In a recent indictment of nine people who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, federal prosecutors went to great lengths to describe the magnitude of the day’s events, the alarming threat to democracy their actions posed, and the powerful influence that one charismatic leader had in shaping their beliefs.
They took care, however, not to refer to that man by name. Instead, they refer to him as “Person One.”
Elmer Stewart Rhodes III — a one-time Army paratrooper, disbarred Yale lawyer, constitutionalist, gun enthusiast, and far-right media star — founded the group called the Oath Keepers in 2009. Since then, he has ridden crosscurrents of American anger and strife that ran from scrubby Western deserts to angry urban protests right into the Capitol rotunda.
The Jan. 6 insurgency was by far the most incendiary that the Oath Keepers have been involved in, and brought the group more attention, welcome and unwelcome, than it had ever before received. But an examination by BuzzFeed News of the group’s activities over its twelve years of existence reveals an unmistakable pattern.
Rhodes summons his heavily armed followers into the heart of a roiling crisis. Sometimes, as in the devastation left by Hurricane Harvey in Houston or Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, the Oath Keepers provide much-needed aid. On other occasions, as at the Bundy ranch in southern Nevada or the Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Missouri, the group’s presence amplifies the conflict.
As a lawyer, Rhodes abandoned multiple clients and lost his license. Numerous people who heeded his calls to action as the leader of the Oath Keepers say he abandoned them as well, summoning them to dangerous confrontations and leaving them to suffer the criminal consequences.
But though Rhodes received tremendous publicity from these events, he has so far managed to avoid any consequences himself.
That pattern has cost him some of his earliest and most devoted adherents. Several former members of the group’s board and leaders of local chapters told BuzzFeed News that Rhodes’ attraction to conflict drove them away from the organization whose ideals they once shared. But that attraction, many said, is key to the Oath Keepers’ business model: More conflict brings more publicity, which in turn brings more revenue from donations, merchandise sales, and $50-a-year membership dues.
“Like a moth to the flame,” said Joseph Rice, who led an Oath Keeper chapter in southern Oregon before breaking from the group several years ago. “He flies in, throws up a PayPal, and then disappears.”
Rhodes, who is 55 and goes by Stewart or “Stewie,” can most easily be found these days streaming on Infowars, where he gives interviews to Alex Jones from behind the wheel of a pickup, pulled over in a location he does not disclose. Rhodes has said that the Oath Keepers — with a membership that the group claims has at times exceeded 35,000 — are simply patriots, “a non-partisan association of current and formerly serving military, police and first responders who pledge to fulfill the oath all military and police take to defend the Constitution.”
The Department of Justice, which alleges that members of the Oath Keepers played a key role in the insurrection, sees things differently. It calls the group “a large but loosely organized collection of militia who believe that the federal government has been co-opted by a shadowy conspiracy that is trying to strip American citizens of their rights.” Rhodes did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this article.
“He’s hell-bent on glory and creating a militia now.”
Some of his earliest supporters have come to doubt his commitment to the ideals he once embraced. “He’s hell-bent on glory and creating a militia now,” said Jim Arroyo, vice president of the Oath Keepers’ Arizona chapter.
Last Friday, one of Rhodes’ badge-wearing, dues-paying followers, a former Army private named Jessica Watkins who stormed into the Capitol on Jan. 6, was in court facing charges of conspiracy and other federal crimes. Prosecutors claimed she’d come to the Capitol at the behest of Rhodes, who had posted online on Jan. 4 that “we Oath Keepers are both honor-bound and eager to be there.”
During her hearing, Watkins, 38, activated the mic on the jailhouse computer and asked for permission to speak. “I am humiliated that I am even here today,” she said, emotion rising in her voice. Since her arrest on Jan. 17, she had been held in a series of jails, terrified for her safety as a transgender woman behind bars. “As soon as I’m out, whether acquittal or release, I’m canceling my Oath Keepers membership.”
Her boyfriend, Montana Siniff, who started an online fundraising effort for her legal defense, said Rhodes reached out a few days after Watkins was arrested and offered to help promote it. But nothing’s come through.
“From what I’ve observed, Stewart Rhodes is more concerned with his own image than what happens to anyone who is part of the organizations he runs,” Siniff said.
