Traditional conspiracy is a rare charge in U.S. history, and when it is, prosecutors often win a conviction.
The statute is worded broadly, and the First Amendment is often a difficult hurdle for prosecutors who must parse the fine distinctions between a defendant’s speech, intent or motivation, and any alleged crime therein. Rebellion is also a very important task because it is politically significant: to accuse someone of sedition is to say that they have completely rejected and sought to subvert the nation’s most cherished and central democratic principles.
The most recent conviction for riotous conspiracy was that of Islamic extremist Sheikh Omar AbdelRahman. In 1995, he and nine co-conspirators were found guilty of planning attacks on federal buildings, historic sites and military installations, as well as several other serious crimes.
Before that, the last conviction for sedition in the United States was in 1954 against Lolita LeBron and four groups of Puerto Rican nationalists who had entered the US Capitol and started shooting.
The penalty for conspiracy or those plotting to “overthrow, overthrow, or destroy the United States government” is a maximum of 20 years in prison.
Rhodes, Meggs, Harrelson, Caldwell, and Watkins face not only seditious conspiracy charges, but various other charges, including conspiracy to obstruct official proceedings; obstruct an official process; and conspiracy to obstruct an officer in the performance of his duties.
Rhodes is also charged with manipulation and aiding and abetting.
Meggs and Harrelson also face additional charges, including destruction of government property and tampering. Watkins was charged with all of the above as well as civil disorder. Caldwell faced nearly all of the same charges as Rhoda, but managed to avoid a government destruction of property charge.
Prosecutors say Rhodes, a Yale Law School graduate and former Army paratrooper, began plotting on Jan. 6, just two days after the 2020 election.
Trump had lost, but still cried about a stolen election. Rhodes started an encrypted group chat on Signal, urged his fellow Oath Keepers not to lose hope and told them to stand behind the outgoing president.
His messages reiterated how the election was “stolen”. He issued a call to action and called it “What We the People Must Do.”
“We will not survive without a civil war. Too late for that. Prepare your mind, body and spirit,” he wrote.
In the coming weeks, Rhodes will hold teleconferences or video calls with Oath Keepers Meggs, Harrelson, Watkins and others. He outlined his plans to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power, recruited new oath-keepers and, according to prosecutors, sent Caldwell on a reconnaissance mission to Washington. Just before Thanksgiving, Meggs, Harrelson and other Oath Keepers even participated in combat training for “unconventional warfare.”
By December, prosecutors say Rhodes stepped up the violent rhetoric as the plan came together. On the same day voters voted — in December. 2020-14-14 – Oath Keepers in Florida and North Carolina met to conduct trap training.
Oath keepers in the south-east of the country were alerted by Christmas Eve.
According to the indictment, Rhodes told a regional leader of the group at the time that if Biden was allowed into the White House, “we’re going to have a bloody, massively bloody revolution against them. It’s going to have to happen.”
Around the same time, Rhodes publicly posted letters on the Oath Keepers website announcing that “patriotic Americans” would come to Washington on Jan. 6, what he saw as the last possible deadline to consider Trump voters. Trump had also touted the date as his “big” and “wild” protest.
Indeed, the voter deadline would have come and gone by January 6th by more than a week.
Court records show the Oath Keeper founder went on a shopping spree on New Year’s Eve, buying night vision devices and a gun scope. He will mail them to Virginia, where they arrived on January 4th.
With less than a week to go until January 6th, the buzz was palpable.
The base camp was set up at a hotel in Arlington, Virginia, on Jan. 6, prosecutors say.
Three rooms were reserved: one for Oath Keepers from North Carolina, one from Arizona, and one from Florida. Each team was a “rapid response force,” the indictment said.
The plan was simple: rapid response teams could immediately send backup to DC, be it men or guns. Those who remained in Arlington guarded the weapons that were brought into the hotel rooms, unless otherwise noted.
Records show Rhodes spent $5,000 on firearms and ammunition between Jan. 1 and Jan. 2. Watkins allegedly began assigning roles to team members around the same time. Meggs shared the map with participants in the Oath Keeper Leader Chat. He noted the “QRF,” or Quick Response Force, assembly points around the banks of the Potomac River.
They would go in by boat if the bridges were closed. They got into DC
And “if it all failed,” while across the river, Caldwell wrote in a January 2 letter that “our guys” would help get them out.
By January 3rd, Rhodes had left his home in Granbury, Texas and headed for Washington. He dropped another $6,000 on firearms, sights and triggers. Passing through Mississippi, he spent another $4,500 on guns and equipment. On the eve of the attack on the Capitol, prosecutors say Caldwell — already in Virginia — was conducting another D.C. reconnaissance mission.
On the morning of Jan. 6, about an hour before sunrise, “Chief of Operations Rhodes,” prosecutors said, left a hotel in Virginia and drove down to the Capitol.
As Trump finished his speech at the Ellipse, prosecutors say Rhodes was impatiently texting those on the encrypted executive chat.
“All I see Trump doing is complaining,” Rhodes wrote at 1:38 p.m. “I don’t see his intention to do anything. So the patriots are taking it into their own hands. They’ve had enough.”
