WASHINGTON – Eleven members of the Oath Keepers, including its leader Stewart Rhodes, were charged Thursday with seditious conspiracy in the Jan.6 attack on the Capitol for allegedly attempting to overthrow the government, the harshest charges ever filed in cases against more than 700 people.
The charges are the first against Rhodes, 56, of Granbury, Texas, who founded the Oath Keepers; and Edward Vallejo, 63, of Phoenix. Rhodes was arrested in Little Elm, Texas and Vallejo in Phoenix, the Department of Justice said.
“Rhodes and some co-conspirators, including selected regional leaders, planned to stop the legal transfer of presidential power by January 20, 2021, which included several ways of deploying force,” the act said. charge. “They coordinated trips across the country to enter Washington, DC, and equipped themselves with a variety of weapons, donned combat and tactical gear, and were ready to answer Rhodes’ call. to take up arms under the leadership of Rhodes.
The Federal Seditious Conspiracy Act can be used to charge two or more people who conspire to “overthrow, bring down or destroy by force the government of the United States” or “by force to prevent, hinder or delay the execution of all of the law of the United States, or by force to seize, take or possess any property of the United States.
The seditious conspiracy charge is one of 57 federal crimes covered by the Counterterrorism Act. A conviction can carry a sentence of 20 years in prison.
While the maximum sentence for a seditious conspiracy charge is 20 years in prison, that sentence could be increased from four to five years because the victims of the alleged action were federal government officials, said David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor.
“If there is enough evidence available, then I think such an accusation is appropriate,” Weinstein said. “The heart of our democracy is free and fair elections. If people were planning to interfere with this, then this type of accusation is appropriate. There has been too much lawlessness.”
The last time the federal government secured convictions for seditious conspiracy was in a 1995 case involving Egyptian cleric Omar Abdel-Rahman. Abdel-Rahman and other associates were involved in the first World Trade Center bombing and in plots against other important American monuments.
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The indictment comes after lawmakers began to question the pace of the prosecution and whether Attorney General Merrick Garland was suing the organizers and fundraisers behind the attack. He vowed on the eve of the anniversary of the attack to prosecute participants at all levels.
More than 725 people have been charged and 150 have pleaded guilty in the January 6 attack. About 140 police officers were injured and four people died that day, as a crowd of supporters of former President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol and temporarily halted the Electoral College’s vote count.
The House impeached Trump for inciting insurgency, but the Senate acquitted him. Some lawmakers have argued that Trump should be charged because of the way he urged his supporters at a rally near the White House to march to Capitol Hill and fight to save their country. But prosecutors have yet to charge his comments with inciting violence.
Neama Rahmani, a former Los Angeles federal prosecutor, said evidence was not yet available to indict Trump and the case should be sealed.
“To prosecute former President Trump, the Justice Department needs compelling evidence that will leave no doubt about his sedition guilt,” Rahmani said. “Prosecutors would need Trump’s own words, either in writing, on tape, or multiple independent and credible witnesses, advocating a coup or the overthrow of President-elect Biden’s administration. I don’t think we have that. Or at least not yet.
The Oath Keepers is an extremist group that recruits former members of the military and law enforcement. The indictment charged that as of December 2020, members had coordinated and planned a trip to Washington for January 6 via encrypted and private communications.
In November, Rhodes was subpoenaed to testify and provide documents to the special House committee investigating the Capitol bombings. At the time, lawmakers referred to statements by Chief Oath Keeper on Election Day 2020, urging supporters to “stock up on ammunition” and prepare for “all-out war in the streets,” if Trump was not getting a second term.
Two men in the Oath Keepers case – Mark Grods and James Dolan – have pleaded guilty to conspiracy and obstruction of Congress. Grods admitted to bringing a shotgun and Dolan an M4 rifle to the area, weapons they left in hotels in Northern Virginia.
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The other nine defendants on Thursday of seditious conspiracy are all defendants who have previously faced conspiracy and other charges for allegedly staging their end of the attack. Members of the Oath Keepers reportedly planned their participation in advance, carried military gear, and forced their way into the Capitol in a pile formation with a person’s hand on the shoulder of the person in front.