Rhodes’ story, which he has told often, begins in humble circumstances in the American Southwest. Rhodes was a voracious reader, and his mother, who he has said was Hispanic, told one early member of the Oath Keepers that when she was unable to afford a babysitter, she would drop her son off at the library.
By his own account, Rhodes joined the Army out of high school, serving as a paratrooper until an injury landed him an honorable discharge. (An Army spokesperson said they could not verify Rhodes’ service because it would have taken place too long ago; the National Archives said it is not processing service records requests during the pandemic.) Rhodes attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and then enrolled at Yale Law School, where he won the Judge William E. Miller Prize for best paper on the Bill of Rights.
He would go on to publish excerpts from “Solving the Puzzle of ‘Enemy Combatant’ Status” — a 94-page essay in which he argued that the Bush administration’s policy of unilaterally and indefinitely detaining anyone on the planet was illegal — in newsletters and blogs for years to come.
Rhodes worked briefly for Rep. Ron Paul, the outspoken Texas libertarian, in what the lawmaker’s former chief of staff, Tom Lizardo, described as a minor position. When Paul began to ramp up his campaign for president, Rhodes jumped in to help with operations in Nevada.
In January 2008, during the thick of that campaign, Rhodes wrote a blog post that would emerge as one of the Oath Keepers’ foundational texts. Published in the pages of SWAT, a magazine focused on firearms and law enforcement, it imagined that Hilary Clinton — whom Rhodes called “Hitlerly” and imagined in a “Chairman Mao signature pantsuit” — won the presidency. He theorized that in the wake of a mass shooting or domestic terror incident, she would ban guns and outlaw militias — and then deploy law enforcement and the military to arrest members.
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“Would you do it?” Rhodes asks readers. “Would you just follow orders to shoot your fellow Americans? Without you and your brothers in arms to enforce her decrees, Hitlery would be powerless to do anything but fume and throw things at Bill.”
The post attracted considerable attention among adherents of the incipient far-right tea party, launched within weeks of Barack Obama taking office. Almost overnight, Rhodes became a sought-after speaker at conservative rallies.
On April 19, 2009, he went to Lexington, Massachusetts, to celebrate the anniversary of the start of the Revolutionary War by formally founding his new organization, the Oath Keepers. The group’s core belief, which he’d been refining on internet forums for months, was that members of the military and law enforcement must not follow any order that would violate their oath to uphold the Constitution.
To that end, Rhodes delineated a list of 10 “orders we will not obey,” including warrantless searches and seizures of weapons. Those rules have been posted on the Oath Keepers’ website ever since — a reminder, the group says, that members’ loyalty is not to any president, but the Constitution.
“I liked the idea that we were constitutional people, and I like the idea of reminding people of the oath that we as law enforcement or retired military swore an oath and it never expires,” said Celia Hyde, a former police chief and bed-and-breakfast owner from Stow, Massachusetts, who was an early board member.
“It was not a radical group at all,” Hyde said, calling it “a bunch of patriotic people spreading the word” about the Constitution.
Also in attendance that day was Rob Dew, a reporter and producer for Infowars, the website and conspiracy theory clearinghouse led by the right-wing firebrand Alex Jones.
Dew taped interviews with 10 different members — the kind of coverage that would prove critical to building a movement.
“I liked what they were doing,” said Dew. “I took an oath too.”
It didn’t take long for the Oath Keepers to begin attracting members with more extreme ideas.
Less than two weeks after Rhodes left Massachusetts, the FBI arrested Daniel Knight Hayden, an Oklahoma man who called himself an Oath Keeper and had posted threats to kill police officers on Twitter.
A year later, the president of the group’s Cleveland chapter was arrested for possessing a napalm bomb, explosives, and child pornography. Just days after that, authorities detained a heavily armed man driving a pickup emblazoned with the Oath Keepers logo who threatened to storm a county courthouse and force officials to indict then-president Obama, whom the man believed was not a US citizen.
Rhodes disavowed another member — who was convicted of raping a child and possessing a stolen military rocket launcher — because, he said, the man had never paid his membership dues. All of them were convicted and handed prison sentences.
In spring 2011, Rhodes summoned his members to Tucson, Arizona, to protest the accidental killing of an Iraq War veteran in his home by a local SWAT team.
Hyde and Chauncey Normandin, another founding Oath Keepers board member, didn’t believe the group should be protesting individual police actions. Like Hyde, Normandin was a retired police official, and he’d quickly risen to become the national vice president, traveling to rallies around the country and recruiting new members. The two went to Rhodes with their concerns but, they recalled, he refused to listen.
