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Oath Keepers leader makes first court appearance after arrest for seditious conspiracy

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Oath Keepers leader makes first court appearance after arrest for seditious conspiracy

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The Oath Keepers militia leader who was indicted Thursday on a series of charges including seditious conspiracy in connection with the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, made his first appearance before a judge on Friday in a courtroom of Texas Federal Court.

Stewart Rhodes, a former Army paratrooper and Yale Law School graduate, could spend decades behind bars if convicted on the five federal charges he faces, including the charge of seditious conspiracy, punishable by a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

A lawyer for Rhodes told ABC News on Friday that the allegations against Rhodes were “lies” and said no member of the Oath Keepers had ever “planned or conspired to attack the Capitol.”

During his Friday court appearance, Rhodes said “yes” when asked by Magistrate Judge Kimberly Priest Johnson if he understood the charges against him. He then waived his right to have the entire indictment read aloud.

Prosecutors have requested that Rhodes be held pending trial, and the judge has scheduled a detention hearing for January 20. Rhodes will remain in custody until then.

The indictment of Rhodes, along with 10 other alleged members of the Oath Keepers, signals a significant escalation in the Justice Department’s sprawling investigation into the January 6, 2021 attack and its prosecution of members of the extreme militia. right Oath Keepers, described by prosecutors as a “large but loosely organized collection of individuals” who “explicitly focus on recruiting current and former military, law enforcement and first responders.”

Prosecutors allege Rhodes and other oath keepers began coordinating the day after the election “to forcibly oppose the execution of laws governing the transfer of presidential power” between incumbent President Donald Trump and incoming President Joe Biden, according to court documents.

Although Rhodes himself was not believed to have entered the Capitol during the attack, prosecutors say he entered the restricted area surrounding the building and coordinated with oath keepers who were part of the attack. a military style ‘stack’ formation seen marching through the building. east side steps. Prosecutors said in their indictment Thursday that members of the so-called “stack” were specifically looking for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, but left after not finding her.

In their 48-page indictment, investigators detailed Rhodes’ alleged communications with members of the group via private and encrypted apps, and their alleged hoarding of heavy weapons and tactical gear that the group is accused of storing just outside Washington at a hotel in Virginia, where on Jan. 6 prosecutors said a so-called “Quick Reaction Force” made up of militia members was waiting on standby in case where they would be called into the city.

Nine of those charged in Thursday’s indictment had previously been charged in connection with the Jan. 6 attack in what was already the ministry’s largest and most complex conspiracy case. Justice linked to the insurrection.

In addition to Rhodes, Edward Vallejo, 63, of Arizona, was arrested Thursday in Phoenix and also charged with seditious conspiracy. Vallejo was reportedly part of the “Rapid Reaction Force” waiting at the Virginia Hotel.

After the riot, Rhodes and Vallejo allegedly met at a restaurant where they “celebrated their attack” and discussed “next steps,” according to the indictment. Vallejo reportedly messaged a Signal newsgroup the morning after Jan. 6 where he discussed a “reconnaissance” trip to the Capitol to probe the “line of defense” put in place by law enforcement in the aftermath of the attack, according to court documents. .

Vallejo also made his first appearance before a magistrate in Phoenix on Friday afternoon, where a public defender representing him said he plans to plead not guilty to all charges against him. The judge has set a detention hearing for next Thursday as the Justice Department seeks to keep Vallejo behind bars pending further court proceedings in his case.

The deployment of the rarely used seditious conspiracy charge will be a major test for the Justice Department in its investigation of the attack on the Capitol and the prosecution of Rhodes as the founder and self-proclaimed leader of the Oath Keepers.

Just days after the January 6 attack, then-US attorney in Washington, D.C., Michael Sherwin, said prosecutors were considering the possibility of seditious conspiracy charges against some of the “most heinous acts” that took place at the Capitol. But as the investigation passed the year-long milestone and the number of arrests stretched past 700, such charges have yet to materialize, with prosecutors opting instead to press charges as a conspiracy. or obstruction of official process, which also carries a maximum sentence of 20 years. years in prison.

Attorney General Merrick Garland appeared to foreshadow Thursday’s charges last week in a speech marking the first anniversary of Jan. 6, when he criticized the department’s handling of the investigation and the lack of charges to date. against the most prominent figures believed to have coordinated the assault on Congress.

“The actions we’ve taken so far won’t be the last,” Garland said. “The Department of Justice remains committed to holding all January 6 perpetrators, at all levels, accountable under the law – whether they were present that day or were criminally responsible for the assault. against our democracy.

John Sandweg, former acting general counsel for the Department of Homeland Security, told ABC News that Thursday’s indictment “confirms that the attack on the Capitol was not just an impulsive act, but was part of a premeditated plot to forcibly steal the levers of power.”

“It also demonstrates that, while the focus was on prosecuting those charged with lesser charges related to the Capitol storming, the DOJ actively investigated the root causes of the attack,” said he declared. “The question remains how far the rest of the investigation will lead up the food chain, but this indictment raises the stakes significantly.”

ABC News’ Juan Renteria, James Scholz and Mireya Villarreal contributed to this report.

Oath Keepers leader makes first court appearance after arrest for seditious conspiracy

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