Oath Keepers Elmer Stewart Rhodes, Kelly Meggs, Kenneth Harrelson, Jessica Watkins, and Thomas Caldwell go on trial Monday to face charges of seditious conspiracy for their alleged attempt to violently stop America’s peaceful transfer of presidential power.
Since the Capitol attack on Jan. 6, 2021, the American public has begun to better acquaint itself with the Oath Keepers network and, in particular, those members of the far-right organization that rallied behind former President Donald Trump as he schemed to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
But who are Rhodes, Meggs, Harrelson, Watkins, and Caldwell, and what are they accused of doing? Let’s dive in and take a look at what we know about these members of the extremist group facing up to 20 years in prison for sedition if convicted. All have entered a not guilty plea.
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Elmer Stewart Rhodes
Elmer Stewart Rhodes was born in California, but at the time of his arrest in January 2022, he called Granbury, Texas, home. The 57-year-old graduate of Yale Law split time when he was young between California and Nevada, mostly living with his grandparents in the Golden State while visiting his mother, who was a minister, in Las Vegas. In interviews over the years, Rhodes has said that his grandparents were migrant farm laborers and that his family line includes relatives from Mexico as well as the Philippines.
Rhodes joined the Army fresh out of high school, and according to him, he was badly injured while parachuting. He has said he was honorably discharged after three years in the service. Rhodes went to the University of Nevada before Yale. His time in college was frequently spent writing extended essays on domestic and foreign policy with a hard Libertarian bend. In one essay he wrote and would later refer to when leading the Oath Keepers, he argued that former President George W. Bush’s use of enemy combatant status to indefinitely detain people suspected of supporting terrorism was unconstitutional.
Rhodes worked as a clerk for the Arizona Supreme Court and as a staffer to former libertarian U.S. House Rep. Ron Paul, even helping Paul with his failed bid for president in 2008. But Rhodes’s time in the bureaucracy was short; he formed the Oath Keepers in 2009.
The motto of the Oath Keepers proclaims: “Not on Our Watch.” And from its beginning, the group billed itself as a network of military members, veterans, and police officers who would not obey any orders they deemed unconstitutional.
In an interview in 2009 with Chris Matthews, Matthews told Rhodes he believed the Oath Keeper group was merely trying to “get people into a certain mindset” opposed to the U.S. government. Rhodes played down the accusation, saying his group wasn’t a vigilante group.
Groups like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) have dug into the organization’s membership and found that members include more than 300 former police, including sheriffs. The ADL published a report on Sept. 6 compiling membership info from a 2021 data leak and found over 38,000 names on the Oath Keepers membership list, including elected officials as well as those running for office.
From 2009 to 2014, the Oath Keepers’ antigovernment fundamentalism became increasingly overt. Members were there during the standoff at the Bundy Ranch, and later, they took it upon themselves to “protect” small businesses in Ferguson, Missouri. In 2014, a grand jury failed to indict a police officer who shot a young Black man, Michael Brown. This prompted widescale protests. Oath Keepers walked rooftops in Ferguson while carrying semi-automatic rifles, saying they were there to keep order. They were condemned by the St. Louis Police Department. Three years before Ferguson, Oath Keepers had popped up in Quartzsite, Arizona, claiming yet again they were there to defend citizens. That time, they were there to protect against what they deemed would be an inevitable imposition of martial law.
Rhodes led a two-mile march in Quartzsite and, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, told those gathered when the march was over: “We want to set an example here. If every community across the country simply did what’s being done right here — right here, right now — we would restore our republic.”
As Trump rose to power, Rhodes hitched himself to the 45th president and leaned harder right, setting off a wave of tension between himself and members of the Oath Keepers board.
Rhodes wanted to provide Trump with a personal security detail during the 2016 Republican National Convention, and later, two years into Trump’s term, Rhodes called on Oath Keepers to show the administration support by traveling to the nation’s southernmost border to back up border patrol.
By the time 2020 rolled around, Trump’s nativist and racist blustering had been widely championed by groups like the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys. A combined hatred of leftist politics—and more specifically, Trump’s opponent in the 2016 race, Hillary Clinton—drove a simmering surge of conspiracy theories that began to dominate the group.
Prosecutors say Rhodes began conspiring as early as November 2020 to stop the transfer of power from Trump to Joe Biden. Though he did not step foot inside the Capitol on the day of the Capitol siege, prosecutors say he was just outside on the grounds, effectively overseeing members of his self-stylized militia group as they powered over barricades and police lines.
Rhodes called for a “massively bloody revolution” less than a month before the insurrection, and in group chats and teleconference calls, he and his co-defendants gamed out their plan to stop the transfer of power by any means necessary, prosecutors claim. A Dec. 11 text seized from Oath Keepers’ devices this year shows Rhodes telling his co-defendants that the fight to keep Trump in power would be “bloody and desperate.”
“We are going to have a fight. That can’t be avoided,” he wrote.
His obsession with military tactics came in handy on Jan. 6, too, when he allegedly coordinated the stationing of “quick reaction force” teams to support rioters at the Capitol. The teams were stationed in a hotel just over the Potomac River in northern Virginia. Well stocked with guns, ammunition, and tactical gear. Prosecutors say the Oath Keepers intended on ferrying those weapons into D.C. on Jan. 6 if necessary. After the Capitol attack, Rhodes hightailed it back to Texas and, in the process, spent tens of thousands of dollars on guns and related gear. Around Biden’s inauguration, according to his indictment, Rhodes had spent days calling on militias to oppose the Biden administration.