Four members of the far-right Oath Keepers group were convicted of seditious conspiracy Monday, joining founder Stewart Rhodes in being found guilty by a jury of plotting to keep President Donald Trump in power by force.
At Rhodes’s trial, only he and Florida Oath Keepers leader Kelly Meggs were found guilty of conspiring to commit sedition, while three associates were convicted of less politically loaded felonies that did not require plans to use force. Monday’s verdict — which came after the jury deliberated for about 13 hours — comes as five members of the Proud Boys face trial down the hall on seditious conspiracy charges.
What to know about the Oath Keepers sedition trial
- Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes was found guilty of seditious conspiracy in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.
- He is accused of guiding a months-long effort to unleash politically motivated violence to prevent the swearing-in of President Biden.
- Where do things stand now? Some Oath Keepers have been convicted and others still face trial.
- Rhodes is the most high-profile person charged in the investigation so far.
- The Oath Keepers trial is the highest-profile prosecution to arise from the 2021 Capitol chaos.
- The trial is an important step in the wider probe, analysts say.
The convictions underscore the government’s contention that the Jan. 6 attack was not a peaceful protest gone awry but a planned assault on democracy.
Joseph Hackett, 52; Roberto Minuta, 38; David Moerschel, 45, and Edward Vallejo, 64, were all also convicted Monday of obstructing lawmakers and Congress generally and conspiring to do the same. Hackett was convicted of destroying evidence by deleting it from his devices, while Minuta and Moerschel were acquitted on that charge. Hackett and Moerschel were acquitted of responsibility for damaging the Capitol’s historic Columbus doors.
Both the obstruction and sedition convictions carry penalties of up to 20 years in prison, but sentencing guidelines are likely to be in the range of 5 to 7 years.
The Oath Keepers were described by federal prosecutors as armed and dangerous traitors, and by their attorneys as hapless has-beens who stumbled into chaos.
“They claimed to wrap themselves in the Constitution, but they trampled it,” prosecutor Jeffrey Nestler said in closing arguments. “They ignored the will of the people,” he said, but “had the audacity to claim to be oath-keepers.”
U.S. District Judge Amit P. Mehta allowed all four men to await sentencing on 24-hour house arrest, noting that none of them had prior criminal history or issues on pretrial release.
The nine Oath Keepers affiliates accused of seditious conspiracy were split into two trials for practical reasons, with prosecutors saying the first group was more culpable. Defense attorneys for the second group suggested their clients suffered because the jury couldn’t compare their actions to more egregious evidence laid out against Rhodes in the first trial.
Hackett and Moerschel traveled to D.C. from Florida with Meggs and followed him into the Capitol at 2:38 p.m. Minuta was in a separate Oath Keeper group providing security for Trump confidant Roger Stone that morning. Stone refused to leave his hotel because the Oath Keepers could not guarantee him access to the presidential stage, according to the testimony. When the riot started, Minuta and the others left Stone and rode hotel golf carts over to the Capitol. They entered around 3:15 p.m. and were pushed out a few minutes later, as Minuta shouted at the officers, “All that’s left is the Second Amendment!”
Vallejo came with friends from Arizona; he spent the morning of Jan. 6, 2021, trying to figure out where he parked his truck the day before. Then surveillance video shows he went back to the Ballston Comfort Inn where the Oath Keepers had stashed their guns. During the riot he repeatedly offered by text to come in as a “Quick Reaction Force,” and the next morning he went back to the Capitol to “probe the defense line,” but he got no response either time.
After the riot, the Oath Keepers dined at an Olive Garden in Tysons. At first, they were eagerly planning next steps, attendee Joe Harrington testified, like “preparing for a trip to Disney World.” Then they learned that federal agents were looking for them, and it was “like when the lights come on and the cockroaches scatter.” Several members woke up the next morning to find that their leaders had hastily left D.C.
