He led the Proud Boys in the Capitol riot and shamed his town
Dozens of merchants here on the shore of Puget Sound received a letter in August of 2019 decrying the rise of far-right extremism in America — and its arrival in their town.
“Here in our own community, a prominent seafood restaurant on Marine View Drive has a connection with the Proud Boys,” it said.
The organizers of the mailing — who left out their names and the name of the restaurant because they feared retribution — enclosed a sign that read “Hate has no business here” for businesses to post in their windows.
Few did, but word was spreading in Des Moines.
Ethan Nordean, an on-and-off assistant manager at his father’s restaurant, Wally’s Chowder House, was a rising star in the violent, far-right hate group that made its name brawling with left-wing activists. The issue divided the town.
Some residents were calling for a boycott or at least for Ethan’s father — who billed his restaurant as a place where “you’ll be treated like family” — to denounce his son and white supremacy.
“Even if the owners don’t share the beliefs, they need to address it,” Byron Viles, an auto parts store manager, wrote in a post on a community Facebook page that attracted more than 500 comments last June. “Silence is part of what brought Hitler to power.”
Others defended Ethan’s parents, Mike and Judy Nordean, saying they should not be held responsible for the activities of their adult son.
“Boycotting them for something out of their control is silly without proof they are involved themselves,” wrote Marcus Emery, a fellow restaurant owner.
Subscribers get early access to this story
We’re offering L.A. Times subscribers first access to our best journalism. Thank you for your support.
After reaching a fever pitch last summer, the controversy receded, and for a few months it seemed that Wally’s might simply go back to being good old Wally’s.
A small but growing number of Republicans are propagating a false portrayal of the Jan. 6 insurrection by supporters of former President Trump.
Then on Jan. 6, the Proud Boys took the lead in the march on the U.S. Capitol, reaching the steps ahead of the larger mob that stormed the building to try to block the certification of Joe Biden’s election as president.
Front and center was a 30-year-old dressed in black with sunglasses and a tactical vest: Ethan Nordean.
Wally’s was a pillar of Des Moines, a marina town of 30,000 whose popularity among retirees made it more conservative than Seattle, 15 miles north.
Locals came to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries. Tourists came for fresh Northwest salmon and Dungeness crab.
Greeting customers at the door was Mike Nordean, who had dedicated his life to the restaurant business. He got his start in high school busing tables at a local DoubleTree Inn, quickly working his way up to bartender and catering manager.
He was fresh out of college in 1979 when his first wife died in a car accident. Even after he remarried, he remained close to his first wife’s parents, and in 1991 he joined them to buy a drive-in restaurant in Buckley, Wash., a logging town southeast of Seattle. Two years later they opened Wally’s.
The restaurants flourished, affording Mike and Judy a grand house in the Seattle suburb of Auburn and a vacation home in Arizona, where at 65 he now spends much of his time.
He described himself as moderately conservative — while supporting gay rights and diversity among his staff — but kept his politics out of banter with customers and shunned social media. She frequently broadcast her pro-gun, anti-Muslim and anti-gay views on Twitter.
Ethan Nordean grew up around the restaurants. His father called him “Dude Man” and taught him to ski, wakeboard and drive ATVs.
Trying out for Little League when he was around 9, Ethan swung and missed repeatedly until bursting into tears, his father recalled.
“I think he was upset not because of the coach, but because he felt he was disappointing me,” he said. “I thought, ‘Oh, man, I’m putting too much pressure on him.’”
After Mike Nordean bought out the partnership, Ethan and his stepsister — Judy’s daughter from a previous marriage — stood to take over the family business one day.
When Gavin McInnes, a founder of Vice Media, launched the Proud Boys during the 2016 presidential election, he described it as an all-male group of “Western chauvinists” who opposed political correctness and white guilt.
As Capitol rioters, QAnon believers and other radicals gain in number, one moderate Texas Republican warns: ‘We’re on a self-destructive path.’
It attracted men with misogynistic and anti-Muslim views and ties to white supremacists. Experts on extremism have labeled it a hate group.
Joining the group was “one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” Ethan Nordean told Alex Jones, the right-wing conspiracy theorist.
“That’s where I was introduced to the Proud Boys, who allowed me to network with like-minded men,” he said, telling Jones that the group defended 1st Amendment rights that police, controlled by liberal politicians, failed to uphold.
“You start to kind of develop this feeling that these are no longer people who are necessarily Americans per se, but they’re kind of anti-America,” he said.
