000 for each charge. He was freed on a personal recognizance bond. His next hearing will take place over Zoom on June 16.

Kelley's arrest and search that unfolded earlier Thursday at his home in Allendale outside of Grand Rapids added more uncertainty to a chaotic race for governor that has seen five Republican candidates blocked from the ballot for submitting fraudulent nominating petition signatures.

DePerno, a lawyer from Kalamazoo who has been endorsed by former President Donald Trump for Michigan's top law enforcement position, said he was disappointed by how authorities handled Kelley's arrest.

"Ryan is a friend. He’s got a family. He’s got six kids. And the FBI dragged him out of his house in front of his six kids," DePerno said. "That’s not what we do."

Kenzi Niewiadomski, one of Kelley’s neighbors in his Allendale subdivision whose sister lives across the street from him, said she witnessed FBI agents leading Kelley away from his home in handcuffs Thursday morning. Kelley's wife and children left the home with backpacks in hand and got into a family van moments after Kelley was taken into custody, Niewiadomski said.

“He was just cooperating,” she said. “What are you going to do at that point?”

Niewiadomski said she can’t personally stand Kelley as a politician. He has a campaign flag flying below an American flag on the flagpole in his front yard.

“I’ve been waiting for this moment,” Niewiadomski said.

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FBI agents searched Ryan Kelley's home in Allendale on Thursday.

The arrest comes 17 months after Kelley traveled to Washington, D.C., for the Jan. 6, 2021, protests that preceded an attack on the U.S. Capitol and on the morning of the first hearing by the U.S. House committee investigating the riot.

"It's hard to think this is a coincidence," said Heath Lynch, a Grand Rapids criminal defense attorney representing Kelley and a former federal prosecutor.

Federal court records portray Kelley as being under investigation within days of the riot and reveal that FBI agents relied on assistance from an informant who was helping the bureau investigate domestic terrorism.

Ryan Kelley, wearing a black jacket, sunglasses and a backward baseball hat, is shown gesturing to the crowd outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

In one clip, Kelley is shown using his hands to support another rioter who is pulling a metal barricade, according to the complaint.

“At approximately 2:20 p.m., Kelley continued to gesture to the crowd, consistently indicating that they should move towards the stairs that led to the entrance of the U.S. Capitol interior spaces,” the complaint reads.

Later, Kelley is seen running on top of the stair railing towards the Capitol’s northwest courtyard, according to the government.

Kelley unwittingly helped FBI investigators by wearing identical clothing to various rallies and marches in the first few months of the pandemic in 2020.

In May 2020, he wore identical clothing to the American Patriot Council “Judgement Day” rally in Lansing. The attire included a backward black hat, blue shirt and black coat.

In October, he attended another American Patriot Council event in Allendale. Again, Kelley wore similar clothing. The next month, Kelley was the featured speaker at a “Stop the Steal” rally at the Michigan Capitol in Lansing.

“During that event, Kelley indicated that those attending the rally should stand and fight, with the goal of preventing Democrats from stealing the election,” the complaint reads.

"He gave a speech while wearing a name tag and stated ‘Covid-19 was made so that they can use the propaganda to control your minds so that you think, if you watch the media, that Joe Biden won this election,’” the court filing continues. “'We’re not going to buy it. We’re going to stand and fight for America, for Donald Trump. We’re not going to let the Democrats steal this election.'"

In June 2021, the Michigan Democratic Party promoted video footage that appeared to show Kelley shouting “Come on, let’s go! This is it! This is– this is war, baby!” as he moved toward the Capitol building.

Meshawn Maddock, a co-chair of the state Republican Party, tweeted criticism of the arrest Thursday, writing: "Do people really get their homes raided and arrested in front of their children over a misdemeanor? Democrats are out in force weaponizing our justice system and targeting their political opponents."

The arrest and search unfolded hours ahead of members of a House select committee starting long-awaited televised hearings on the Jan. 6 riot.

