Oath Keepers Founder Indicted On Seditious Conspiracy

Federal prosecutors have charged Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and 10 others associated with the armed extremist group with seditious conspiracy, the first such charge to come out of the sprawling investigation of the Capitol insurrection begun just over a year ago.

Rhodes, 56, was arrested Thursday morning in Little Elm, Texas, about 35 miles north of Dallas. A second man, Edward Vallejo, 63, was arrested in Phoenix, according to the Department of Justice. The other nine defendants have all previously been charged in the Oath Keepers conspiracy case pending in Washington, DC, federal court.

According to the indictment, which was handed up by a grand jury on Wednesday and sealed until the following day, Rhodes conspired “to oppose by force the lawful transfer of presidential power” by stopping Congress’ certification of the Electoral College on Jan. 6.

He and the other defendants, prosecutors claim, “coordinated travel across the country to enter Washington, DC, equipped themselves with a variety of weapons, donned combat and tactical gear, and were prepared to answer Rhodes’s call to take up arms at Rhodes’s direction.”

Kellye SoRelle, the Oath Keepers’ general counsel, confirmed Rhodes’ arrest and said she is working to find a criminal defense attorney to represent him. She called the arrest “all part of the show” and said he did not have enough funds to hire representation.

In the immediate aftermath of the assault on the US Capitol, the acting US attorney in Washington, DC, at the time, Michael Sherwin, announced that a task force had been formed to explore more serious charges in connection with Jan. 6, including seditious conspiracy.

But although more than 725 people have since been charged with a variety of misdemeanors and felonies for their involvement in the events of Jan. 6, a number of whom are facing conspiracy charges related to obstructing Congress’s attempts to certify the Electoral College, none has previously been charged with crimes related to sedition — which amounts to inciting a rebellion against the government.

The charge carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. It’s a rarely charged offense. Federal prosecutors last tried to pursue it in a 2010 indictment involving members of a militant group, and a judge ended up acquitting the defendants of the sedition count two years later.

Rhodes, whose first name is Elmer, but who goes by his middle name, founded the Oath Keepers in 2009. Known for the distinctive patch he wears to cover up an eye he lost from an accidental self-inflicted gun wound, he is a former Army paratrooper and graduate of Yale Law School who was later disbarred from practicing law. He worked briefly for former member of Congress Ron Paul and rose to prominence as a frequent guest on Alex Jones’ Infowars program, as well as for leading his Oath Keepers membership into a series of charged political events including the 2014 standoff between cattle ranchers and federal law enforcement in southern Nevada known as the Bundy standoff.

A longtime libertarian, Rhodes became more closely aligned with former president Donald Trump in the lead-up to and wake of the 2020 election. He cast doubt on the results of the election and called on members of the Oath Keepers to attend protests and gather in Washington on Jan. 6.

The original conspiracy case filed against members of the Oath Keepers in late January 2021 has grown to nearly two dozen defendants, and in the process has danced around Rhodes’ involvement in their activities, referring to him as “Person One” in court filings. Nine of the 17 defendants in that case were also charged with seditious conspiracy in the new indictment.

According to the 48-page indictment, Rhodes began preparations for an apparent rebellion on Nov. 5, 2020, just two days after the presidential election, when he invited other Oath Keeper members into a leadership chat on the messaging platform Signal. “We aren’t getting through this without a civil war,” Rhodes wrote at the time. “Too late for that. Prepare your mind, body, spirit.”

Over the following weeks and months, prosecutors allege, Rhodes employed increasingly fiery language to encourage Oath Keeper membership to prepare for conflict and, ultimately, to travel to Washington. “It will be a bloody and desperate fight,” he wrote on Signal on Dec. 11. “We are going to have to fight. That can’t be avoided.”

