PLANO, Texas — A federal magistrate has ordered Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes to remain in jail while he awaits trial for a series of charges including seditious conspiracy, citing his “extreme defiance to federal authority” and “propensity towards violence.”
Prosecutors claim that Rhodes, 56, “spearheaded a conspiracy” to prevent certification of the 2020 presidential election by encouraging the Oath Keepers to gather in Washington, DC, and to stash weapons and vehicles nearby for the Jan. 6 Capitol Hill protests that ended in a riot.
Identified for months in court documents only as “Person One,” Rhodes is described in charging documents as a fiery ringleader who allegedly began talking of violence and “civil war” just days after the 2020 election, spent some $40,000 on weapons and accessories prior to and following Jan. 6, and attempted to destroy evidence of his involvement in the alleged plot after the fact.
The order was handed down late on Wednesday, two days after a hearing in federal court in Plano, Texas, where Rhodes has been held since his arrest. Federal prosecutors argued vigorously at the time that he should not be released before trial, which has since been scheduled to begin July 11 in Washington, DC.
“It is difficult to imagine conduct that poses a graver risk to our society than one targeted at undermining the laws and procedures at the heart of our democratic process — and doing so with force,” Assistant US Attorney Kathryn Rakoczy said before the packed courtroom.
Rhodes’ attorney, Phillip Linder, argued that his client presented no danger to the community, noting that he was “friendly” to FBI agents who showed up with a search warrant to seize his phone last May and that he had even offered to travel to Washington to turn himself in should he ever be charged.
Linder also questioned why the government waited so long to charge Rhodes, given that he had clearly been under scrutiny from investigators for nearly a year. “To me,” the Dallas-based attorney said, “that speaks volumes.”
Reached by phone late Wednesday, James Lee Bright, Rhodes' other attorney, said the magistrate was “very thorough in her reasoning” but that he was “disappointed in the decision.”
That line of argument echoed conspiracy theories that have circulated widely in recent months suggesting that the government hadn’t charged Rhodes because he was an FBI informant and the entire Capitol riot was a false flag operation orchestrated by the government. After Rhodes was charged, some of those who helped spread those unproven theories said it was part of a cover-up to hide the truth about the Oath Keepers figurehead.
Rhodes, a former Army paratrooper who got a degree from Yale Law School but was later disbarred, founded the Oath Keepers in 2009. The group, whose numbers include many current and former members of law enforcement and the military, gets its name from the oath those individuals swear to uphold the Constitution — and to disobey any orders or laws they feel contradict it.
Over the past decade, Rhodes has led the group into a series of tense, highly politicized confrontations, including standoffs with federal law enforcement at rural land rights conflicts in Nevada and Oregon as well as protests over police killings of Black Americans in Missouri, Kentucky, and elsewhere. He has also been criticized for leaving some of his followers to face legal consequences while he walked away untouched. A longtime resident of Montana, he’s lived mostly in Texas for the past several years, often staying in the homes of fellow members of the Oath Keepers.
In her ruling to keep Rhodes detained, Magistrate Judge Kimberly Priest Johnson noted that Rhodes reported not filing federal income tax since approximately 2007, and that he has been itinerant for years, with “limited personal effects and ties to Texas or any other community.”
Rhodes, who has been separated from his wife for four years, has been in a relationship with attorney Kellye SoRelle since May 2020, the magistrate wrote. SoRelle, who identifies herself as the Oath Keepers’ general counsel, said earlier this month that she was acting as the group’s president while Rhodes was detained.
SoRelle, reached for comment, denied being in a relationship with Rhodes, saying she suspects he made that claim because “he was wanting to get released to my house.”
Prosecutors allege Rhodes commanded operations of the Oath Keepers in Washington on Jan. 6. They say that though he did not enter the Capitol, he was on the grounds and in close contact with the roughly two dozen Oath Keepers members and associates who pushed their way into the building using military-style “stack” formations. He also was in communications with members of a “Quick Reaction Force” that had stockpiled weapons across the Potomac River in Virginia and awaited his signal to bring them into the District of Columbia. At the end of that momentous day, Rakoczy noted, Rhodes gathered with other members of the Oath Keepers at an Olive Garden restaurant to celebrate.
He was indicted, along with 10 others, on Jan. 12, and arrested outside of Fort Worth, Texas, late the following morning. One of them, Edward Vallejo, was ordered detained last Thursday; the other nine defendants had previously been charged in a related conspiracy case, and three have been behind bars since early last year.
To date, federal prosecutors have charged more than 725 people for their role in the events of Jan. 6. But there is little question that Rhodes is the most important target in what has emerged as the largest and most ambitious case to come out of the ongoing investigation.
In court on Monday, FBI agent Michael Palian testified about Rhodes’ use of encrypted messages to direct the group and also said that the anti-government rhetoric he employed in the wake of the presidential election continued well after Jan. 6.
Although the magistrate seemed at least somewhat convinced by the defense’s argument that, based on his conduct over the past year, he was neither a flight risk nor a danger, she rejected a proposal to have him live with a “third-party custodian” — in this case a ride-hail driver from Dallas named Brian Bodine, who met Rhodes at a rally against COVID restrictions. As an alternative, attorney Linder said, Rhodes could live at the house of a half cousin in rural California who could also serve as his custodian.
According to Rakoczy, Rhodes’ extensive network of Oath Keepers members and other anti-government contacts means he is a flight risk who could “go underground if he wanted to.” Johnson agreed, stating that Rhodes “is transient and may easily flee from federal authorities.”
Additionally, the magistrate said she took testimony after the Monday hearing from Rhodes’ estranged wife, Tasha Adams, who said she “feared for her safety and the safety of her six children” if he were released. Adams, who lives in Montana and filed for divorce in early 2018, said he was physically abusive and in at least one instance “choked the couple’s daughter,” and that he built “elaborate escape tunnels” in their backyard, “hid unregistered cars in the woods,” and bought “hundreds of dollars of razor wire” that he intended to use to protect the property.
The detention ruling also confronted arguments on the right that the events of Jan. 6 amounted to nothing more than a First Amendment–protected protest, or, as some have characterized it, tourism. “The Court is not faced with a peaceable assembly and petitioning,” Johnson wrote. Rhodes’ “extraordinary actions and the ripple effects that followed are outside the bounds of protected activities.”
Despite the magistrate’s ruling, Bright told BuzzFeed News that he planned to file a motion on Thursday morning asking Judge Amit Mehta in Washington to reconsider and grant Rhodes bond.
Mehta, who is overseeing all four of the Oath Keepers cases to come out of the Jan. 6 investigation, has allowed most of the roughly two dozen people charged in those prosecutions to stay out of jail while they await trial. But he denied bond to three individuals — Jessica Watkins, Kelly Meggs, and Kenneth Harrelson — whom he deemed too dangerous to be released last year.
Regardless of whether Rhodes prevails in the matter of detention, his lawyer said he looks forward to taking the case to trial. “An enormous amount of stuff that the public has never had the opportunity to hear is going to come out,” Bright said. “Unlike the ability of the government to frame everything in their context now, we’ll get the opportunity to challenge that.”