WASHINGTON -- Stewart Rhodes, the founder and leader of the far-right Oath Keepers militia, and 10 others have been charged with seditious conspiracy in the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol, authorities said Thursday.
The arrest of Rhodes, 56, was a big development in the sprawling investigation of the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack. The case against him and the other members of his group was the first time that prosecutors have filed charges of sedition against any of the more than 700 people accused so far of taking part in the attack.
The indictment alleges that Oath Keepers for weeks discussed trying to overturn the election results and preparing for a siege by purchasing weapons and setting up battle plans.
They repeatedly wrote in chats about the prospect of violence and the need, as Rhodes reportedly wrote in one text, "to scare the s-- out of" Congress.
Authorities have said the Oath Keepers and their associates worked as if they were going to war, discussing weapons and training. Days before the attack, one defendant suggested in a text message getting a boat to ferry weapons across the Potomac River to their "waiting arms," prosecutors say.
The indictment against Rhodes alleges that Oath Keepers formed two teams, or "stacks," that entered the Capitol.
The first stack split up inside the building to separately go after the House and Senate. The second stack confronted officers in the Capitol Rotunda, the indictment said. Outside Washington, the indictment alleges, the Oath Keepers had stationed two "quick reaction forces" that had guns "in support of their plot to stop the lawful transfer of power."
Rhodes, 56, of Granbury, Texas, is the highest-ranking member of an extremist group to be arrested in the deadly siege.
In addition to Rhodes, prosecutors charged Edward Vallejo, 63, of Phoenix, for the first time in connection with Jan. 6. The nine other militia members named in the indictment had all previously been charged, although not with sedition.
Vallejo was part of the quick-reaction force teams that the militia had deployed, which were equipped with firearms and other tactical equipment in case Rhodes called upon them to support the plot, prosecutors said. The teams included Oath Keepers from North Carolina, Florida and Arizona, according to prosecutors.
Sedition charges are difficult to prove and rarely used, but defendants face 20 years in prison if convicted, compared with five for the other conspiracy charges.
The last time U.S. prosecutors filed such a seditious conspiracy case was in 2010 in Michigan when members of the Hutaree militia were accused of inciting an uprising against the government. But a judge ordered acquittals on the sedition conspiracy charges at a 2012 trial, saying prosecutors relied too much on hateful diatribes protected by the First Amendment and didn't, as required, prove that the accused ever had detailed plans for a rebellion.
Most of the hundreds of people in the Capitol violence are facing lower-level charges. More than 150 people have been charged with assaulting police officers at the Capitol.
More than 50 have been charged with conspiracy, mostly people linked to the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers. There have been no sedition charges filed against the Proud Boys.
NOT IN CAPITOL
Rhodes did not enter the Capitol building on Jan. 6 but is accused of helping put into motion the violence. Jonathan Moseley, an attorney who said he represented Rhodes, said Rhodes was supposed to testify before the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection in a deposition but it got called off.
"He has been subject to a lot of suspicion to why he wasn't indicted," so far in the Jan. 6 riot, Moseley said. "I don't know if this is in response to those discussions, but we do think it's unfortunate. It's an unusual situation."
A second attorney representing the group, Kellye SoRelle, said she was issuing a statement later and that Mosley did not represent Rhodes.
Rhodes has said in interviews with right-wing hosts that there was no plan to storm the Capitol and that the members who did so went rogue. But he has continued to push unsubstantiated claims that the 2020 election was stolen, while posts on the Oath Keepers website have depicted the group as a victim of political persecution.
Other defendants in the conspiracy have argued in court that the only plan was to provide security at the rally before the riot or protect themselves against possible attacks from far-left antifa activists.
Rhodes, a former U.S. Army paratrooper and Yale Law School graduate, founded the Oath Keepers in 2009. The right-wing group recruits current and former military, police and first responders. Several of those arrested are veterans.
After President Donald Trump took office, Rhodes and the Oath Keepers pivoted away from their anti-government views and appeared to embrace the new spirit of nationalism and suspicions of a deep-state conspiracy that had taken root among some of the president's supporters.
Like other far-right groups such as the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers also opposed -- often physically -- the Black Lives Matter protests that flared in 2020 after George Floyd was killed by the police in Minneapolis.
Rhodes has appeared in court documents in the conspiracy case for months as "Person One."
According to the indictment, Rhodes became more serious about stopping Joe Biden from assuming office in early January, the same month he began spending thousands of dollars on military-grade firearms, ammunition and other tactical gear.
Prosecutors have not accused him of taking any weapons to Washington on Jan. 6, but they have said that Vallejo and other members of the armed reaction force outside the city discussed the possibility of "armed conflict" and "guerrilla war."
Authorities say he held a GoToMeeting call days after the election, telling his followers to go to Washington and let Trump know "that the people are behind him." Rhodes told members that they should be prepared to fight antifa and that some Oath Keepers should "stay on the outside" and be "prepared to go in armed" if necessary.
"We're going to defend the president, the duly elected president, and we call on him to do what needs to be done to save our country. Because if you don't guys, you're going to be in a bloody, bloody civil war, and a bloody -- you can call it an insurrection or you can call it a war or fight," Rhodes said, according to court documents.
Authorities have said Rhodes was part of an encrypted Signal chat with Oath Keepers from multiple states leading up to Jan. 6 called "DC OP: Jan 6 21" and it showed that the group was "activating a plan to use force" that day.
On the afternoon of the riot, authorities say Rhodes told the group over Signal: "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."
Around 2:30 p.m., Rhodes had a 97-second phone call with Kelly Meggs, the reputed leader of the group's Florida chapter, who was part of the military-style stack, authorities say.
About 10 minutes later, Rhodes sent a photo to the group showing the southeast side of the Capitol with the caption, "South side of [the] US Capitol. Patriots pounding on doors," prosecutors say. Around that same time, those in the stack formation forcibly entered the Capitol, prosecutors say.
In an interview with The New York Times last summer, Rhodes expressed frustration that several members of his group had "gone off mission" by entering the Capitol on Jan. 6, quickly adding, "There were zero instructions from me or leadership to do so."
But at least four Oath Keepers who were at the Capitol that day and are cooperating with the government have sworn in court papers that the group intended to breach the building with the goal of obstructing the final certification of the Electoral College vote.
Rhodes was arrested in Little Elm, a suburb about 35 miles north of Dallas. He was booked into the Collin County jail, where a sheriff's deputy said local jail officials could not make Rhodes available to speak with a reporter because he was arrested by federal agents.
He was expected in court Friday in Texas.
Information for this article was contributed by Michael Balsamo, Colleen Long, Alanna Durkin Richer, Jacques Billeaud, Jake Bleiberg, Lindsay Whitehurst, Nomaan Merchant, Eric Tucker and Michael Kunzelman of The Associated Press; and by Alan Feuer and Adam Goldman of The New York Times.