Between Dec. 30 and Jan. 2, Rhodes bought some $12,000 worth of firearms and accessories, including a shotgun, night vision goggles, and large amounts of ammunition, the indictment alleges. On Jan. 3, he departed Granbury, Texas — where he has been residing since he left his longtime home in Montana — for Washington, stopping twice en route to spend an additional $10,500 on an AR-15 platform rifle, scopes, more ammo, and other accessories. And in the two weeks after Jan. 6, he spent an additional $17,500 on such items.

It’s not clear where Rhodes stored such items while in Washington. The indictment details his work to help coordinate a so-called Quick Reaction Force, or QRF, composed of Oath Keepers members and associates from Florida, North Carolina, and Arizona who stowed their weapons in a Comfort Inn in Ballston, Virginia.

One of those individuals, according to the indictment, was Vallejo, a member of the Oath Keepers chapter in Arizona and a self-described “activist” who served as an alternative delegate for the state’s Republican Party and attended the 2012 Republican National Convention. In a message sent to another Oath Keeper member on Jan. 4, he referred to the Comfort Inn as the “allied encampment” and, appearing on a podcast early on Jan. 6, he discussed the possibility of “guerilla war,” noting “there are people who are prepared, have the will, have the facilities to do more than taunt.”

Although Rhodes is not accused of entering the Capitol, prosecutors now say he entered “restricted grounds” on Jan. 6 by standing outside the building while it was being stormed, and they detail how he directed the movements of people who ended up penetrating the complex. Amid the chaos, Rhodes reacted to incoming messages claiming it was Antifa that had pushed past the US Capitol Police.

“Nope. I’m right here,” Rhodes responded. “These are Patriots.”

Later that night, the charging document claims, Rhodes joined several other Oath Keepers celebrating the day’s events at a restaurant in Vienna, Virginia. Amid the festivities, he sent out an encrypted message: “Patriots entering their own Capitol to send a message to the traitors is NOTHING compared to what’s coming.”

The new indictment effectively splits the Oath Keepers defendants into separate cases. The original case, which charges conspiracy to interfere with Congress’ activities but not seditious conspiracy, is slimmed down to seven defendants. Rhodes, though, faces the sedition-related charge, along with the other conspiracy count, alongside Kelly Meggs, Kenneth Harrelson, Jessica Watkins, Joshua James, Roberto Minuta, Joseph Hackett, David Moerschel, Brian Ulrich, and Thomas Caldwell. Prosecutors have secured a separate new indictment against a previous Oath Keepers defendant, Jonathan Walden, who is charged with obstructing Congress and illegally being at the Capitol, but does not face any conspiracy allegation.

It was not immediately clear what impact the new charges will have on the court’s schedule. Shortly before the holidays, federal Judge Amit Mehta rejected efforts by the defendants in the Oath Keepers case to get the conspiracy charges tossed out. The judge had planned to begin trial on one group of Oath Keepers in April, with a possible second trial in July. It now seems likely that the first trial date will no longer be at play.

Meanwhile, four other alleged Oath Keepers have pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with the Justice Department. Although little has been heard from those people, last month, prosecutors said they were continuing to help the government.

Unlike many of the charges brought against alleged Capitol rioters so far, which have focused on the physical criminal acts committed that day — such as assaulting police, disrupting Congress’s certification of the election results, and simply illegally being in the Capitol — sedition deals with a person’s intent to go against the US government.

The felony offense makes it a crime to “conspire to overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force the Government of the United States, or to levy war against them, or to oppose by force the authority thereof, or by force to prevent, hinder, or delay the execution of any law of the United States, or by force to seize, take, or possess any property of the United States.”

In a public address last week marking the one-year anniversary of the Capitol attack, Attorney General Merrick Garland signaled that people who hadn’t gone into the Capitol could still face prosecution for any involvement in the insurrection. “The Justice Department remains committed to holding all Jan. 6 perpetrators, at any level, accountable under law,” he said, “whether they were present that day or were otherwise criminally responsible for the assault on our democracy.”

This is a developing story. Check back for updates and follow BuzzFeed News on Twitter.

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