The other nine accused are Thomas Caldwell, 67, of Berryville, Virginia; Joseph Hackett, 51, of Sarasota, Florida; Kenneth Harrelson, 41, of Titusville, Fla .; Joshua James, 34, of Arab, Alabama; Kelly Meggs, 52, of Dunnellon, Fla .; Roberto Minuta, 37, of Prosper, Texas; David Moerschel, 44, of Punta Gorda, Florida; Brian Ulrich, 44, of Guyton, Georgia; and Jessica Watkins, 39, of Woodstock, Ohio.
The Oath Keepers are said to have organized themselves into teams prepared and willing to use force, the department said. Training sessions were held to teach and learn paramilitary combat tactics, according to the department. And the participants wore paramilitary equipment such as tactical vests with protective plates, helmets and goggles. The aim was to obstruct the Electoral College’s vote by force, according to the department.
Rhodes allegedly presented a plan to stop the peaceful transfer of power at a nationwide online meeting of the Oath Keepers on November 9, 2020, according to the indictment. Rhodes sent another meeting to the crypto app Signal on Nov. 11, 2020, which said if Biden took over the presidency, “It will be a bloody and desperate fight. We are going to fight. It cannot be avoided,” according to the Rhodes also posted a letter on December 14, 2020 on an Oath Keepers website advocating the use of force to stop the legal transfer of power, according to the indictment.
“There is no standard political or legal solution to get by,” Rhodes wrote in an executive chat on Signal on December 31, 2020, according to the indictment.
Other defendants in the conspiracy case are said to have organized training sessions to set up ambushes, organized encrypted communications for group planning and recruited others to participate, according to the indictment.
Another defendant in the case, Graydon Young of Englewood, Fla., Who pleaded guilty to conspiracy and obstruction in Congress, wrote an email on December 26, 2020 to an unidentified Florida company, which organizes guns fire and combat training, telling them he “recommended your training to the team,” court records said.
While some Oath Keepers raped the Capitol, others stayed out of town as a rapid reaction force to potentially transport guns and other weapons into town, according to the department. Vallejo allegedly coordinated the rapid response teams with Caldwell, according to the indictment.
The co-conspirators discussed bringing in firearms and ammunition, and referred to the rapid reaction force, which managed “the arsenal”, according to the indictment. Teams from Arizona, Florida and North Carolina have set up rapid reaction forces rooms at the Comfort Inn Ballston in Virginia, according to the indictment.
Another defendant, Caleb Berry, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy and obstruction in Congress, admitted to coordinating with members of Oath Keepers to bring guns to the DC area, court records show.
During a trip on Jan. 3, Rhodes reportedly spent $ 6,000 in Texas on an AR-type rifle and equipment such as sights, mounts, triggers and slings, according to the indictment. According to the indictment, during a trip on Jan. 4, Rhodes would have spent an additional $ 4,500 in Mississippi on firearms equipment.
As crowds gathered in front of the Capitol on Jan.6 at around 2 p.m., Rhodes reportedly entered the restricted area of the Capitol grounds and asked his supporters to meet him at the Capitol, according to the department.
At around 2:30 p.m., Hackett, Harrelson, Meggs, Moerschel and Watkins, along with other Oath Keepers and affiliates – many of whom wear paramilitary clothing and badges bearing the Oath Keepers name, logo and badges – marched in formation “stack” eastward steps from the Capitol and entered the interior, according to the indictment.
Later, a group comprising James, Minuta and Ulrich, formed a second “pile” and allegedly violated the Capitol grounds, marching from the west side to the east side of the Capitol building and up the east stairs and into the building, according to the report. the indictment.
Rhodes gave instructions via her Signal chat, including one at 3:30 p.m.
According to the indictment, the participants celebrated at a restaurant in Vienna, Va., After the attack and then spoke of future actions. Rhodes continued to purchase thousands of dollars in guns and equipment in the weeks following the attack.
Before Jan. 20 – Inauguration Day – “Rhodes has sent a message to others to organize local militias to oppose President Biden’s administration,” the indictment reads.
Contribution: Kevin Johnson and Will Carless