Olympic gold medalist swimmer sentenced for role in Capitol riot

ByAlexander Mallin ABCNews logo
Friday, December 1, 2023
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Former U.S. Olympic swimmer Klete Keller was sentenced on Friday to 36 months of probation for his role in the riot at the U.S. Capitol, avoiding prison time after pleading guilty to a federal felony.

Keller, 41, was also sentenced to six months of home detention and will have to perform 10 hours of community service every month.

The two-time gold-medalist -- who was one of the first Jan. 6 riot defendants to plead guilty to a felony -- was seen in videos wearing a Team USA jacket in the Capitol rotunda surrounded by other members of the pro-Donald Trump mob.

Keller was indicted on seven federal counts in the weeks following the attack, but in a deal reached with prosecutors he pleaded guilty to only a single count of obstructing an official proceeding, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in jail.

This image from police body-worn video shows Klete Keller in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington.
(Justice Department via AP)

Federal prosecutors sought 10 months in prison. In a sentencing memorandum filed last month, prosecutors argued Keller's actions on Jan. 6 were "unconscionable" and "will forever be a stain on this country's narrative." However, given his extensive cooperation with the government since turning himself in and his "genuine" remorse for his conduct, they pushed for the judge to give him a far lighter prison sentence.

Prosecutors argued to the court Friday that probation would "send a message to the public you can do this and not get punished."

The defense countered that Keller had spent the last three years "suffering" on pre-trial detention and noted that now he is a convicted felon for his actions. His attorney argued that Keller "spent years atoning for his actions" and had been a "flawless probationer."

Judge Richard Leon said this wasn't a "one size fits all case" and there was "no question that [Keller] was remorseful." The defendant's cooperation with the government was also mentioned at length during Friday's hearing.

"If there was ever a case for probation, this is it," Leon said.

Leon told the Olympian that he wanted him to speak to young adults about "how he learned from his mistakes" and later told Keller, "I expect you to succeed."

United States' Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, Peter Vanderkaay, and Klete Keller, right, at the Olympic Aquatic Centre during the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Aug. 17, 2004.
(AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

Keller responded, "Thank you, your honor, I will not let you down."

Keller told the court that he understood that his "actions were criminal and I take responsibility" and apologized to lawmakers and the American people.

"I condemn the violence of that day," he said, vowing to "not repeat the actions of the past."

Keller apologized for his actions in a lengthy letter to Leon dated Jan. 23, 2023, which he described as a "way to better understand who I am beyond my bad choices on that terrible day" when deliberating the sentence.

"I stand before you feeling ashamed and profoundly embarrassed," Keller wrote in the letter. "On January 6, 2021, I unlawfully entered the United States Capitol Building and demonstrated without permission. I am ashamed to admit that I wanted to interrupt and influence Congress's certification of the Electoral College vote."

"As a former member of the United States Olympic Swimming Team, my behavior set a terrible example for young people who looked up to me," he continued. "I take full responsibility for my inexcusable actions. I will accept my punishment with humility and serve my sentence in peace."

Peter Vanderkaay, Klete Keller, Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps celebrate after winning the gold medal at the World Swimming Championships in Melbourne, Australia, March 30, 2007.
(AP Photo/Mark Baker)

In their sentencing memorandum, prosecutors noted how Keller joined members of the mob inside the Capitol just short of the Senate chamber, chanting "F*** Nancy Pelosi" and "F*** Chuck Schumer." He only retreated, they say, once officers were forced to deploy chemical irritants and use force against some of the rioters.

After leaving the Capitol, Keller told prosecutors he threw his Olympic jacket into a trash can and also destroyed his phone with a hammer.

The reality of the day began to set in once Keller was on a train back to his hotel -- when a father and son sat near him and the son asked the Olympian for a photograph with him, prosecutors said.

"While Keller posed, he broke down inside," prosecutors said Friday. "Years earlier, he had stood on the world's brightest stage as a representative of the United States. Now, just an hour ago, he stood in the middle of the Capitol and sang the national anthem -- this time with alarms and pepper spray in the air, injured officers and rioters on the ground, and an election on the brink."

Keller surrendered to authorities within a week after the Capitol attack and soon after met with the government and admitted to his actions.

Prosecutors said in the filing that while Keller should serve some prison time for his actions that day, he should also receive credit for cooperating extensively with the government in the years since he joined the pro-Trump mob.

"A former Olympian with an opportunity to see up close America's ideals and represent its position in the world, Keller was in a unique position to know better," the filing said. "He should be punished, and his punishment should include imprisonment. But he has also shown genuine remorse and, more importantly, he has tried to right his wrong for nearly three years."

Keller -- a commercial real estate agent -- said in his letter to Leon that since his case began, he started volunteering with the Prison Professors Charitable Corporation. He asked the judge in determining his sentence to "please take into consideration that I will not repeat the mistakes of my past."

"I hope my case serves as a warning to anyone who rationalizes illegal conduct, especially in a moment of political fervor," he wrote. "The consequences of my behavior will follow me and my family for the rest of our lives."

Keller is a five-time Olympic medalist, including winning golds in the 4x200 freestyle in both 2004 and 2008. He won individual bronze medals in the 400-meter freestyle in both Sydney and Athens.

As of Nov. 6, more than 1,200 people have been charged for crimes related to the Jan. 6 riot, according to the Department of Justice.