Plea Deals Are Tearing the Oath Keepers Apart

Jim Bourg/Reuters

Jim Bourg/Reuters

For a time, Edward Wilson was the model Oath Keeper. Like many members of the far-right, paramilitary organization, he was a military veteran, and he issued statements on behalf of the group.

Then, in 2015, Wilson started doing the Oath Keepers’ information technology work. The militia’s behind-the-scenes workings permanently soured him on the group.

“I was a lifetime member,” Wilson told The Daily Beast. “Then when I got into their IT and figured out everything that was going on, I was done with them.”

Wilson had developed concerns about the group’s finances, some of which, as the Wall Street Journal recently reported, allegedly funded the lifestyle of the Oath Keepers’ founder, Stewart Rhodes. But when Wilson reported his findings to fellow members, he told The Daily Beast, “nothing happened of it.” He felt as though Rhodes, a bombastic former lawyer, kept the group under his spell.

One Capitol riot and three plea deals later, that charm appears to be fading.

In recent weeks, a steady drumbeat of Oath Keepers and their associates have pleaded guilty to crimes related to the Jan. 6 break-in at the U.S. Capitol, and agreed to cooperate with further investigations into the deadly riot. For the Oath Keepers, more so than almost any other group that participated in the break-in, those cooperation agreements could prove troubling to members anxious about catching charges. Of the more than 500 people charged in the riot, members of the Oath Keepers are among the only defendants accused of conspiracy for allegedly plotting the assault on the building, in an attempt to block the certification of President Joe Biden’s election victory.

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The plea deals might offer investigators new insight into the Capitol attack—and worsen what insiders describe as chaos within a group that has traditionally stood firm behind its strongman.

“I think more will take it [the plea deals] now that they see others are folding in the ranks, especially higher-ups,” Wilson told The Daily Beast.

A lawyer for the Oath Keepers did not return a request for comment for this story.

Among those Oath Keepers associates to cooperate with investigators are Jon Schaffer, a heavy metal guitarist who admitted to breaching police lines while wearing a tactical vest and carrying bear mace; Graydon Young, an Oath Keeper who pleaded guilty to conspiracy and obstructing an official proceeding; and Mark Grods, an Oath Keeper who admitted to providing guns to another man to store in a Virginia hotel ahead of the attack.

In a Friday hearing, prosecutors said they had begun plea discussions with all remaining Oath Keepers conspiracy defendants, and that the talks were “productive.” They asked for multiple extra weeks to continue the discussions.

Lawyers for Schaffer and Young did not return requests for comment. An attorney for Grods declined to comment on his plea deal.

Grods’ and Young’s cases are particularly enmeshed in broader allegations of conspiracy by the Oath Keepers. According to a statement of offense in Young’s case, he coordinated with other Oath Keepers on encrypted messaging platforms to maintain “operational security” ahead of Jan. 6. Oath Keepers’ communications on and around that day are central to many of the group’s criminal cases, with prosecutors alleging the messages demonstrated a pre-planned attack.

Grods, meanwhile, was one of several Oath Keepers affiliates to arrive in D.C. heavily equipped. His criminal complaint cites CCTV footage showing him and two other men riding golf carts toward the Capitol. Grods also admitted to bringing guns to D.C. and giving them to another person to store in a Virginia hotel. Prior to the Capitol attack, according to communications presented by prosecutors, Oath Keepers discussed using “quick reaction forces” who would wait outside of D.C. with caches of weapons.

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Although the group claims those forces never came to fruition, prosecutors argue otherwise, pointing to footage of what they say is an Oath Keeper wheeling at least one rifle case through a Virginia hotel shortly after he participated in a conversation about quick reaction forces. (Prosecutors pressed charges against the man on Friday, alleging he was part of a quick reaction force.)

As for Rhodes, who could not be reached for comment for this story, he has not been accused of a crime. But his presence looms over multiple Oath Keepers cases. A conspiracy case against multiple Oath Keepers even quotes Rhodes’ messages on a group chat in the days and hours ahead of the Capitol breach.

“We will have several well equipped QRFs [quick reaction forces] outside DC,” he allegedly told others before Jan. 6. Although D.C. has strict gun laws (likely why Oath Keepers suggested keeping their QRFs outside the city), Rhodes suggested the group Keepers bring armor and batons to the event. “Collapsible Batons are a grey area in the law,” he wrote. “I bring one. But I’m willing to take that risk because I love em.”

On the day of the attack, Rhodes allegedly used the chat to encourage followers to gather on the southeast side of the Capitol. “South side of US Capitol. Patriots pounding on doors,” he captioned a photo in the group chat, two minutes before other Oath Keepers broke into the building.

In April, FBI agents seized Rhodes’ phone on the basis of a warrant seeking information about plans to breach or bring weapons to the Capitol. His phone has since been returned, according to the Journal.

In a March speech, Rhodes professed his innocence in connection with Jan. 6 while also suggesting he might soon be arrested. “I may go to jail soon,” he told a Texas crowd. “Not for anything I actually did, but for made-up crimes.”

Outside the courts system, Rhodes and the Oath Keepers have been battling other sources of dissent.

Although Wilson’s complaints of financial impropriety did little to dim Rhodes’ star in 2015, those allegations received more attention last month when the Journal reviewed the Oath Keepers recent finances. Oath Keepers bank records obtained by the paper showed hefty spending on personal items near Rhodes’ Montana hometown. Among those dubious purchases was a $504 dentist bill, a $12,424 car-repair charge, $229 at an adult entertainment shop, $886 at a bar, and nearly $10,000 at a gun shop. (Also, less geographically identifiable, $275 on phone games and $256 at an online perfume store.)

Rhodes’ wife is also currently crowdfunding money to divorce him. And when Rhodes’ reputation suffers, so does the whole organization’s.

“Rhodes is written into the bylaws of the organization as president for life, unless he is stepped down or found incompetent,” Sam Jackson, author of a recent book on the Oath Keepers, told The Daily Beast. “At least at a very high level, the Oath Keepers sort of is Stewart Rhodes.”

Jackson, an assistant professor at the University of Albany, noted Rhodes has weathered internal conflict before, including from at least one breakaway Oath Keepers chapter that rebranded after it disagreed with Rhodes’ handling of a standoff in 2015.

But Jan. 6, and the subsequent plea agreements, may be inspiring more introspection across the far right.

“I think one of the things that January 6th did was force a more individual level reckoning… about what ideas they espouse, what actions they advocate, and what organizations they belong to,” Jackson said. “So I think it’s perfectly possible that people who are still committed Oath Keepers members might be spooked” by plea agreements.

Wilson, the former Oath Keeper, estimated that some 15 percent of dues-paying members had distanced themselves from the group since the Capitol attack. “The rest of them,” he said, “are fanatics. They’ll follow him off a fucking cliff, pardon my French.”

Last month, two other previously high-ranking Oath Keepers told the Journal that they’d parted ways with the Oath Keepers in early 2020, over concerns about Rhodes’ use of the organization’s funds.

“I guarantee the glamor of him’s going to wear off,” Wilson told The Daily Beast, adding, “It’s got to, or this world is truly doomed.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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