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Prosecutors Allege 'Substantial Evidence' Of Oath Keepers Conspiracy To Storm Capitol

Trump supporters clash with police and security forces as people try to storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
Brent Stirton
Getty Images
Trump supporters clash with police and security forces as people try to storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

The founder of the Oath Keepers militia had a 97-second phone call with a senior member of the group who minutes later took part in a military-style "stack" formation with other Oath Keepers to breach the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, according to federal prosecutors.

The allegation emerged in court papers the Justice Department filed overnight in the case against 10 alleged members or associates of the Oath Keepers facing conspiracy and other charges in connection with the Capitol riot.

Prosecutors allege that the call, along with a series of text messages in an encrypted chat group called "DC OP: Jan 6 21," amount to "substantial evidence" of a conspiracy to try to stop Congress' certification of the Electoral College count.

The filing sheds more light on the actions on Jan. 6 of Stewart Rhodes, who founded the Oath Keepers in 2009. Rhodes is only identified as "Person One" in the document but has been identified as the group's founder in previous court papers.

Rhodes has not been charged in connection with the Capitol insurrection, but the latest court document and previous statements by prosecutors suggest investigators are closely scrutinizing his actions on and around Jan. 6.

In the latest filing, prosecutors allege that Rhodes called Florida Oath Keeper leader Kelly Meggs at 2:32 p.m. on Jan. 6, just as Meggs and several of his associates were getting into a "stack" formation to push up the steps of the Capitol.

It is not clear what the two men spoke about, but prosecutors note that around six minutes later, the militia members who had coalesced into a stack formation "forcibly" entered the Capitol "by pushing past just opened and severely damaged Capitol building doors."

The latest government filing was made to oppose the pretrial release of one of the 10 defendants in the case, Jessica Watkins, who the government says was the leader of an Ohio militia and member of the Oath Keepers.

Prosecutors allege that Watkins was in a chat group on the encrypted messaging app Signal called "DC OP: Jan 6 21" with Meggs, Rhodes and two other Oath Keepers who have been charged over the Capitol riot.

The government says the group used the chat to talk about what weapons to bring to Washington, D.C., about using handheld radios to communicate on Jan. 6 and about the existence of so-called quick reaction forces waiting outside Washington with weapons in case "of worst case scenarios."

In the Signal chat on the day of the riot, prosecutors say shortly after 1 p.m. Rhodes messaged the group: "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."

Prosecutors say around 2:15 p.m., one of the chat participants told the group that ground had been taken at the Capitol and "we need to regroup any members who are not on mission," an apparent reference to Oath Keepers who were providing "security" in Washington during the Trump rally.

Around 2:32 p.m., the government says, Rhodes "exchanged a 97 second call with 'stack' member and Florida Oath Keepers leader, Kelly Meggs, as Meggs, Watkins and the rest of the stack embedded themselves among insurgents trying to force open the east side Capitol building double doors that officers were desperately trying to keep shut."

Minutes later, the rioters — including the Oath Keepers — pushed through the doors and into the building.

Around 4 p.m., several of the now-indicted Oath Keepers, including Watkins and Meggs, gathered around Rhodes outside the Capitol.

Around two hours later, Rhodes messaged the Signal chat again, telling the group: "Leaders check to be sure you have all your team members. If anyone is missing, post here."

That evening, Rhodes texted the chat again with a long message that said the most important audience of what happened at the Capitol that day was then-President Donald Trump.

"I hope he got the message," Rhodes wrote.

The government argues that evidence supports the theory that the defendants stormed the Capitol "with the shared objective of using force to upend the transition of presidential power."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.