Oath Keeper leader spoke of ‘civil war’ ahead of Jan. 6 Capitol attack – US prosecutors

WASHINGTON, Oct 3 (Reuters) – Prosecutors urged a jury on Monday to convict Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and four others for their roles in storming the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, alleging they planned to do everything , whatever it took to prevent the transfer of presidential power.

“They hatched a plan for an armed insurrection to crush a cornerstone of American democracy,” prosecutor Jeff Nestler said Monday in opening statements at their trial in federal court in Washington.

Rhodes and his co-defendants Kelly Meggs, Thomas Caldwell, Jessica Watkins and Kenneth Harrelson are accused of plotting to prevent Congress from confirming Democratic President Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory in a failed attempt to keep then-President Donald Trump, a Republican, in current.

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In their opening statements, prosecutors portrayed Rhodes as a sophisticated far-right leader who sent encrypted signal messages to his supporters after Biden won the 2020 election, saying “We must prepare for civil war.”

“It will be the time of torches and pitchforks if they (Congress) don’t do the right thing,” he wrote in an encrypted message sent in November 2020.

Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol last January after Trump falsely claimed the election had been stolen from him through widespread fraud. Five people died during and shortly after the riot, and around 140 police officers were injured.

The five defendants face numerous felony charges, including seditious conspiracy — a Civil War-era statute that is rarely prosecuted and carries a statutory maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.

Prosecutors have said the defendants trained and planned on Jan. 6 and stored weapons at a hotel in northern Virginia outside the capital of the group’s so-called “quick reaction force” (QFR) that would be ready if called upon to transport weapons into Washington.

As lawmakers met to confirm Biden’s election victory, some Oath Keepers stormed into the Capitol building, dressed in paramilitary gear in a military-style formation.

Nestler said Watkins led a group of seven oath-keepers toward the Senate side of the Capitol. As she charged down the aisle with “the power of the mob with her,” Nestler said she shouted “Push, push, push!”

He said Watkins added, “They can’t hold us.”

Before Jan. 6, Meggs told Florida Oath Keepers supporters that “the time for talk is over. The real question is, who is willing to DIE?” according to text messages shown by prosecutors.

Oath Keepers militia founder Stewart Rhodes poses during an interview session in Eureka, Montana, U.S. June 20, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart/File Photo

‘IT WAS CHAOTIC’

FBI Special Agent Michael Palian testified as the government’s first witness on Monday, saying he helped escort U.S. senators back to the Senate to finish certifying the election once the Capitol had been cleared of rioters.

“It was chaotic,” Palian said, recounting how he had seen some lawmakers cry. “It looked like a bomb had gone off in there. There was pepper spray and tear gas everywhere.”

The government and extremist watchdog groups have characterized the Oath Keepers as a far-right anti-government group, with some of its members having ties to militias. Many of its members are current and former military and law enforcement personnel.

Rhodes, a Yale-educated lawyer and former U.S. Army paratrooper, has disputed that characterization.

Philip Linder, one of Rhodes’ lawyers, promised the jury that his client, whom he described as “extremely patriotic”, would take the stand to explain his side of the story.

He said the “real evidence” in the trial will show the defendants were in Washington on Jan. 5 and 6 to provide security for a number of speakers at political rallies.

Watkins’ attorney, Jonathan Crisp, said his client, a transgender woman, “never felt like she fit in, and a lot of things she did that day was trying to fit in, good and bad.”

Crisp said Watkins, an Army veteran and former firefighter who ran a bar until she was detained ahead of the trial, regretted entering the Capitol building but denied that her intention had been to stop the transfer of power.

Caldwell’s attorney, David Fischer, emphasized that his client had never attacked police, had not entered the Capitol building and had fully cooperated with the FBI.

Caldwell is accused of coordinating the Oath Keeper’s “quick reaction force” (QRF) — the armed contingent of the group that stayed inside a Virginia hotel room stocked with weapons across the river from the Capitol during the Jan. 6 attack. in which prosecutors. say was part of the alleged plot.

But “a QRF, by definition, would not be used to attack anything, including the US Capitol” and was intended to be activated only in the event of an emergency, Fischer said.

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Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch and Chris Gallagher, editing by Ross Colvin, Grant McCool and Aurora Ellis

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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