The leader of the extremist Oath Keepers paramilitary group was outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and helped coordinate members’ attack on the building, advising which entrances were most vulnerable and what weapons to bring, the federal government says.
The U.S. Department of Justice alleged what Elmer Stewart Rhodes did during the Capitol riot in a court filing late Monday in a case related to another Oath Keepers member. The DOJ does not use Rhodes’ name in the document, referring to him instead as “Person One,” and has not charged him with a crime.
Instead, the description of his alleged actions signals that federal prosecutors have collected significant information about Rhodes’ activities and communications prior to the Jan. 6 events and could be building up to a larger case against him or other Oath Keepers associates, experts say.
USA TODAY was able to identify Rhodes as Person One based on the contents of a public blog post that prosecutors attribute to Person One. The DOJ says repeatedly in documents that the Oath Keepers are led by Person One, and prosecutors once used Rhodes’s name in an earlier affidavit.
The DOJ already has charged nine Oath Keepers and affiliates with conspiracy related to their coordination of the siege on the Capitol. They include Thomas Caldwell of Virginia and Jessica Watkins and Donovan Crowl of Ohio, who are accused of planning with members in North Carolina and Florida.
Aitan Goelman, a former federal prosecutor who helped build the case around the Oklahoma City bombing, said the Department of Justice likely has been trying to identify the lower-level actors within the Oath Keepers in hopes they’ll turn on the people above them. Then prosecutors would make their way up the hierarchy.
“That’s a pretty conventional method when you’re dealing with organized crime or terrorism, gangs, mafia, that kind of thing,” Goelman said. “Give them leniency in exchange for testifying against people further up the chain.”
Rhodes actions on Jan. 6
Rhodes founded the Oath Keepers in his home state of Nevada in 2009 and has claimed as many as 30,000 members nationwide, a number that experts who follow his group have questioned.
The organization recruits people with police and military training and asks them to uphold the oaths they took to the U.S. Constitution. But Rhodes also peddles conspiracy theories to his members, including the claim that President Joe Biden was not rightfully elected.
The debunked conspiracy theory about Biden’s election was one of the falsehoods many rioters used to justify invading the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, as Congress met to confirm the Electoral College votes from each state.
The insurrection sent lawmakers and the vice president fleeing for shelter, caused millions in damages to the Capitol and led to five deaths.
Rhodes was in the thick of it, DOJ documents claim. From outside the Capitol, he directed his allies through a series of messages starting shortly after police ordered the building evacuated. According to messages and video detailed by the filings:
- At 1:38 p.m.: Rhodes wrote, “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.”
- Around 2:15 p.m.: Five minutes after police could be heard on a radio saying they lost control, Rhodes reposted a message from a member of his group, “Come to South Side of Capitol on steps.”
- Around 2:40 p.m.: Eight people described in court documents as Oath Keepers affiliates – Donovan Crowl, Jessica Watkins, Sandra Parker, Bennie Parker, Graydon Young, Laura Steele, Kelly Meggs, and Connie Meggs – formed a line and entered through the rotunda door on the east side. All have been charged for their parts in the attack.
- Around the same time, the DOJ says, Rhodes posted another photo of the southeast side of the building with the message, “South side of US Capitol. Patriots pounding on doors.”
- At 2:48 p.m.” On the other side of the Capitol, another defendant accused by the DOJ of conspiring with the other Oath Keepers, Thomas Caldwell, wrote to his Facebook contacts, “We are surging forward. Doors breached.”
- By 4 p.m.: When many insurgents were already leaving the building and the National Guard was en route, a group of Oath Keepers gathered on the east side of the Capitol grounds around Rhodes “and stood around waiting for at least 10 minutes in that location.”
Leadup to the Capitol siege
Since January, the DOJ has been referring to Rhodes as Person One in documents. That’s because of a department policy not to name anyone in a document who is not being charged, according to Goelman, the former prosecutor.
Rhodes’ association with those already arrested, including Oath Keepers affiliate Roberto Minuta, dates back well before the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
Federal authorities arrested Minuta on Saturday for obstructing Congress on Jan. 6, among other charges. The charging documents detail his connection with Rhodes, going back at least to May.
That month, Minuta, the owner of a New York tattoo shop, appeared in a video vowing to disobey state public health directives related to the coronavirus pandemic. Rhodes was there to praise him.
“I’m going to designate him as a lifetime Oath Keeper,” Rhodes said in the video.
Rhodes’ name also came up in late November when Caldwell referred to him in a message to someone discussing a planned event on Dec. 12. Caldwell wrote: “Not sure what if anything [Person One] has in mind but I will be there,” according to documents in his case.
Authorities arrested Caldwell on Jan. 19 in Virginia.
Prosecutors have also cited part of a Jan. 4 blog post by Rhodes that called on Oath Keepers to come to Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6. The quote is at the beginning of an indictment for the nine Oath Keepers charged with conspiring to attack the Capitol.
“It is CRITICAL that all patriots who can be in DC get to DC to stand tall in support of President Trump’s fight to defeat the enemies foreign and domestic who are attempting a coup, through the massive vote fraud and related attacks on our Republic,” Rhodes wrote on his website Jan. 4. “We Oath Keepers are both honor-bound and eager to be there in strength to do our part.”
At some point in the days leading up to the attack, Rhodes messaged a group of followers what to bring to the Capitol and advised them on what kind of backup they would have off-site, according to court documents.
“DO NOT bring in anything that can get you arrested,” Rhodes is quoted as writing. “Leave that outside DC. We will have several well equipped QRFs outside DC. And there are many, many others, from other groups, who will be watching and waiting on the outside in case of worst case scenarios.”
QRF is a reference to a quick reaction force, a type of military formation that provides assistance to allied groups. The DOJ has cited this formation in documents that charge other members of the Oath Keepers.
Rhodes is also quoted as writing: “Highly recommend a C or D cell flashlight if you have one. Collapsible Batons are a grey area in the law. I bring one. But I’m willing to take that risk because I love em. Good hard gloves, eye pro, helmet. In a pinch you can grab Mechanix gloves and a batters helmet from Walmart. Bring something to put on your noggin.”
Contributing: USA TODAY reporter Dinah Voyles Pulver