“It started off doing the right thing,” Normandin said, “and then it just got off the rails. Instead of being about Oath Keepers, it became about Stewart’s ego and pride.”
A few months later, Hyde, Normandin, and at least one other early board member resigned in protest. Rhodes was more firmly in control of the Oath Keepers than ever.
Almost immediately, he turned his attention to Quartzsite, Arizona, which sits 18 miles east of the California border in a forbidding stretch of the Sonoran Desert. The population of the town, which in the blazing summer hovers around a mere 3,500, swells in the winter as visitors arrive by the thousands, many of them driving their own RVs.
A simmering dispute between the mayor of the town and its police chief had boiled over in June 2011. Several people — including a gem and mineral dealer named Mike Roth and a pet groomer and local newspaper publisher named Jennifer “Jade” Jones-Esposito — accused some town officials of violating their constitutional rights by trying to prevent them from speaking at city council meetings. When they refused to surrender the mic, they were removed by police.
After a video clip of Jones-Esposito’s encounter went viral, the Oath Keepers got involved, declaring “the Quartzsite saga to be a vital pivot point on which small-town America shall awaken to the encroachment of corruption and violation of rights.” Rhodes summoned Oath Keepers in six states to the little town for a “muster” that would “send forth a clarion call to the American people to restore the Republic from the bottom up.” He asked attendees to wear Oath Keepers gear and offered links to a merchandise page where they could stock up.
About 200 people showed up for the protest, which quickly wilted in the 115-degree August heat. Rhodes himself, according to Roth, didn’t complete the march — but he got a lot of attention, including several appearances on Infowars.
“He abandoned me. He ghosted me. Just nothing.”
Rhodes stepped into the clash again, this time as a lawyer, offering to represent Roth and Jones-Esposito in lawsuits against Quartzsite and its police department.
But he soon disappeared, ignoring court orders and failing to show up for a series of critical depositions in both cases. “He abandoned me. He ghosted me. Just nothing,” Roth said. “It's the worst thing you can do to a client. It's akin to a surgeon abandoning a patient on the table.”
Court filings show Rhodes had previously dropped a client in Colorado, blaming devastating illnesses that had struck a series of family and friends. In his motions to withdraw from representing his Arizona clients, he said his niece had lost an ear in a car accident, forcing him to care for his “brain injured adult sister,” and also that he had to provide end-of-life care for his mother-in-law, who had leukemia.
The following April, a federal judge in Arizona filed an ethics grievance against Rhodes for ignoring a series of orders and failing to properly register with the court. Several weeks later, Roth filed his own grievance, alleging incompetent representation and abandonment. Rhodes failed to respond to the allegations and did not appear at a hearing to review his case.
“Attorneys who do not cooperate violate their oaths, their duties to their clients, harm the profession and show disrespect for this Court,” wrote the chair of a legal review board in Montana, where Rhodes was then living. He was formally disbarred on Dec. 8, 2015, and has been unable to practice law since.
“He would seek out high-profile cases and show up on the scene,” said Roth, who added that he was ultimately able to win a small legal settlement on his own. “He would grab the publicity with it and he would go to the next one.”
Even as he was beginning to litigate in Arizona, Rhodes found time to make a cause célèbre of an aging widower in Montana who had declared bankruptcy and was being obliged to sell his house. In an interview with the man, which was posted on the Oath Keepers website, Rhodes called the matter “egregious” and warned that the trustee appointed by the court to oversee the bankruptcy was a “brutal and callous” person who was “forcing a World War II veteran out of his home.”
The site posted the trustee’s contact information so that people who “wish to ask her why she is handling this situation in this manner” could do so. Within days, she was deluged with hate mail and angry phone calls from furious Oath Keepers, some calling for her to be brutally raped and murdered.
One suggested her kidneys be cut out. “I hope the wrath of this nations veterans and pissed off citizens come down hard on your pathetic unscrupulous ass,” read one of the tamer emails.
The trustee filed a motion with the court seeking to have the material taken down, which it eventually was.
By April 2014, Rhodes had taken up a new battle. He was holed up in southern Nevada with dozens of other armed militants facing off against federal agents at the Bundy ranch, which would become one of the biggest showdowns against the federal government since Ruby Ridge and Waco.
