Oath Keepers founder is ordered detained pending trial in Jan. 6 riot

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Susan Walsh/AP Photo

A federal magistrate judge has rejected a bid for pretrial release by the founder of a right-wing militia group facing the rare charge of seditious conspiracy for allegedly orchestrating an attack on the Capitol during the certification of the presidential election results last January.

The ruling Wednesday means Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes, 56, will remain in custody as his lawyers appeal to a federal judge in Washington overseeing the case against Rhodes and 10 other members of his group.

After a hearing on Monday in Plano, Texas, wherean FBI agent testified about the results of the investigation into Rhodes and his associates, U.S. Magistrate Judge Kimberly Priest Johnson concluded that the disbarred Yale Law School graduate and Army veteran posed too great a threat to be allowed to go free pending his trial.

“The evidence shows Defendant orchestrated a large-scale attack on the federal government with the purpose of intimidating, by violence, federal officials and disrupting official governmental proceedings incident to the transfer of power in the Executive Branch following a national election,” Johnson wrote inher 17-page decision.

In an important acknowledgement of Rhodes’ significance to another investigation — the Jan. 6 select committee’s probe of the attack on the Capitol — Johnson emphasized that Rhodes would be permitted to testify to the congressional panel under a previously issued subpoena. Rhodes has indicated he was scheduled to testify in February.

Prosecutors say Rhodes was the mastermind of a plot to violently prevent the transfer of power from Donald Trump to Joe Biden, developing plans to halt the certification of the election that included amassing a weapons arsenal just outside of Washington. That “quick reaction force” was allegedly housed at a Comfort Inn in Arlington, Va., but was never deployed to the Capitol. Meanwhile, nearly two dozen Oath Keepers breached the Capitol alongside the pro-Trump mob that overwhelmed police, with some exchanging messages that they were seeking out Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Rhodes and 10 of the other Oath Keepers face the seditious conspiracy charge, while several other Oath Keepers are charged with an obstruction conspiracy.  U.S. District Court Judge Amit Mehta said at a hearing on Tuesday that he planned to hold a jury trial in April for the latter group of Oath Keepers. The judge is planning other trials for batches of Oath Keepers affiliates in July and September.

At Monday’s detention hearing, Rhodes’ attorney Phillip Linder also noted that while his client was outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, he never entered it — unlike most of the others facing criminal charges over those events.

Rhodes’ defense also argued that his references to “revolution” and “civil war” in encrypted chats after the 2020 election were merely rhetoric and that his purchases of tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of weapons were lawful and constitutionally protected.

However, Johnson rejected those arguments, finding that Rhodes’ statements, his accumulation of weapons and his direction to set up one or more caches of weapons in Virginia during the Jan. 6 events indicated that he planned violence.

“It is the totality of the evidence showing Defendant’s leadership and strategic involvement in and advocacy for armed and violent actions against the federal government, combined with Defendant’s preparedness and ready access to weapons sufficient to carry out such violent activities, that presents a significant risk of harm to others,” she wrote.

The judge said that Americans are free to express disagreement with election results and to sharply criticize the government, but that Rhodes’ behavior went well beyond that.

“Here, the Court is not faced with a peaceable assembly and petitioning, as Defendant’s extraordinary actions and the ripple effects that followed are outside the bounds of protected activities,” she wrote.

Johnson said she also had doubts that Rhodes would abide by release conditions and appear at future court hearings. She noted that while he has no criminal record and graduated from Yale Law, he admitted that he has not filed a federal tax return since 2007, even though he is “surely aware” of the tax laws.

Linder and another Texas attorney representing Rhodes, James Lee Bright, did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment on Johnson’s decision. However, they previously vowed to appeal if their client were ordered detained pending trial.

The magistrate judge also acknowledged on Wednesday that after a nearly two-hour detention hearing for Rhodes on Monday morning with several journalists in attendance, she convened another court session by telephone in the afternoon after being contacted by Rhodes’ estranged wife, Tasha Adams.

“Ms. Adams testified that throughout their marriage, Defendant would often brandish firearms in the family home to control her behavior and that Defendant would physically abuse his children under the guise of participating in ‘martial arts practice,’” Johnson wrote. “Ms. Adams described one such instance where Defendant choked the couple’s daughter; the couple’s adult son intervened to forcibly remove Defendant’s grip.”

The defendant’s estranged wife also testified that he “installed elaborate escape tunnels in the couple’s backyard, hid unregistered cars in the woods, and purchased hundreds of dollars of razor wire, which Defendant intended to install around the perimeter of the property, concealed from view, ‘in case the feds ever came to his door,’” the magistrate judge added.

It’s unclear what role the estranged wife’s testimony played in Johnson’s decision. While most of the ruling is devoted to Rhodes’ activities in the context of the Oath Keepers group, the judge also found “some evidence of a propensity towards violence in Defendant’s personal relationships.”