At least one day before thousands of MAGA supporters stormed the U.S Capitol, Oath Keeper founder Stewart Rhodes warned his followers to be “prepared for violence.”
“Highly recommend a C or D cell flashlight if you have one,” Rhodes allegedly told members of the far-right paramilitary group in an encrypted group chat, referring to heavy flashlights that can be swung like clubs. “Collapsible Batons are a grey area in the law. I bring one. But I’m willing to take that risk because I love em.”
The next day, moments after former President Donald Trump encouraged his supporters to “fight like hell,” Rhodes wrote to the group: “All I see Trump doing is complaining. I see no intent by him to do anything. So the patriots are taking it into their own hands. They’ve had enough.”
Then, during the height of the insurrection—which forced dozens of elected leaders into hiding and ultimately killed five people—Rhodes directed his Oath Keepers to “come to the South Side of the Capitol on steps.” Minutes later, Oath Keepers had breached the building.
While federal prosecutors have charged hundreds of rioters, including several Oath Keepers accused of conspiracy, Rhodes has so far remained unscathed. He has denied playing a role in the riots and hasn’t been charged.
Now, it seems prosecutors are solidifying an even larger case against the militia group—with Rhodes firmly in the crosshairs. A Monday night court filing detailed, for the first time, his direct contact with members already accused of plotting to prevent Congress from certifying President-elect Joe Biden’s electoral victory.
During the riots, prosecutors argue, Rhodes sent encrypted messages to the group chat that “shows that individuals, including those alleged to have conspired with [others], were actively planning to use force and violence.” Among those messaging with Rhodes—who is identified only as “Person One” in court filings but whom prosecutors have named and made several connections to in earlier documents—were two of at least seven Oath Keepers who have since been charged, including Jessica Watkins, a 38-year-old former Army vet accused of recruiting members to “fight hand to hand” to take over the Capitol.
The chat messages “all show that the co-conspirators joined together to stop Congress’s certification of the Electoral College vote, and they were prepared to use violence, if necessary, to effect this purpose,” prosecutors said in Monday’s filing. “It does not matter whether they planned to use this violence to support the president when he invoked the insurrection act or to attack the Capitol if the vice president allowed the certification to go forward—under either scenario, they were plotting to use violence to support the unlawful obstruction of a Congressional proceeding.”
The FBI describes the Oath Keepers as a “large but loosely organized collection of the militia who believe the federal government has been corrupted by a shadowy conspiracy that is trying to strip American citizens of their rights.”
Prosecutors believe most Oath Keepers charged in the riots were involved in a wider conspiracy to recruit, train, and prepare for an attack on the Capitol. Among the group who communicated with other Oath Keepers for months was Joshua James, who allegedly provided protection to former Trump adviser Roger Stone before storming the Capitol with his fellow Oath Keepers. James, a 33-year-old Alabama man, was charged on Monday for his role in the siege.
Monday’s filing, however, is the first time prosecutors have offered a bigger picture of the coordination and real-time direction on Jan. 6—and of Rhodes’ significant role in it. It appears prosecutors are laying the groundwork to go after the group’s leader.
“Federal prosecutors are trying to build a case against Rhodes, which will likely include conspiracy charges,” former federal prosecutor Neama Rahman told The Daily Beast on Tuesday. “A conspiracy indictment only requires an agreement to do something unlawful, such as entering the Capitol Building, and one overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy.”
“The Capitol was breached, so the overt act element is easily satisfied. This is why Rhodes and attorneys for the other Oath Keepers are attacking the agreement requirement of the conspiracy statute, saying there was no advance knowledge of the plan to enter the Capitol Building and that those responsible were ‘rogue members’ who acted spontaneously,” Rahman added.
Rahman added that prosecutors “will continue to look for evidence of an agreement, such as planning, coordination, and direction, particularly in messages from Rhodes or statements by cooperating defendants. Once they have enough evidence, I expect Rhodes to be indicted and arrested.”
While the government has not yet named Rhodes or directly accused him of anything illegal, court documents filed against Thomas Caldwell and two other members repeatedly mention communications they had with “Person One.”
In one Jan. 27 filing, prosecutors mentioned that “the Oath Keepers are led by Person One.” Prosecutors have also put statements made by Rhodes in filings under the attribution of “Person One,” like a Jan. 4 recruiting letter that he signed.
In the document filed on Monday, which argued against Caldwell’s request to be released pending trial, prosecutors alleged Rhodes and several other “regional Oath Keeper leaders from multiple states across the country” had discussed plans in an encrypted chat group at least one day before the riots. They discussed how to “provide security to speakers and VIPs” of several events protesting the results of the 2020 election.
Prosecutors also argue the Oath Keeper founder gave explicit instructions about weapons and armor.
“DO NOT bring in anything that can get you arrested. Leave the outside DC,” Rhodes allegedly wrote to the group, later suggesting members bring “Good hard gloves, eye pro, helmet. In a pinch you can grab Mechanix gloves and a batters helmet from Walmart. Bring something to put on your noggin. Antifa likes brikes.”
He suggested that “several well-equipped QRFs” (“quick response forces”) would be waiting outside the city. (Gun laws are more permissive outside D.C.’s borders.) After the riot, court documents state, a group of Oath Keepers “gathered around” Rhodes and “stood around waiting for at least ten minutes” near the Capitol.
Previous court filings and videos of the Oath Keepers during the riot suggest the group had trained for the event, and was executing an earlier plan. Before rioters breached the Capitol, uniformed members of the group were seen moving toward the doors in a “stack,” a combat formation.
Among the group in the stack was James, who prosecutors alleged in a separate court filing Monday, stood with other Oath Keepers on Jan. 6 while fellow militia member “aggressively berated and taunted U.S. Capitol police officers responsible for protecting the Capitol and the representatives inside.”
Once the attack was underway, participants used a walkie-talkie app to reference apparent plans to take Congress members into custody. “You are executing citizen’s arrest. Arrest this assembly, we have probable cause for acts of treason, election fraud,” one said, according to court filings.
“We have about 30-40 of us. We are sticking together and sticking to the plan,” another allegedly told others on the app.
Prior to the riot, Rhodes appeared to act as a link between the Oath Keepers and other far-right groups that would later participate in the attack. At a December rally in D.C., Rhodes warned of “bloody war” if Trump did not invoke the Insurrection Act. In a video the night before the riot, Rhodes made a Facebook video with other far-right figures. Among them was the leader of a PAC that employs leaders of the Proud Boys, the leader of “Vets For Trump,” who is facing charges for allegedly bringing a gun interstate to a Pennsylvania vote-count center, and Amanda Chase, a Virginia state senator who has previously appeared alongside Proud Boys at a gun rally.