The three men grew up less than 15 minutes apart in Middlesex County, New Jersey. They were raised in working-class families, graduated from local schools and moved away to pursue their professional careers. As adults, their politics ran Republican and all three considered themselves outspoken supporters of President Donald Trump.
But despite the proximity of their upbringings and the similarity of their views, Julian Khater, George Tanios and Brian Sicknick would not meet until they found themselves on the opposite sides of a police barricade in Washington on Jan. 6 — an encounter that ended with one of them dead and the other two accused in an attack that may have caused it.
Federal prosecutors say Khater, 32, and Tanios, 39 — New Brunswick natives, friends and former fast-food business partners — shot Sicknick, 42, in the face with bear spray as part of the pro-Trump mob that stormed the building that day.
Sicknick, who grew up in South River, died in the hospital hours later. And while authorities have not yet released his cause of death — or charged Khater and Tanios with killing him — they have suggested that Sicknick’s exposure to chemical irritants may have contributed.
The paths that brought all three to that moment have continued to perplex their families and those assigned to investigate and mete out justice in the weeks since.
“It’s hard for me not to look at this as anything other than an assault on our nation’s soul and everything that’s important to us as a people,” said Michael John Aloi, a federal magistrate judge at a hearing Monday in Morgantown, West Virginia, where Tanios was arrested last week. “But I don’t know that that represents who you are, Mr. Tanios. I don’t know that it represents who a lot of people are who were involved in that day. What is it that caused that behavior?”
Tanios’ mother, Maguy, seemed just as baffled that her son had now been charged in an insurrection, decades after she and her husband fled civil war in Lebanon to immigrate to the U.S.
“I lost my father, I lost my brother, I lost my sister,” she told the court Monday. “I said, ‘I want to come to the United States … I need peace.’”
They settled — along with the Khaters, who fled the same conflict — among New Brunswick’s sizable population of Marionite Christians. They raised their families in Saint Sharbel Marionite Catholic Church in Somerset.
The Tanioses put young George through private school at St. Peter the Apostle by working 12-hour days at a luncheonette near city hall. It was there and at a food truck run by his uncles, in the shadow of Rutgers University, that he would learn the business — and potential money to be made — in serving junk food to college-aged crowds.
“Growing up as a teenager, against my mother’s wishes, I would stay up late and hang out at my uncle’s place all the time!” Tanios would later write in a fundraising pitch seeking backers for his current venture, a Morgantown, West Virginia, sandwich shop he opened in 2005 specializing in New Jersey “fat sandwiches” stacked with greasy add-ons like chicken fingers, fries and mozzarella sticks. “It was the best place to hang out late night. Anyone who knows about the ‘grease trucks’ back in late ’90’s knows what I am talking about.”
Tanios eventually dropped out of college to open up his own food truck at Penn State University. Khater soon followed him there and launched his own business ventures after Tanios moved on to West Virginia.
By that time, Sicknick was a New Jersey Air National Guardsman in between deployments to the Middle East. Born in New Brunswick, not far from where the Khaters and Tanioses would eventually settle, his father, a local plumber, moved the family to South River, where Sicknick would spend his childhood years.
He graduated from Middlesex County Vocational and Technical Schools in 1996 and enlisted that same year. But even then, his family has said, he was already dreaming of becoming a police officer.
He wrote letters to his hometown newspaper at first encouraging the U.S. to take a tougher stance in Iraq, but — after deployments to Saudi Arabia and Kyrgyzstan — eventually soured on the extended presence of U.S. forces in the Mideast.
“Our troops are stretched very thin, and morale is dangerous low among them,” he wrote the newspaper in 2004. “I’m starting to see an increasing trend of soldiers asking, ‘Why are we still here?’”
By the time he returned, he decamped for D.C. for a job with the Capitol Police. His father Charles told the Middlesex County newspaper the Home News Tribune that his son’s first major assignment was working President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009 — a job he felt honored by despite the Republican bent to his personal politics.
Despite the support for Trump that Sicknick shared with the men who would attack him Jan. 6, Tanios’ mother said in court Monday that she couldn’t imagine her son being implicated in violence on the president’s behalf. Others described him as a caring father of three and hardworking owner of multiple businesses including bars and restaurants around West Virginia University.
“We never talk politics,” she said, adding: “My son, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
And yet, there were signs of the zealousness of his political leanings. The now-deactivated Twitter account of Tanios’ restaurant routinely retweeted Trump and jumped into the sparring of the social media political fray. Days before the 2020 election, he told a West Virginia news station that an unidentified vandal had thrown a rock through his business’ front window in what he described as a “hate crime” due to the “Trump 2020” sign he’d placed there.
Khater, meanwhile, complained on Facebook about the effects of coronavirus restrictions on local businesses shortly before he shut down a Frutta smoothie bowl franchise he’d opened in State College in 2018.
On Jan. 5, Khater would later tell FBI agents, he drove down to Morgantown to pick up Tanios, heeding Trump’s call for his supporters to flock to Washington that next day.
Prosecutors said Monday that the men stopped at a gun shop on the way, where Tanios inquired about bringing a pistol or a pepper ball projectile gun into the city. Ultimately, Assistant U.S. Attorney Sarah Wagner said, he settled on several canisters of Frontiersman brand bear spray.
Footage shared on social media and from officer body cams, played in court, depict what prosecutors say happened next. Both men muscled their way to the forefront of the crowds that mobbed the west side of the Capitol building, where Sicknick was holding the line.
As they approached the barriers, Khater waved to Tanios, shouting “Give me that bear s—-.” Tanios responded: “Hold on. Not yet … It’s still early.”
Nevertheless, within minutes, a man prosecutors say is Khater is shown spraying the substance in the eyes of Sicknick and two other officers.
Later footage, from just hours before Sicknick would collapse, showed him reeling, bent over and rubbing at his eyes as he moved away from the crowd. By the next day, he would be dead.
In the days that followed, Khater would attempt on Facebook to blame the violence on Black Lives Matter activists. It would take more than two months for the FBI to eventually identify and arrest him and Tanios on charges they conspired to assault officers that day.
In court Monday, Tanios’ attorneys urged the judge not to jump to conclusions based on the snippets of video prosecutors had shown so far.
But Aloi said he’d seen enough. He ordered Tanios held in custody until his trial. Khater also remains jailed, pending a hearing in D.C. His lawyer declined to comment.
“We’ve created this culture, radicalized by hate and just refusal to accept the result of the democratic process,” Aloi said. “Mr. Tanios … you chose to be a part of that. “
Story by Jeremy Roebuck, The Philadelphia Inquirer.