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Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes was in direct contact with rioters before and during Capitol breach, U.S. alleges

Jessica Watkins, second from left, and Donovan Ray Crowl, center, both from Ohio, march down the East Front steps of the U.S. Capitol with the Oath Keepers on Jan. 6.
Jessica Watkins, second from left, and Donovan Ray Crowl, center, both from Ohio, march down the East Front steps of the U.S. Capitol with the Oath Keepers on Jan. 6. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)
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U.S. prosecutors alleged Monday that Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes was in direct contact before, during and immediately after the Jan. 6 Capitol breach with members since charged with plotting to prevent Congress from confirming the results of the 2020 presidential election.

In a late-night court filing, prosecutors alleged that Rhodes directed the right-wing anti-government group to rally during the riot to the southeast steps of the Capitol, after which several members forcibly entered the east side of the building.

Prosecutors said they had recovered a chat called “DC OP: Jan 6 21” on the encrypted Signal messaging app that “shows that individuals, including those alleged to have conspired with [others], were actively planning to use force and violence.”

Prosecutors said chat participants included Rhodes — identified only as “Person One” in the filing but whom prosecutors named in earlier court papers — and two charged Oath Keepers members: Jessica Watkins, 38, an Ohio leader, and Kelly Meggs, 52, of Florida.

Many have argued that President Donald Trump's efforts amounted to an attempted coup on Jan. 6. Was it? And why does that matter? (Video: Monica Rodman, Sarah Hashemi/The Washington Post)

U.S. authorities have charged Watkins, Meggs and eight other people who appear to be members or associates of the Oath Keepers, alleging a wider conspiracy to obstruct Congress amid rioting that led to five deaths and assaults on about 140 police officers. Charges have been brought against more than 300 defendants, but prosecutors led by the U.S. attorney’s office for Washington have not publicly charged anyone other than alleged rioters.

In the court filing, prosecutors said Rhodes, Watkins, Meggs and “regional Oath Keeper leaders from multiple states across the country” discussed plans in the chat for members and affiliates to come to Washington for events on Jan. 5 and 6 to “provide security to speakers and VIPs.”

Prosecutors said they found “no discussion of forcibly entering the Capitol until January 6.”

Authorities cited this video evidence against apparent Oath Keepers Thomas Edward Caldwell, Jessica Watkins and Donovan Crowl in the attack on the Capitol. (Video: TWP)

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But they said the chat messages, combined with Rhodes’s previous statements, “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. . . . They were plotting to use violence to support the unlawful obstruction of a Congressional proceeding.”

In a text message Tuesday morning, Rhodes — who has not been charged and whom prosecutors did not name as a conspirator — called the government’s new allegations “total nonsense.”

In a lengthy interview with the Post last week in Fort Worth, Rhodes repeatedly denied he had any advance knowledge that Oath Keepers planned to enter the Capitol, blaming rogue members.

“Just so we’re clear on this: We had no plan to enter the Capitol, zero plan to do that, zero instructions to do that, and we also had zero knowledge that anyone had done that until after they had done that — afterwards,” Rhodes said.

In Monday’s court filing, prosecutors quoted Rhodes messaging the group in advance about preparations for “worst-case scenarios,” writing, “We will have several well equipped QRFs [quick reaction forces] outside DC.”

Rhodes also recommended helmets, hard gloves, eye protection and weapons, according to prosecutors, writing: “Collapsible Batons are a grey area in the law. I bring one. But I’m willing to take that risk because I love em.”

During the Jan. 6 event, the chat showed that the group “was activating a plan to use force,” prosecutors said.

U.S. v. Thomas Caldwell government memo opposing release

As President Donald Trump was finishing his speech near the White House, Rhodes, according to prosecutors, wrote to the group at 1:38 p.m.: “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.”

At 2:14 p.m., an unnamed person who prosecutors said was leading the coordination of the security details run by the Oath Keepers stated, “The have taken ground at the capital[.] We need to regroup any members who are not on mission.”

Rhodes reposted that message, prosecutors said, with instructions to gather on the southeast side of the Capitol, followed at 2:41 p.m. by a photograph captioned: “South side of US Capitol. Patriots pounding on doors.”

Two minutes later, Meggs and Watkins led a line of Oath Keepers who “forcibly entered the Capitol through the Rotunda door in the center of the east side of the building,” prosecutors alleged.