The leadership chat shed light on questions about what to do next and rumors that members of the anti-fascist movement, or “antifa,” have infiltrated the riots. Rhodes was responding to a question from one oath-keeper about whether there were people out there “dressed up as patriots” to “cause trouble.”
Rhoda explained that there were no distractions.
Just “real patriots. Angry patriots. Like the Sons of Liberty were angry patriots,” he wrote.
Watkins and several others marched on the Capitol around the same time. In a series of Zello chats, Watkins told her fellow members, “It’s spread like wildfire that [then-Vice President Mike] Pence has betrayed us and everyone marching on the Capitol. We have about 30-40 people. We stick together and stick to the plan.”
Notably, Watkins tried to have that message in the Zello chat removed from admissible evidence at trial. She argued this week that these were rumors and not indicative of her state of mind. Justice Mehta disagreed and dismissed the petition in part. Although this report would remain under jury, other reports would not. Among those omitted were some of Mehta’s, which were deemed too inflammatory and likely to prejudice jurors.
The Obama appointee said some of the excluded reports did not appear to have “immediate impact” on Watkins’ actions or decision-making in the unrest.
Other messages from other users in Oath Keeper’s Zello chat would have been excluded if they had been sent by people not named in the case, Mehta said.
He took exception, however, as prosecutors fought to keep all of the Zello texts into evidence.
Prosecutors have indicated that one of the users talking to Watkins, a userFreedomD0z3r91′ is an unindicted co-conspirator.
Mehta agreed to keep a message from FreedomD0z3r91 to Watkins that was sent during the attack, which read: “Get it Jess. Do your own shit. This is what we damned lived for. Everything we bloody trained for. “
Once the siege had begun, the indictment said, the Oath Keepers split into two military formations inside the Capitol. Prosecutors say one pile specifically targeted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Pushing past police, Meggs, Harrelson, Watkins and other oath-keepers who will be on trial later this year breached the compound and moved into the Capitol rotunda. The first pile went into the Senate chamber, and prosecutors say that’s where Watkins told everyone around her to “push, push, push.”
“They can’t hold us,” Watkins allegedly shouted.
Police using chemical spray repelled the first pile from the Senate. The group then went to search Pelosi’s house to no avail. She, like Pence and other lawmakers, was narrowly escorted to safety.
Meanwhile, prosecutors say Caldwell, a retired U.S. Navy lieutenant commander who has previously denied his ties to the Oath Keepers, attacked barricades on the west flank of the Capitol. He climbed up the balcony and entered the restricted area.
The other Oath Keepers team would eventually be joined by Joshua James, Roberto Minuta, and Brian Ulrich. Both James and Ulrich pleaded guilty and ended up facing Rhodes and their former compatriots earlier this year.
Court documents allege that a second batch of Oath Keepers taunted the officers as they entered the Capitol building, then began grabbing and shoving them, yelling, “This is my damn building! It’s not yours!” and “Keep going!”
Prosecutors allege that by 3:30 p.m. on Jan. 6, Rhodes had instructed his leaders “who are not assigned to provide a security detail” — Joshua James admitted to prosecutors that he provided security for Trump ally Roger Stone before the attack — to reconvene.
That night, the plot continued, the indictment said.
Rod, James and fellow Oath Keeper Robert Vallejo met in Virginia’s Olive Garden to celebrate their accomplishments. But the work was not done. Rhodes wrote to members of the Signal Control Group: “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
“Patriots walking into their Capitol to send a message to the traitors is NOTHING compared to what’s coming,” he added. [Emphasis original]
The plan to stop the transfer of power was not limited to possible action before or on January 6. The plot went well beyond that, and prosecutors say records seized from Oath Keepers show that.
In one message from Watkins discussing a possible game plan for the Jan. 20 — Biden inauguration — the Ohio chapter leader said “something like 20+ oath keepers apparently going to the hills of Kentucky on hundreds of acres.”
Rhodes used the period from January 6 to 20 to purchase more weapons and equipment. Court records show he spent nearly $20,000 between Jan. 10 and 19 on scopes, magazines, ammunition, sights, gun grips, holsters and other related items.
He has defended the gun and related purchases as legal and says his rhetoric before, during and after the attack may have been distasteful, but it was still protected speech.
After earlier attempts to delay the start of that trial, Rhodes made one last attempt to go to trial earlier this month, but was unsuccessful. He has been incarcerated since his arrest and is currently in custody in Virginia. Rhodes has argued that the preparations for his trial were excessive.
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This month, he almost completely parted ways with his lawyers, Philip Linder and James Bright, citing minor allegations of prosecutorial misconduct. Rhodes brought in a third attorney, Ed Tarpley, to assist, but because Tarpley was so late to the table, Mehta urged Bright and Linder to stay. They did.
Tarpley, meanwhile, has been getting help preparing for the trial from a shadowy attorney with past ties to white supremacists, Politico reports.
The other group of oath-keepers, who were charged with Rhodes in the original indictment, will go on trial on November 29. The defendants were separated earlier this year due to logistical reasons. The D.C. federal courthouse simply did not have the space to accommodate all the oath-keepers, their attorneys, the prosecution, potential witnesses and jurors.
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