U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, said the timing of the raid on Kelley's house in his west Michigan congressional district "is not only suspicious it is disturbing."

"Rarely are there coincidences in politics," Huizenga said.

The investigation into Kelley started with multiple tips within days of the riot, according to the criminal complaint filed in federal court in Washington, D.C. One tip included photos of Kelley wearing a black coat, a backward baseball hat with an emblem of the U.S. flag, and aviator sunglasses.

On Jan. 28, 2021, an informant who had worked with the FBI on domestic terrorism groups in Michigan identified Kelley in another video.

Video shows Kelley near scaffolding outside the western side of the U.S. Capitol. He is filming the crowd assaulting and pushing U.S. Capitol Police Officers, according to the complaint.

“At approximately 2:00 p.m., Kelley climbed onto and stood on an architectural feature next to the North West stairs and indicated by waving his hand that the crowd behind him should move towards the stairs leading into the U.S. Capitol building,” the complaint reads.

Kelley has faced questions about his involvement in the Jan. 6 riot.

During a TV interview in February 2021, he denied going inside the U.S. Capitol and refused to confirm that he was shown in photos and videos wearing a dark coat and black baseball cap during the riot.

Three other witnesses helped FBI agents confirm the man shown in photos and videos of the riot was Kelley, who also has served as an Allendale Township Planning Commission member. One of those witnesses was a law enforcement officer with the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office while a second witness was an Allendale Township official who knows Kelley, according to the complaint.

A group of Kelley supporters gathered outside the federal court building in downtown Grand Rapids ahead of Kelley's hearing on Thursday. Among the group was Jo DeMarco of Ada, who has helped with Kelley’s campaign for governor.

“I know that Ryan’s home was invaded by the FBI, however, you want to phrase that. And they arrested him. And he’s here now,” DeMarco said. “And that’s why we’re here: to support him.”

Brenda Wodarski of Grand Rapids also attended the demonstration in support of Kelley on Thursday. She traveled to Washington, D.C., for the protests on Jan. 6, 2021, as well.

“Why now? Jan. 6? People need to look at that footage,” she said. “It was the most beautiful surreal experience ever out there. And people are seeing what the news wants you to see.”

Kelley has gained backers in his run for Michigan’s top office because of his integrity and honesty, she contended.

“Why does the FBI find it necessary to arrest a person who is trying to do good for our entire state?” DeMarco asked at one point.

Kelley, a real estate broker from Allendale and founder of the American Patriot Council, filed paperwork to launch his committee to run for governor in late January 2021. 

The American Patriot Council has alleged that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Attorney General Dana Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, three Democrats, are felons. Kelley has also called for their arrests.

"Gretchen Whitmer, Dana Nessel and Jocelyn Benson are felons and should be arrested and put in prison," Kelley said in a past video on the group's website.

In January, Kelley told a crowd in Livingston County to unplug voting machines from the wall if "you see something you don't like happening with the machine."

In response, Benson said tampering with ballot machines is illegal.

In January 2022, Benson, the state's top elections official, said she had referred Kelley's comments about unplugging voting machines to Nessel.

Kelley is one of five remaining Republican gubernatorial candidates after a signature forgery scandal rocked the 10-person field and caused five candidates to miss the 15,000-signature threshold to appear on the August ballot.

Two of the GOP frontrunners — former Detroit police Chief James Craig and businessman Perry Johnson — are still appealing their disqualifications. Craig also has said he’d consider a write-in campaign.

The Bureau of Elections last month said a total of 36 petition circulators “submitted fraudulent petition sheets consisting entirely of invalid signatures.” Those circulators submitted at least 68,000 signatures, the bureau estimated.

“Just days after their field was cut in half due to corruption and mass fraud, Republican gubernatorial candidates’ callous disregard for the principles of democracy was on full display again today as Ryan Kelley was taken into custody by the FBI following his participation in the January 6th insurrection," Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lavora Barnes said.

Freelance writer John Barnes contributed.