WASHINGTON – Eleven members of the Oath Keepers, including its leader Stewart Rhodes, were indicted Thursday on charges of seditious conspiracy in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol for allegedly trying to overthrow the government, the harshest charges yet 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 Justice Department announced.
"Rhodes and certain co-conspirators, to include selected regional leaders, planned to stop the lawful transfer of presidential power by Jan. 20, 2021, which included multiple ways to deploy force,” the indictment said. “They coordinated travel across the country to enter Washington, D.C., and 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.”
The federal seditious conspiracy statute can be used to charge two or more people who conspire to "overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force the Government of the United States” 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.”
The seditious conspiracy charge is one of the 57 federal crimes under the terrorism enhancement statute. A conviction can carry a 20-year prison sentence.
While the maximum punishment for a seditious conspiracy charge is 20 years in prison, that term could be increased by 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 sufficient evidence available, then I believe such a charge is appropriate," Weinstein said. "The heart of our democracy rests on free and fair elections. If people planned to interfere with that then this type of charge is appropriate. There has been too much anarchy."
The last time the federal government won convictions alleging seditious conspiracy was in a 1995 case involving Egyptian cleric Omar Abdel-Rahman. Abdel-Rahman and other associates were implicated in the first World Trade Center bombing and plots against other prominent U.S. landmarks.
The indictment comes after lawmakers had begun questioning the pace of prosecutions and whether Attorney General Merrick Garland was pursuing the organizers and fundraisers behind the attack. He vowed the day before the anniversary of the attack to pursue the participants at all levels.
More than 725 people have been charged and 150 have pled guilty in the Jan. 6 attack. About 140 police officers were injured and four people died that day, as a mob of supporters of former President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol and temporarily halted the counting of Electoral College votes.
The House impeached Trump for inciting the insurrection, but the Senate acquitted him. Some lawmakers have argued Trump should be charged because of how he urged supporters at a rally near the White House to march to the Capitol and fight to save their country. But prosecutors haven't yet charged that his comments incited the violence.
Neama Rahmani, a former federal prosecutor in Los Angeles, said the evidence hasn’t emerged yet to charge Trump and the case would have to be air tight.
“To prosecute former President Trump, the Department of Justice needs smoking gun evidence that will leave absolutely no doubt that he is guilty of sedition,” Rahmani said. “Prosecutors would need Trump’s own words, either in writing, recorded, 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 beginning in December 2020, members coordinated and planned travel to Washington for Jan. 6 through encrypted and private communications.
In November, Rhodes was subpoenaed to testify and provide documents to the special House committee investigating the Capitol attacks. At the time, lawmakers referred to the Oath Keeper leader's 2020 Election Day statements, urging followers to "stock up on ammo" and prepare for a "full-on war in the streets," if Trump failed to secure 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 Northern Virginia hotels.
The nine others charged Thursday with seditious conspiracy are all defendants who already faced conspiracy and other charges for allegedly organizing their portion of the attack. Members of the Oath Keepers allegedly planned their participation ahead of time, wore military gear and forced their way into the Capitol in a stack formation with one person’s hand on the shoulder of the person ahead.
The nine other defendants are Thomas Caldwell, 67, of Berryville, Virginia; Joseph Hackett, 51, of Sarasota, Florida; Kenneth Harrelson, 41, of Titusville, Florida; Joshua James, 34, of Arab, Alabama; Kelly Meggs, 52, of Dunnellon, Florida; 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.
Oath Keepers allegedly organized into teams that were prepared and willing to use force, according to the department. Training sessions were organized to teach and learn paramilitary combat tactics, according to the department. And participants wore paramilitary gear such as tactical vests with protective plates, helmets and eye protection. The goal was to hinder the Electoral College vote by force, according to the department.
Rhodes allegedly outlined a plan to stop the peaceful transfer of power during a national Oath Keepers online meeting Nov. 9, 2020, according to the indictment. Rhodes sent another meeting on the encrypted Signal app Nov. 11, 2020, that said if Biden assumed the presidency, “It will be a bloody and desperate fight. We are going to have a fight. That can’t be avoided,” according to the indictment. Rhodes also published a letter Dec. 14, 2020, on an Oath Keepers website advocating for the use of force to stop the lawful transfer of power, according to the indictment.
“There is no standard political or legal way out of this,” Rhodes wrote to a leadership chat on Signal on Dec. 31, 2020, according to the indictment.
Other defendants in the conspiracy case allegedly organized training sessions to set up ambushes, arranged encrypted communications for group planning and recruited others to participate, the indictment said.
Another defendant in the case, Graydon Young of Englewood, Florida, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy and obstruction of Congress, wrote an email Dec. 26, 2020, to an unidentified Florida company, which conducts firearms and combat training, telling them he “recommended your training to the team," according to court records.
While some Oath Keepers were breaching the Capitol, others remained outside the city as a quick reaction force to potentially transport firearms and other weapons into the city, according to the department. Vallejo allegedly coordinated the quick response teams with Caldwell, according to the indictment.
Co-conspirators discussed bringing firearms and ammunition, and referred to the quick response force, which was handling the “arsenal,” according to the indictment. Teams from Arizona, Florida and North Carolina set up quick reaction force rooms at the Comfort Inn Ballston in Virginia, according to the indictment.
Another defendant, Caleb Berry, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy and obstruction of Congress, admitted coordinating with Oath Keepers members to bring firearms to the D.C. area, according to court records.
While traveling Jan. 3, Rhodes allegedly spent $6,000 in Texas on an AR-type rifle and equipment such as sights, mounts, triggers and slings, according to the indictment. While traveling Jan. 4, Rhodes allegedly spent another $4,500 in Mississippi on firearms equipment, according to the indictment.
As the crowd gathered outside the Capitol on Jan. 6 about 2 p.m., Rhodes allegedly entered the restricted area of the Capitol grounds and directed his followers to meet him at the Capitol, according to the department.
About 2:30 p.m., Hackett, Harrelson, Meggs, Moerschel and Watkins, and other Oath Keepers and affiliates – many wearing paramilitary clothing and patches with the Oath Keepers name, logo, and insignia – marched in a “stack” formation up the east steps of the Capitol and made their way inside, according to the indictment.
Later, a group including James, Minuta, and Ulrich, formed a second “stack” and allegedly breached 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 indictment.
Rhodes gave directions through his Signal chat, including one at 3:30 p.m. "Anyone in DC who is not tasked with a security detail, come yo US Capitol on the Supreme Court side. come to Capitol on the NE corner."
Participants allegedly celebrated at a restaurant in Vienna, Virginia, after the attack and later talked about future actions, according to the indictment. Rhodes continued buying thousands of dollars worth of firearms and equipment in the weeks after the attack.
By Jan. 20 – Inauguration Day – "Rhodes messaged others to organize local militias to oppose President Biden's administration," the indictment said.
Contributing: Kevin Johnson and Will Carless
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: DOJ charges Oath Keepers with sedition in Jan. 6 Capitol attack