Federal prosecutors alleged more emphatically than in the previous trial that the Oath Keepers came close to committing deadly violence. Rhodes expressed regret after Jan. 6 about not having rifles that day. Prosecutor Louis Manzo told jurors that both Minuta and Vallejo might have killed lawmakers had they not been deterred by the Capitol Police on Jan. 6, 2021, and the National Guard the day after.
Noting testimony that Florida Oath Keeper Kenneth Harrelson pushed Capitol Police to see if he could feel body armor, Manzo argued that “shooting officers … was on the table.” That allegation was not made before Harrelson, who was tried with Rhodes, was acquitted of seditious conspiracy in November.
“This isn’t Twitter fingers,” Manzo said, referring to defense attorneys’ claims that their clients were all talk. “These are traitors. They were ready for violence.”
Through attorneys, the defendants claimed their motives and actions, while foolish, were idiosyncratic and unplanned. They were drawn to the Oath Keepers not to overthrow the government but for protection from the antifascists, criminals and covid restrictions right-wing media led them to fear, they argued. Rhodes then convinced them he was likely to receive orders directly from Trump to muster as a defense force under the Insurrection Act.
“Responsibility really rests at our politicians’ feet,” Moerschel’s attorney, Scott Weinberg said. “The president and Stewart Rhodes were claiming that the world is coming to an end even before the election.” He said most Oath Keepers quit after about a year, when they realized it was just Rhodes’s “piggy bank” — and that those who joined the fray on Jan. 6, 2021, were mostly “rookies.”
Trump did not invoke the Insurrection Act. Prosecutors say that’s when the Oath Keepers decided to act on their own. One former member, 21-year-old Caleb Berry, testified that Meggs explicitly directed the group to stop the vote count.
The defendants said that was a fabrication from an unreliable narrator, and that those who entered the Capitol did so spontaneously. Berry was not called to testify against Meggs in the first trial.
“The breach of the U.S. Capitol was a surprise to each and every one of the Oath Keepers,” Hackett’s attorney, Angie Halim, said in her closing argument. Weinberg compared it to “a soccer stampede.” Minuta “lost his cool” when pushed by an officer but hadn’t planned to get violent, his attorney, William Shipley, said: “Everybody has their sort of worst moments.”
Halim accused the Justice Department of doing a “curiously limited” investigation, with inexperienced FBI agents who “did not understand and did not bother to learn” about their targets beyond text messages and social media posts.
“There’s an understandable desire to demand accountability,” she said. “They failed here.”
Brian Ulrich, a 44-year-old Oath Keeper who pleaded guilty to seditious conspiracy in April, testified that he arrived at the Capitol with Minuta and paused for several minutes at the doors.
“I was battling out this fact that I knew going in there was wrong with this feeling that I’ve got to do something,” he said.
In crossing the threshold, he told jurors, he became part of an attempt to block the transfer of power by force that he now regrets. “It was all kind of building up to this point,” he recalled thinking. “We’ve gotten this far.” But he testified that he did not expect when he agreed to guard Stone to be storming the Capitol later that day.
“I didn’t know the sixth would be the sixth,” he said.
After the verdict, Weinberg said the defendants were not “evil insurrectionists” but “real people who got … swept up in the ‘Stop the Steal’ nonsense that was pushed by the president.”
The House committee investigating Jan. 6 recommended criminal charges against Trump and other Republican leaders, and a special counsel is looking into the false claims of election fraud.
“I don’t know if they’re legally responsible,” Weinberg said. “I think they’re morally responsible.”
The Oath Keepers trial
The latest: In a second sedition trial, four members of the far-right Oath Keepers group were convicted of seditious conspiracy. Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes was found guilty of seditious conspiracy in the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack.
How did we get here: Stewart Rhodes and other members of his group were charged with seditious conspiracy in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Who is involved: A 13-count indictment charges Stewart Rhodes and eight others with conspiring to use force to oppose the lawful transfer of power to President Biden. Here are the nine Oath Keepers on trial.