U.S. Seeks 25 Years in Prison for Rhodes in First Jan. 6 Sedition Case

Washington Post photo by Aaron Davis
Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes was found guilty of plotting to unleash political violence to prevent the inauguration of President Biden.

U.S. prosecutors on Friday asked a federal judge to sentence Oath Keepers founder and leader Stewart Rhodes to 25 years in prison and eight of his followers to at least 10 years behind bars starting later this month, in the first punishments to be handed down to far-right extremist group members convicted of seditious conspiracy in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

“No January 6 case sentenced to date is comparable to the scope and magnitude of these defendants’ convictions and conduct,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey S. Nestler wrote for a prosecution team, asking U.S. District Judge Amit P. Mehta to apply “swift and severe” punishment, including an enhanced terrorism penalty, for the Oath Keepers’ actions intended to intimidate or coerce the government.

Rhodes, a top deputy and four others were found guilty at trials in November and January of plotting to unleash political violence to prevent the inauguration of President Biden. Three co-defendants were acquitted of that count, but convicted of obstructing Congress as it met to confirm the results of the 2020 election, among other crimes. Both top offenses are punishable by up to 20 years in prison, but prosecutors asked the court to stack sentences to exceed that total for Rhodes and Florida leader Kelly Meggs.

Attorneys for Rhodes and Meggs are expected to file their own sentencing memo later.

In a 183-page government sentencing request covering all nine defendants, Nestler noted that Judge Mehta has called it “one of the great tragedies in the history of this country” to see “ordinary, hardworking Americans” turn into criminals on Jan. 6 and suffer the consequences. “These defendants are in part responsible for that national tragedy; they played significant roles in spreading doubt about the presidential election and turning others against the government,” the prosecutor wrote.

Rhodes “exploited his vast public influence” over the anti-government extremist movement and used his talents for manipulation to lead “more than twenty other American citizens into using force, intimidation, and violence to seek to impose their preferred result on a U.S. presidential election. This conduct created a grave risk to our democratic system of government,” Nestler wrote.

Rhodes and his co-defendants were the first accused of seditious conspiracy in the Capitol breach and the first to face trial and be convicted on any conspiracy charge in the massive Jan. 6 investigation, which has resulted in more than 1,000 arrests and more than 650 convictions so far.

The total now includes 14 Proud Boys or Oath Keepers members who have pleaded guilty to or been convicted of seditious conspiracy. Most recently, four members of the Proud Boys, including former chairman Henry “Enrique” Tarrio, were convicted on Thursday by a different jury in Washington, D.C., of spurring a violent mob to overrun police and enter the building.

Rhodes and Tarrio are the highest-profile figures to face trial in connection with rioting by angry supporters of former president Donald Trump. Rioters injured scores of officers, ransacked offices and forced lawmakers to evacuate.

According to prosecutors, Rhodes and followers, dressed in combat-style gear, converged on the Capitol after staging an “arsenal” of weapons at nearby hotels, ready to take up arms at Rhodes’s direction. Rhodes’s defense said he and co-defendants came to Washington as bodyguards for Republican VIPs including Roger Stone and a relative of Stop the Steal organizer Ali Alexander. Oath Keepers said they brought firearms only to help act as “peacekeepers” in case Trump met their demand to mobilize private militia to stop Biden from becoming president.

After networks declared the election for Biden, on Nov. 7, 2020, Rhodes asked a “Friends of Stone” chat group, including Stone, his former aide Tarrio, and others, “What’s the plan?” and shared a proposal for storming Congress. Rhodes spurred followers with growing urgency over the ensuing two months to be ready for an “armed rebellion,” including in two open letters to Trump, as he organized members who came to Washington with firearms prepared for violence.

Rhodes was at the Capitol and did not enter. But he tapped Meggs, an auto dealer manager, as Florida state lead, and was in phone contact with him just before Meggs led a single-file line of members in military-style tactical gear up the East Capitol steps, where they helped a crowd force entry to the building.

“We are Militia! We don’t have to play by their rules! We make the rules,” Meggs wrote in Oath Keepers chats, echoing Rhodes. He also said he had “orchestrated a plan” with the Proud Boys, having met members of the group during an earlier violent pro-Trump protest in D.C.

Rhodes and co-defendants testified that those plans did not include entering the Capitol, describing it as a spur-of-the-moment decision made without consultation.

But prosecutors said their words and actions demonstrated tacit agreement with an illegal plot proposed in public and private before Jan. 6 by Rhodes, who warned repeatedly that “bloody civil war” was necessary to keep Trump in office if the election results were not overturned.

Convicted of seditious conspiracy in addition to Rhodes and Meggs were Roberto Minuta, of Prosper, Tex.; Joseph Hackett, of Sarasota, Fla.; David Moerschel, of Punta Gorda, Fla., and Edward Vallejo, of Phoenix.

Convicted of other crimes were Kenneth Harrelson, a former Army sergeant from Titusville, Fla., Jessica Watkins, another Army veteran and bar owner from Woodstock, Ohio, and Thomas Caldwell, a retired Navy intelligence officer who stayed outside the building but hosted other defendants at his farm in Berryville, Va.

Meggs, Harrelson and Watkins were convicted of impeding lawmakers, and all were convicted of destroying evidence but Watkins, who was found guilty of a separate rioting count.

Caldwell was the first defendant to submit his sentencing request to the court, and noted he was not convicted of any conspiracy count. Caldwell’s defense asked for a sentence of time served – 53 days of pandemic solitary confinement in jail and more than nine months’ home confinement – citing his 20 years of Navy service, clear criminal history and declining health after his full service-related disability.

“Caldwell is a physical wreck,” attorney David W. Fischer wrote, “Caldwell’s conduct and behavior were more akin to a loud-mouth Walter Mitty than the Rambo-type figure the government has portrayed him since his arrest.”

The Justice Department arrested Rhodes in January 2022 and Tarrio the following June after an internal debate over whether their actions in the Capitol attack merited bringing seldom-used seditious conspiracy charges, one of the gravest crimes that can be alleged against an American citizen in peacetime. The department ultimately chose to send a public message by charging the defendants with committing a wider attack on democracy.