Mike Nordean said that his son had floundered since joining the Navy out of high school in hopes of becoming a SEAL, only to wash out of basic training. A bodybuilder, he worked in a gym and sold fitness supplements until his father hired him as a dishwasher, then as an assistant manager.
The Proud Boys appeared to offer the sort of camaraderie and acceptance that he longed for, Mike Nordean said.
When Ethan and another employee at Wally’s told him they had joined a patriotic organization that protected antiabortion protesters and others from violent leftists, Nordean strongly disapproved, he said.
“I just looked at them and I said, ‘Guys, this is a really bad idea.... If this gets in the way of your jobs, you’ll both be fired,’” he recalled. “I was so against it, and so angry.”
It took a year, but Nordean said that on May 5, 2018, he fired his son.
Ethan Nordean’s rising profile in the Proud Boys “really started to affect the business and the employees,” his father said. “I could sense it in the community.”
Jessi Bird, a waitress at the time, said that staff members who answered the phone were routinely accused by callers of being racists. Regulars at the restaurant were asking questions too.
“I didn’t know what to say,” Bird recalled. “Because if you’re spending money here, you are maybe in some way supporting what Ethan’s doing, flying all over the country attending rallies.”
“It’s beautiful,” Jones said of Ethan’s sweeping right hook during their interview the next week. “How good did it feel, at least later, once you saw his head hit the pavement?”
“Well, like Gavin McInnes says, violence isn’t great, but justified violence is amazing,” Nordean said with a chuckle.
Bird said that Ethan and fellow Proud Boys gathered at the restaurant at least three times after rallies that summer and enjoyed food and drink on the house.
The massive effort to round up those who stormed the U.S. Capitol has not been without problems, including a potential instance of mistaken identity.
She said she and Ethan had often debated politics but that she demurred after he took the nom de guerre Rufio Panman — a reference to a character in “Hook,” a movie about Peter Pan and his Lost Boys — and began getting in street fights.
In her view, Ethan’s beliefs came from a lack of exposure to people of other backgrounds, and the influence of his mother — who declined to comment for this story.
On Aug. 3, 2018, Judy Nordean tweeted: “Antifa is another word for ISIS. They dress the same. They behave the same and [they] have no accountability. America is watching!”
In another tweet that day, she expressed admiration for President Trump and asked whether he could do anything about Portland, Ore., Mayor Ted Wheeler giving antifa “a pass” to attack citizens.
The next day, Ethan brawled with antifa activists in Portland.
Ethan Nordean was becoming a pariah in Des Moines and beyond.
That fall, he and his new wife, Cory Dryden, a longtime waitress at Wally’s, had to cancel their wedding celebration after managers at Kiana Lodge in Poulsbo, Wash., learned he was in the Proud Boys and told them they were not welcome.
Employees at Wally’s began to fear for their safety after their photographs showed up on social media next to threats against Ethan, according to a recently settled lawsuit that Rose-Ann “Roxi” Wills — a waitress and Bird’s sister — filed last year against the business and its owners, alleging a hostile work environment and wrongful termination.
Trying to help his son, Mike Nordean eventually hired him back.
The lawsuit said that Ethan Nordean returned in November 2018. Mike Nordean disputed that, saying he didn’t employ Ethan again until January of 2020 — and not at Wally’s but as an assistant manager at his other restaurant.
The manager there, Kimarie Johnson, said Mike Nordean told her that it was their best hope for getting Ethan out of the Proud Boys.
“I felt like it could almost kill Mike, like he’d have a heart attack or stroke out,” she said. “He said, ‘I’ve just got to get him away from these people.’”
But Ethan was no less willing to leave the group than his family’s opponents in Des Moines were willing to give up their fight.
“We owe a boycott of Wally’s to future Des Moines citizens,” Brian Hansen, an Army veteran, wrote last June on a community Facebook page. “We do not want it to become a bigger Proud Boy hangout.”
A House panel has reached an agreement to form a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
Heather Caputo, a grocery store worker, wrote: “This is hard for me because I have always had such positive experiences there, but I also don’t want my money to support any hate groups.”
Others made note of Judy Nordean’s tweets — and of a 2019 post that appeared on the Wally’s Chowder House Facebook account promoting a far-right rally in support of a man accused of trying to run down left-wing protesters with his pickup while flying a Confederate flag.
The post had quickly disappeared, but not before Julie VanSanten, a home-schooling mom in town, captured a screenshot, which she posted as the online debate amped up last year.
“Great catch Julie,” wrote Jayme Quinn Wagner, a Des Moines homemaker, on the Facebook forum.
Other Facebook commenters came to the Nordeans’ defense.
