A self-described “lifetime member” of the Oath Keepers has become the first defendant in the Jan. 6 insurrection cases to enter a guilty plea as part of a cooperation agreement with prosecutors, following a hearing in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., Friday morning.
The plea bargain for Jon Schaffer, 53, a heavy-metal guitarist from Indiana who was photographed assaulting officers with bear spray and entering the U.S. Capitol, was approved by Judge Ahmit Mehta. Schaffer engaged in a long conversation with Mehta acknowledging that the deal requires him to “cooperate fully with the United States,” which included providing evidence of known crimes and sitting for interviews with investigators.
Schaffer’s guilty plea to two charges—obstructing an official proceeding and illegally entering the Capitol grounds—makes him the first participant in the insurrection to agree to provide evidence against his fellow rioters. Schaffer, who originally faced six felony charges, will enter the government’s witness protection program as part of the deal.
According to an earlier filing, which was mistakenly made public, Schaffer in March began engaging in "debrief interviews.” As The Washington Post notes, the plea bargain marks a critical step forward in the prosecution of the cases, as other defendants face similar choices in terms of providing evidence for prosecutors, particularly when it comes to the activities of the two key paramilitary organizations involved in the insurrection, the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys.
"Whenever you have a large group of people arrested," criminal defense attorney Martin Tankleff told CNN, it’s common for prosecutors to pressure defendants to flip on each other. "They're going to start talking. They're going to start sharing information."
Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes, who was present in Washington on Jan. 6 but did not enter the Capitol, is one of the key figures being drawn into the net prosecutors are creating with conspiracy charges involving other members of his group. Though federal indictments handed down against his Oath Keepers and Proud Boys cohorts have not named him personally, he is referenced in several of them as “Person 1,” a central player in what prosecutors are describing as a conspiracy to “stop, delay, or hinder Congress’s certification of the Electoral College vote.”
“I may go to jail soon,” Rhodes recently told a right-wing rally in Texas. “Not for anything I actually did, but for made-up crimes. There are some Oath Keepers right now along with Proud Boys and other patriots who are in D.C. who are sitting in jail denied bail despite the supposed right to a jury trial before you’re found guilty and presumption of innocence, were denied bail because the powers that be don’t like their political views.”
Proud Boy Dominic Pezzola’s attorney wrote in court filings that he believed a so-called "cooperating witness" was sharing information about the Proud Boys. An earlier filing by prosecutors had revealed that this witness heard Proud Boys members claim that “anyone they got their hands on they would have killed,” including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and that they would have also killed then-Vice President Mike Pence “if given the chance.” The men—who all had firearms or access to them—also talked about returning to Washington for Inauguration Day, and that “they plan to kill every single ‘m-fer’ they can.” That witness, prosecutors noted, has not been charged with a crime.
Most of the defendants, as a New York Times piece recently explored, are facing substantial evidence of their crimes culled from videos and photos both in mainstream media and on social media. Indeed, a large portion of that evidence was provided by the insurrectionists themselves.