Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the far-right Oath Keepers militia group, and 10 others have been charged with seditious conspiracy related to their involvement in the attack on the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021.
Rhodes is the highest-ranking member of a far-right group to be arrested in relation to the deadly siege, and this is the first time the US Department of Justice has brought a seditious conspiracy charge in connection with the riot.
Rhodes was arrested on Thursday in Little Elm, Texas, the Department of Justice said in a statement.
He is charged along with more than a dozen other members and associates of the Oath Keepers, who authorities say came to Washington, DC intent on stopping the certification of President Joe Biden’s election victory.
Rhodes did not enter the Capitol building on January 6. He is accused of helping put into motion the violence that disrupted the certification of the vote.
The Oath Keepers case is the largest conspiracy case that federal authorities have brought so far over the Capitol attack, when thousands of supporters of former President Donald Trump stormed past police barriers and smashed windows, sending lawmakers running.
Seditious conspiracy is defined as attempting “to overthrow, put down or to destroy by force the government of the United States” and carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
The Oath Keepers focus on recruiting current and former police, emergency services and military members.
Prosecutors said that beginning in late December 2020, Rhodes used private encrypted communications to plan to travel to the US capital on January 6. He and others planned to bring weapons to the area to help support the operation, they said.
“While certain Oath Keepers members and affiliates breached the Capitol grounds and building, others remained stationed just outside of the city in quick reaction force (QRF) teams,” the Department of Justice said in a statement.
“According to the indictment, the QRF teams were prepared to rapidly transport firearms and other weapons into Washington, D.C., in support of operations aimed at using force to stop the lawful transfer of presidential power.”
The charges against Rhodes, 56, and another man – Edward Vallejo, 63, of Phoenix, Arizona – are the first they have faced related to the Capitol riot, the Justice Department said.
Nine other defendants, who had been charged with other crimes related to the riot, will now also face charges for seditious conspiracy and other offences, it also said.
The nine previously charged defendants are: Thomas Caldwell, 67, of Berryville, Virginia; Joseph Hackett, 51, of Sarasota, Florida; Kenneth Harrelson, 41, of Titusville, Florida; Joshua James, 34, of Arab, Alabama; Kelly Meggs, 52, of Dunnellon, Florida; Roberto Minuta, 37, of Prosper, Texas; David Moerschel, 44, of Punta Gorda, Florida; Brian Ulrich, 44, of Guyton, Georgia, and Jessica Watkins, 39, of Woodstock, Ohio.
The Justice Department has charged more than 725 people with crimes arising from the attack. Of those people, about 165 have pleaded guilty and at least 70 have been sentenced.
Last week, a day before the one-year anniversary of the attack, US Attorney General Merrick Garland vowed to hold accountable anyone who was involved. He said the Justice Department would “follow the facts wherever they lead”.
Meanwhile, a US House of Representatives committee is also investigating the events leading up to the riot, including the alleged involvement of prominent Republicans and close associates of Trump.
On Wednesday, US House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy declined a request to testify before that committee. McCarthy called the committee’s work an “abuse of power” and said he decided not to participate with “neither regret nor satisfaction”.