“Every time I see something about this I go buy a couple hundred in gift cards from Wally’s,” wrote Carri Litowitz, a Trump supporter who worked at her husband’s construction company.
Mike Nordean said he realized last spring that the uproar was endangering his business.
“It started to catch fire, the onslaught online,” he said. “We had almost a five-star rating on Yelp, and those people went after that.”
He decided that he had no choice but to fire Ethan again. He also persuaded his wife to take down her Twitter account, and he hired a crisis communications consultant to launch a damage-control campaign.
“Let me say right off the bat that I love my son,” he wrote in a public statement on June 19 last year. “That said, I admit that I was slow to recognize how radical and violent that group is.”
“Until very recently, my wife and I were blind to the ideology that our son supports,” the statement said. “We were told by our son that this group was a ‘patriotic’ group that were ‘protectors’ who stood up for freedom of speech and traditional values. We regretfully believed him.”
Nordean wrote that Ethan no longer worked for the restaurants. He said he had also fired Dryden, his son’s wife.
Townspeople had mixed reactions.
Pat Glaze, a commenter on a local news blog, criticized Nordean for publicly condemning Ethan, asking: “What kind of a loser throws his own child under the bus to appease violent anti-American leftists?”
A Westminster man was arrested on multiple charges including assaulting a police officer who suffered head injuries in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
Other residents welcomed the statement, although many found it implausible that the couple didn’t know about the group’s extremism much earlier.
The next month, Des Moines citizens learned that the city had given Wally’s $2,500 in pandemic relief funding to cook meals for veterans and senior citizens. Several residents demanded to know why their taxes were indirectly helping a hate group.
Samantha Scown, a teacher, asked the City Council at a meeting in July to take some action to show that Des Moines did not support racists.
“It’s just kind of a stain on our city,” she said.
Anthony Martinelli, a city councilman who favored removing Wally’s from the meal program, received a cease-and-desist letter from Nordean’s lawyer threatening to sue him for defamation.
“He is saying that he doesn’t support what his son supported,” Martinelli said in an interview. “I hope that he’s not doing that just for public relations.”
The council let the program stand.
As Trump spoke at the Ellipse outside the White House on Jan. 6, Ethan Nordean marched along the National Mall from the Washington Monument.
More than 100 Proud Boys members followed as he barked commands through a bullhorn.
One member, Eddie Block, rolled up to Ethan in an electric wheelchair to livestream the scene. “The girls want to see Rufio,” he said.
“Right side, slow down a little bit,” Ethan said. “Looking sharp, boys.”
The Proud Boys shouted “Uhuru,” their battle cry, which means “freedom” in Swahili.
They were among the first insurgents to reach the base of the Capitol. In court filings, federal prosecutors described Nordean as a major figure in the attack.
“We stormed the capital. It was great,” he allegedly wrote afterward on the encrypted app Telegram. “The cops started shooting us with pepper balls and boom bombs and we stormed them and busted down the doors. Thousands and thousands of people it was insane.”
On opposite sides of the Capitol, current and former executive branch officials speak on the Jan. 6 Capitol riot and the state of domestic extremism.
He was arrested a month later. FBI agents who raided his home — he lived down the street from his parents in a house they owned — let his father say goodbye.
“I love you, son,” Mike Nordean said before Ethan was led away in handcuffs.
Mike Nordean said that his son was misguided but not the “very violent, angry, right-wing, racist Nazi type of person” that the media had made him out to be.
Residents of Des Moines have closely followed the aftermath, still marveling that their own brush with extremism was a prelude to a monumental piece of U.S. history that continues to divide the country.
“I hope that justice is served and he spends as much time as possible in prison,” said Bryana Sayavong, a 26-year-old glass company project manager who grew up eating at Wally’s. “This has taught me that I live in a conservative town, where as a young Asian woman I don’t know if I feel totally safe.”
As the pandemic has subsided, Wally’s has returned to doing brisk business. But the controversy lingers.
In a post Tuesday in the community Facebook group, one resident said she was looking for “a good fish and chips place.”
Minutes later, someone recommended Wally’s, setting off a new barrage of criticism.
“Wallys food is awful not to mention the owners are racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic, and support domestic terrorism,” one woman wrote, posting screenshots of old tweets by Judy Nordean.
“Yeah sure if domestic terrorism is your bag,” wrote another.
The jabs and alternative restaurant recommendations piled up until a group administrator shut down commenting.
Must-read stories from the L.A. Times
Get the day's top news with our Today's Headlines newsletter, sent every weekday morning.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.