A federal judge in Washington, D.C. this week sentenced a Toms River man to 18 months in prison for grabbing and pushing a police officer who had been standing near the edge of a raised terrace while attempting to clear demonstrators away from the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
The officer did not fall from the terrace and was not injured in the scuffle, according to authorities. Still, federal prosecutors called the actions of the New Jersey defendant, Salvatore Vassallo, 60, “the epitome of disrespect for the law.”
The actions occurred during the massive Jan. 6 riots – a violent gathering of supporters of former President Donald Trump who attempted to block Congressional certification of the 2020 presidential election.
They did so following months of unfounded claims made by the former president, and several of his associates, about widespread voter fraud during the previous election.
Fox News and its parent Fox Corp. would later be sued for defamation in a Delaware court for broadcasting many of those false claims. Fox settled the lawsuit for $787 million.
During an interview Friday, Vassallo’s attorney Ronald Ricci pointed to his client’s belief that the 2020 election had been stolen as the reason he traveled to Washington D.C. on Jan. 6.
While on the Capitol grounds that day, Vassallo joined a group of demonstrators who had gathered along an elevated terrace outside of the Capitol building, prosecutors said.
There, police ordered the demonstrators to leave the Capital complex. Many “actively resisted and assaulted officers,” prosecutors said.
Vassallo was among those in the crowd at the time, though he did not immediately resist officers, physically.
Following the police’s command to leave, Vassallo lowered his facemask and lit a cigar, prosecutors said.
Shortly thereafter, Vassallo “abruptly and seemingly unprovoked” charged at an officer who was attempting to help other police fend off assaults, prosecutors said.
He then grabbed and pushed the officer “with what appeared to be a significant amount of force,” prosecutors said.
Ricci, Vassallo’s attorney, said his client simply “got carried away.”
“He was basically an observer, smoking a cigar, watching it,” he said. “The other protestors were trying to force their way in, and as a reaction, he kind of ran up and grabbed an officer off of someone else.”
Ricci said the court’s 18-month sentence for his client was fair. The government had sought 27 months.
Vassallo also was “satisfied with the result,” said Ricci, a partner at Ricci & Fava, LLC.
Vassallo was indicted last year after a tipster pointed investigators to him. In May, Vassallo pleaded guilty to a felony charge of assaulting, resisting or impeding a law enforcement officer – the second of seven counts. The other six counts included one felony and five misdemeanors.
When initially filing the charges, prosecutors had linked Vassallo with the Proud Boys, citing a photo taken during a previous demonstration showing the New Jersey man with members of the militaristic group, which became prominent in past years alongside the rise of Donald Trump.
Ricci denied that his client — who does not use social media — had any affiliation with the Proud Boys. The photo was taken, he said, because Proud Boys members had been “going around taking pictures with numerous people” at that previous demonstration.
“At the time, he (Vassallo) just thought they were like a pro-patriot, and pro-working man group,” Ricci said.
The Jan. 6 riot was not the first time Vassallo had been at odds with federal authorities. He faced federal tax liens in 2010, 2013, and 2014, according to New Jersey civil court documents.
Prosecutors also noted that Vassallo had previously been convicted of obstruction of justice, in which they said “it appears that Vassallo shoved an officer in a melee.”
Vassallo is among more than 1,100 people that federal authorities charged for crimes related to the Jan. 6 breach of the U.S. Capitol.
This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Toms River man gets 18 months for attacking officer at Capitol insurrection