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As ‘Person One’, Oath Keepers frontman Stewart Rhodes has long been a suspect

PLANO, Texas — From day one of the Jan. 6 investigation, the FBI was after Person One — the Justice Department’s legal term for Elmer Stewart Rhodes III, a Yale-educated military veteran who founded the extremist group Oath Keepers.

He was not among hundreds charged in the year since the attack for crimes ranging from assaulting a police officer to unlawfully entering the Capitol.

But he made frequent appearances in prosecutorial filings, which indicated that “Person One” was in regular contact with those who allegedly attacked Congress, prompting his followers to prepare for an apocalyptic confrontation with those who would recognize the presidential victory of Joe Biden and the end. during Donald Trump’s time in power.

On Thursday, a year and a week after the riot rocked the US Capitol, FBI agents in Texas arrested Rhodes, on the basis of a newly unsealed indictment charging him with the rare crime of seditious conspiracy .

He is the most high-profile person charged in the extensive investigation to date.

Chained at the wrists and ankles, Rhodes appeared briefly in federal court here on Friday.

Magistrate Judge Kimberly Priest Johnson ordered him to remain in jail at least until a detention hearing on January 20.

Dressed in jeans, work boots and a green t-shirt, Rhodes, 56, looked calm as he sat in the courtroom chatting with his lawyers, seated among other defendants in unrelated cases and surrounded by U.S. Marshals.

Outside the courthouse, Rhodes lawyers James Lee Bright and Philip Linder told reporters their client would seek release pending trial.

“He’s not a flight risk, he has no criminal history, no passport and he’s not guilty,” Linder said.

Bright added that Rhodes “is looking forward to fighting the charges.”

Another newly charged oath keeper, Edward Vallejo of Phoenix, appeared briefly before a federal magistrate in Arizona, who ordered that he too be held until a detention hearing next week.

[Seditious conspiracy: 11 Oath Keepers charged in Jan. 6 riot]

Most seditious conspiracy precedents are drawn from cases from the late 1700s or early 1900s. The last time the Justice Department filed such charges was during the Obama administration, against so-called militia members, and a judge dismissed the case.

The last federal sedition prosecution took place 26 years ago, when Omar Abdel Rahman, also known as the “Blind Sheikh,” and nine others were convicted of plotting to blow up the United Nations, the FBI building in Manhattan and the bridges and tunnels between New Jersey and New York.

“This will be a new case in every way because the precedent is extremely limited, but I think it’s an appropriate charge here,” said Ryan Fayhee, a former national security attorney at the Justice Department who now in private practice. “It takes a lot of care and courage to file a complaint and use a law that is very rarely used. . . . It’s going to be a hell of a legal battle, there’s no doubt about it.

The law, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, makes it a crime to “conspire to overthrow, suppress, or destroy by force the government of the United States, or to wage war against it, or to forcibly oppose its authority, or by force to prevent, obstruct, or retard the execution of any law of the United States, or by force to seize, take, or possess any property of the United States contrary to their authority.

The way the law is written offers a potentially low bar for filing a charge – in theory, simply delaying the execution of any law or taking any government property could result in charges.

But Fayhee argued that the nature of what Rhodes and his supporters allegedly did before the Capitol was breached shows that Jan. 6 is the rare instance in which the spirit of the Seditious Conspiracy Act can rightly be applied.

“What makes these defendants different is the alleged planning, the overt acts, the Capitol building, the communications, and then the inconsistencies in the public records about why they were there,” Fayhee said.

Justice Department officials have weighed possible sedition charges against some oath keepers for nearly a year, while legal experts have publicly debated the pitfalls and potential benefits of using the law.

In late February or early March, according to a person familiar with the matter, prosecutors at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington prepared a memo outlining possible sedition cases that could be filed and sent it to the Security Division. at the headquarters of the Ministry of Justice.

Rhodes has denied any wrongdoing, saying he never entered the Capitol and never intended for members of his group to enter. demonstrations in support of the then president’s false allegations of widespread voter fraud.

A day before his arrest, Rhodes ripped into the FBI in an online interview with Northwest Liberty News.

“I stuck my neck out and basically sacrificed myself, my own success, to do Oath Keepers. . . . I could be a wealthy lawyer if I had chosen that path, but instead I chose to sacrifice that and to do Patriot’s job,” Rhodes said, expressing frustration that some on the far right had suggested he was an FBI informant.

“That’s what the FBI does, they make you turn on each other, accuse each other and distrust each other,” Rhodes said. “It arouses suspicion and mistrust, even when they manipulate people and groups.”

The 48-page indictment against Rhodes and 10 Oath Keeper adherents describes him as the group’s driving ideological force, relying heavily on the defendants’ own communications on encrypted messaging apps and other forums.

In a group message on December 11, 2020, Rhodes wrote that if Biden takes office, “it will be a bloody and desperate fight. We will fight. It cannot be avoided.

He made similar statements a day later at a pro-Trump rally in Washington.

On Christmas Day that year, Rhodes said in a secure chat with Florida Oath Keepers that he expected Congress to likely certify Biden’s victory and Trump’s “only chance.” . . it’s if we scare them and convince them that it will be time for torches and pitchforks.

The indictment says Rhodes purchased weapons in the days leading up to Jan. 6, spending about $15,500 in the new year on firearms and equipment, including “a shotgun, scope, magazines, sights, optics, bipod, mount, ammo box, and gun cleaning supplies.

In the two weeks between January 6 and the inauguration, he reportedly spent an additional $17,500 on additional firearms, accessories and equipment.

The indictment charges that even after taking part in the storming of the halls of Congress, Rhodes’ supporters were preparing to maintain their far-right rebellion.

“We’ve had food for 30 days,” Vallejo reportedly said in a group chat on Signal, adding, “We only have [begun] combat!”

On January 11, another oath-keeper, Jessica Watkins from Ohio, reportedly sent a message to a co-conspirator: “We have arranged an escape plan if the usurper is installed. . .Something like 20+ Oathkeepers going in the mountains of Kentucky over hundreds of acres apparently. She suggested that they might adopt the tactics of the North Vietnamese army during the Vietnam War by hiding in tunnels.

Nevins reported from Plano. Barrett and Hsu reported from Washington.