Having run cattle across federal lands in southern Nevada for generations, Cliven Bundy was notified by the Bureau of Land Management that his family owed more than $1 million in unpaid grazing fees. Bundy refused to pay, saying he did not recognize the power of the federal government over the “sovereign state of Nevada.”
In March of that year, federal officials began to round up Bundy’s cattle. One of his sons was arrested and cited for misdemeanors. Word spread, and members of militant groups from across the country poured in to support the Bundys, leading to an armed standoff near the Interstate 15 overpass.
Rhodes implored members and other supporters to come to Nevada or at least to make donations to the cause. “Whatever you can send will be a blessing for the Patriots out there in the Nevada landscape,” read a notice on the Oath Keepers’ website. “Just as in any military combat operation, the supply lines are extremely important for victory.”
Heavily armed Oath Keepers from around the country heeded the call.
Rhodes made the most of what had quickly become a media circus, holding multiple press conferences and appearing regularly on cable news networks wearing the group’s merchandise and displaying its Oath Keepers flag. The government, eager to avoid bloodshed, released the cattle, handing a huge victory to the protesters. But almost immediately afterward, Bundy started making racist comments, and conservative media dropped his cause. Within days, Rhodes pulled the Oath Keepers out, claiming he was concerned about the possibility of a government drone strike.
According to three former group members, the Bundy standoff had been a bonanza for the organization. Membership soared, two of them said, and donations poured into the group’s PayPal account. But despite pledges to support other militant groups involved in the standoff, little if any money ever reached them, according to Gary Hunt, who helped to lead a coalition of those groups.
“It was bullshit,” said Hunt, who characterized the Oath Keepers as deserters. Local militant groups banned them from returning, telling them “You’re lucky that you’re not getting shot in the back.”
Retired Marine sergeant and tea party activist Jerry DeLemus was one of many from around the country who had answered Rhodes’ call to action, driving nearly 3,000 miles from New Hampshire to Nevada, where he was made head of security, according to blog posts on the Oath Keepers’ site.
Two years later, DeLemus was arrested by the FBI on a variety of charges related to the standoff.
His wife, Sue DeLemus, a Republican member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, remembers the phone ringing a few days later. “Rhodes had one of his men call me and say, ‘Sue, it’s so sad. We want to help you. You can call us any time,’” she said. “What a joke. They never provided any help at all.”
Jerry, who eventually pleaded guilty to conspiracy and interstate travel in aid of extortion, is still serving out a seven-year sentence.
“How come Stewart isn't in prison?” Sue asked. “He was there. He told everyone to come.”
Rhodes still enjoys strong support from many Oath Keepers. Rocci Twitchell became a member in 2009 — attracted, he said, by the group’s community improvement projects — and joined the board of directors a few years later. Rhodes has “done a good job with the Oath Keepers, and I’ve always appreciated that because I want to defend the Constitution,” said Twitchell, who also is president of the Sacramento chapter of the group.
The controversial events get the most attention, Twitchell conceded, but away from the cameras, the group’s members continue to do simple work to help their neighbors. He acknowledged that media attention has helped the Oath Keepers spread their message. “That’s a good way to see us and what we’re about,” Twitchell said.
But to a number of members of the Oath Keepers’ board, the Bundy standoff emphasized how far the group had moved from its original mission.
“They got involved in some of the stuff that started leaning toward a militia-type thing,” said Rand Cardwell, an author specializing in martial arts and self-defense who first met Rhodes in early 2009 and was among the group’s first directors. “That’s not something I felt comfortable with, and I figured it was time to bow out.”
But if the departures of Cardwell and others was supposed to send a message, Rhodes didn’t seem to receive it. The booming publicity and financial success of the Bundy standoff had energized him, according to several people familiar with the group’s inner workings at the time. Reminding law enforcement and soldiers about their constitutional oaths was great, but he had found a new, higher-profile cause: the fight over Western lands.
In the coming years, Rhodes would be at the forefront of several more such disputes, soliciting donations and looking for new members each time.
After the May 2015 occupation of the Sugar Pine gold mine in Oregon over a dispute with the Bureau of Land Management, a local Oath Keepers chapter broke away from the national organization, in part because of Rhodes’s taste for grandstanding at high-conflict encounters.
