Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the far-right Oath Keepers militia group, and 10 others have been charged with inflammatory conspiracy related to their involvement in the attack on the United States capital on January 6, 2021.
Rhodes is the highest member of a far right group to be arrested in connection with the deadly siege, and this is the first time the U.S. Department of Justice has brought a provocative conspiracy charge in connection with the riot.
Rhodes was arrested Thursday in Little Elm, Texas, the Justice Department said in a statement.
He is charged along with more than a dozen other members and associates of the Oath Keepers, who according to authorities came to Washington, DC for the purpose of certifying President Joe Biden’s election victory.
Rhodes did not enter the Capitol building on January 6th. He is accused of helping to insert forward the violence which disrupted the certification of the vote.
The Oath Keepers case is the largest conspiracy case brought by federal authorities to date over the Capitol attack, when thousands supporters of former president Donald Trump stormed past police barricades and smashed windows and caused lawmakers to run.
Exciting conspiracy is defined as an attempt “to overthrow, overthrow or forcibly destroy the United States government” and carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
The Oath keepers focuses on recruiting current and former police, emergency services and military members.
Prosecutors say Rhodes used private encrypted communications at the end of December 2020 to plan to travel to the US capital on January 6. He and others planned to bring weapons to the area to help support the operation, they said.
“While some Oath Keepers members and affiliates violated the Capitol grounds and building, others were stationed just outside the city in rapid reaction force (QRF) teams,” the Justice Department said in a statement.
“According to the indictment, the QRF teams were prepared to quickly transport firearms and other weapons to Washington, DC in support of operations aimed at using force to stop the lawful transfer of presidential power.”
The charges against Rhodes, 56, and another man – Edward Vallejo, 63, of Phoenix, Arizona – are the first to face them in connection with the Capitol riot, the Justice Department said.
Nine other defendants, who have been charged with other crimes related to the riot, will now also face charges of provocative conspiracy and other crimes, it also said.
The nine previously charged defendants are: Thomas Caldwell, 67, of Berryville, Virginia; Joseph Hackett, 51, of Sarasota, Florida; Kenneth Harrelson, 41, of Titusville, Florida; Joshua James, 34, of Arabia, 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.
The Department of Justice charged more than 725 people with crimes arising from the attack. Of those people, about 165 pleaded guilty and at least 70 were sentenced.
Last week, a day before the one-year anniversary of the attack, the U.S. attorney general General Merrick Garland promised to hold anyone involved accountable. He said the justice department would “follow the facts wherever they lead”.
Meanwhile, a U.S. House of Representatives Committee also investigates the events that led to the riot, including the alleged involvement of prominent Republicans and Trump’s closest associates.
Kevin McCarthy, Republican leader of the U.S. House, on Wednesday rejected a request to testify before that committee. McCarthy called the committee’s work an “abuse of power” and said he decided not to participate with “neither regret nor satisfaction”.