“We are surging forward. Doors breached,” Thomas Edward Caldwell, who also has been charged, wrote to his Facebook contacts at 2:48 p.m. from the other side of the Capitol, the government said.

Meggs has denied anyone in particular made the decision or gave the command to enter, prosecutors said. Another charged defendant denied knowing Rhodes was on the Capitol grounds.

Nevertheless, prosecutors wrote, about 4 p.m., Meggs and three other defendants who had exited the building gathered around Rhodes, where they were photographed and recorded.

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Prosecutors submitted the filing to argue for the continued detention of Caldwell, 66, of Berryville, Va. Prosecutors said Caldwell, a career Navy intelligence officer, was not on the chat but responded after Rhodes called on members to “get to DC to stand tall in support of President Trump” against what Rhodes called an attempted coup.

Caldwell attorney David Fischer did not immediately respond to a request for comment late Monday. Prosecutors said they planned to disclose the communications to Fischer this week, before a detention hearing Friday.

Fischer has asked a court to release Caldwell pending trial, arguing that prosecutors have provided incomplete, inaccurate information and that the breach was not a “preplanned, premeditated scheme” to obstruct Congress but an “unplanned, spontaneous event fueled by a variety of factors on the ground.”

Prosecutors in Monday’s filing included what they said was a lengthy Signal message sent by Caldwell to “select friends” on Jan. 8 in which he allegedly said, “I have been on the Oathkeepers intel net for months now,” and explained that rallygoers were peaceful until provoked by police. “We tore our way through and had to climb through the maze of scaffolding,” Caldwell allegedly wrote, before adding, “I went over to the steps which people were using to get inside but it was so packed I couldn’t get on the steps.” The note concluded: “I am glad I was there and that I did what I did. I did not hurt anyone, I did not break anything and I did not know anyone who did or see anyone who did. did see cops hurting unarmed peaceful protestors just like the brown shirts and the gestapo used to do. It was a hell of a day in d.c. God help us all as they tear down our country.”

U.S. v. Thomas Caldwell defense motion for release from pretrial detention

In interviews, Rhodes has said he did not know Caldwell to be taking any action Jan. 6 on behalf of the Oath Keepers, and denied that Caldwell was a dues-paying member.

Rhodes said in January that Caldwell “helped” host Oath Keepers members before a November pro-Trump rally in Washington because “he’s a local,” but is “not a leader of any kind.”

Watkins “and other people went off the reservation,” Rhodes said in an interview.

“They went totally off mission. They didn’t coordinate with us at all while they were there. They did their own damned thing,” Rhodes said. He added Tuesday that he told members to wear armor as self-defense, that the national organization never did muster a “quick reaction force” for Jan. 6, and that on the Signal chat he was not endorsing storming the Capitol but observing the fact that it was happening.

“There was a bunch of chaos,” he said. “And I wanted to make sure my guys didn’t get into trouble. . . . But it was too . . . late, some of them had gone stupid and jumped inside the Capitol.”

Asked what he thought of being referred to as Person One in government filings, and if he expected to be charged, Rhodes said, “I don’t know.”

He pointed to the government’s cases and a lawsuit filed by members of Congress, saying the prosecutors and lawyers are trying to “bootstrap” the actions of a few Oath Keepers into a conspiracy and paint the group as the “boogeyman.”

“They are trying to manufacture a nonexistent conspiracy,” Rhodes said, “I didn’t say ‘don’t enter the Capitol,’ I never figured they would do that. ” He added of federal investigators, “They got nothing, they got a message from me saying, ‘Meet here.’”

In an earlier text message, Rhodes said the lawsuit blaming the Oath Keepers, Trump and Trump associates for inciting the riots is “like Russian collusion 2.0” with Trump as the target.

Separately Monday and Tuesday, prosecutors announced charges against two other men associated with the Oath Keepers, alleging that they illegally entered the Capitol after appearing to provide security for Republican strategist Roger Stone earlier that day and on Jan. 5. Roberto Minuta, 36, was taken into custody Saturday in Newburgh, N.Y., where he owns a tattoo parlor that defied pandemic restrictions, helping prompt Rhodes to name him “a lifetime Oath Keeper,” prosecutors said.

Charges were also unsealed Tuesday upon the arrest of Joshua A. James, 33, of Arab, Ala., who prosecutors said they identified based on video, online records and phone calls James allegedly made to Meggs to join the Oath Keeper group and to Minuta, identified as “Person 5” in the charging complaint.

aaron.davis@washpost.com

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