“What he tends to forget,” Rice said, “is that he’s going into people’s communities. He stirs up a hornet’s nest, and then he leaves. And the groups in that community have to deal with the fallout.”
At another tense stand-off at Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in early 2016, Rhodes sent in heavily armed Oath Keepers to serve as an “intermediary” between the federal agents and other militant groups.
By the time the 40-day standoff finally ended, one of the militants was dead, shot by federal agents after a confrontation on the side of a snowy rural highway.
It was more than Richard Mack, a board member since 2010 and the founder of the Constitutionalist Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, could abide.
“Our stand was to avoid violence, and I agree sometimes you have to fight violence with violence, but I didn’t think it was our part to do that,” said Mack, who resigned from the group soon after the Malheur standoff. “I just didn’t like the direction that Oath Keepers was going.”
“He is the Oath Keepers.”
Mack, who lives in Arizona, said the board voted down a proposal by Rhodes to use the Oath Keepers as a security force at the 2016 Republican National Convention. Despite the board’s objections, Rhodes made members available as security at other political events, including Trump rallies.
Mack said he and others also raised concerns about the Oath Keepers’ participation in violent protests. “We confronted him about it a couple of times and just said, ‘This is starting to be way too much like a militia,’ ” Mack said. “I heard him say, ‘Of course we’re a militia. It’s part of the Constitution.’ ”
He said it had become clear that the board had no real power. “He is the Oath Keepers. It’s hard to separate the two," Mack said. "It’s his organization, and he can do what he wants to do.”
Other dissenting voices found that they were no longer welcome. Jim Arroyo, the vice president of the Arizona chapter, said relations began to fray over Rhodes’ insistence on total control — and the fact that local chapters never seemed to receive any proceeds from national membership dues.
Rhodes initially seemed open to a plan to share the dues, Arroyo said, but in the end, some of the people who proposed it were pushed out.
By 2017, Rhodes was largely alienated from the armed militant groups in the West and Northwest that had once been his biggest base.
This coincided with a major change in American politics. Obama was out of the White House, and Donald Trump was president. Rhodes pivoted. He stopped talking so much about threats posed by the federal government and found new causes that closely aligned with the new president’s agenda: stopping immigration at the border and making a show of force at free speech and Black Lives Matter rallies from Portland, Oregon, to Kenosha, Wisconsin, to Louisville, Kentucky, to Washington, DC.
In early 2018, Rhodes’ wife filed for divorce. In a petition for a protective order, she said she was “terrified” because he had grabbed their teenage daughter by the throat, repeatedly pointed a firearm at a neighbor, and on five occasions threatened to kill himself.
“Whenever the respondent is unhappy with my behavior,” she wrote, referring to Rhodes, “he will draw his handgun (which he always wears),” then “wave it around, and then point it at his own head. Telling me my behavior has caused this.” She could not be reached for comment.
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Around that time, Rhodes began to voice concerns about antifa and the “deep state.” His language grew increasingly apocalyptic. “The first shot has been fired brother,” he tweeted in August in response to violence in Portland. “Civil war is here, right now.”
And as the election grew near, Rhodes, echoing the president, warned that if Trump lost, it would be because the race had been rigged.
In advance of Jan. 6, Rhodes urged his followers to go to Washington, DC, to support “Trump’s fight to defeat the enemies foreign and domestic who are attempting a coup.”
In large block letters, the call to action included a link to “DONATE” to cover the gas, airfare, hotel, food, and equipment for the Oath Keepers, who were heading to what would become an insurrection.
Rhodes himself did not enter the Capitol, although he was in DC and was photographed on Jan. 6 walking city streets with Oath Keepers in tactical gear.
In the days after the insurrection, a North Carolina chapter publicly broke with the Oath Keepers, its website was dropped by its hosting service, and former allies expressed revulsion. “Congratulations to Stewart Rhodes and his 10 militia members for winning the dumbass contest,” Arroyo wrote to his local chapter’s members.
But Rhodes didn’t break stride. On Jan. 28, he was back on Infowars, once again promoting the Oath Keepers. Alex Jones asked if he had helped coordinate the attack on the Capitol. Rhodes, who has not been charged, replied: “Absolutely not.”
Then he mentioned a donations page for Jessica Watkins’ legal fees, though he did not include the URL.
He said, “We always stand behind our people, so there you go.” ●