Oath Keepers founder sent ‘torches and pitchforks’ message, prosecutors tell Jan. 6 riot trial

Prosecutors urged members of a jury to convict Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and four others for their roles in storming the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, saying they formed an “armed rebellion” to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power.

“They concocted a plan for an armed rebellion to shatter a bedrock of American democracy,” prosecutor Jeff Nestler said on Monday in an opening statement at their trial in federal court in Washington, D.C.

Rhodes told his followers during the planning stage that “it will be torches and pitchforks time if they [Congress] don’t do the right thing,” according to a message he sent to his followers that was shown to the jury by prosecutors.

Rhodes and his co-defendants, Kelly Meggs, Thomas Caldwell, Jessica Watkins and Kenneth Harrelson, are accused of plotting to forcefully prevent the U.S. Congress from certifying Democratic President Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory in a failed bid to keep then-president Donald Trump, a Republican, in power.

Nestler said that on election day, Nov. 3, Meggs had told his wife, Connie, who is criminally charged in a separate case, “I’m gonna go on a killing spree. Pelosi first.” It was a reference to House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in Congress.

Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol after Trump falsely claimed the election had been stolen from him through widespread fraud. Five people died during and shortly after the riot, and about 140 police officers were injured.

Case for seditious conspiracy

The five on trial face numerous felony charges, including seditious conspiracy —a Civil War-era statute that is rarely prosecuted and carries a statutory maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

Prosecutors have said the five defendants trained and planned for Jan. 6 and stockpiled weapons at a northern Virginia hotel outside the capital for a “quick reaction force” that would be ready if called upon to transport arms into Washington.

Rioters loyal to then-president Donald Trump try to open a door of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021., to prevent the certification of Biden’s election victory. (Jose Luis Magana/The Associated Press)

As lawmakers met on Jan. 6 to certify Biden’s election victory, some Oath Keepers charged into the Capitol building, clad in paramilitary gear. They are not accused of carrying firearms onto Capitol grounds.

The government has characterized the Oath Keepers as a far-right anti-government group, some of whose members have ties to militias. Some of the members include current and former military and law enforcement personnel.

Founder says it’s a non-partisan group

Rhodes, a Yale-educated lawyer and former U.S. army paratrooper, has disputed the government’s characterization, saying it’s a non-partisan group whose members have pledged to defend the U.S. Constitution.

Philip Linder, one of Rhodes’s lawyers, promised the jury his client, whom he described as “extremely patriotic,” would take the stand to explain his side of the story.

He said the “real evidence” in the trial will show that the defendants were in Washington on Jan. 5 and 6 to provide security to a variety of speakers at political rallies.

‘Who’s willing to die?’ text message

In opening statements on Monday, however, federal prosecutors painted a different picture. They showed videos, texts and other posts by defendants from before, during and after the Capitol attack.

Watkins, one of the defendants, told members of her local Ohio chapter that “I need you fighting fit by [inauguration],” while Meggs told followers from the Florida Oath Keepers that “the time for talk is over. The real question is who’s willing to DIE?” according to text messages shown by the prosecution.

On the day of the assault, Nestler said Watkins led a group of seven Oath Keepers toward the Senate side of the Capitol.

As she stormed down the hallway with the “power of the mob with her,” Nestler said she yelled “Push, push, push!”

He said that Watkins added: “They can’t hold us.”

Defendants Meggs and Harrelson, meanwhile, led a group of seven Oath Keepers toward the House of Representatives side of the Capitol, where Nestler said they looked specifically for Pelosi.

Although Trump’s shadow will loom large over the trial, he is not expected to be a central figure in the case.

U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta, who is presiding over the trial, previously restricted the defendants from using a “public authority” defence, meaning they cannot claim they stormed the Capitol at Trump’s direction.

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