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Guns, racy texts lead day of testimony in Oath Keepers seditious conspiracy trial

Prosecutors say militia founder Stewart Rhodes purchased $10,000-worth of firearms and equipment while traveling from Texas to D.C. ahead of Jan. 6.

WASHINGTON — Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes purchased more than $10,000 worth of firearms and equipment while traveling from Texas to D.C. ahead of Jan. 6, jurors heard Monday – roughly a quarter of the approximately $40,000 he allegedly spent on similar items in the weeks immediately before and after the joint session of Congress.

FBI Special Agent Sylvia Hilgeman testified last week that she was a financial crimes investigator who was tasked with looking into the quick reaction force, or QRF, the Oath Keepers stationed at the Comfort Inn Ballston in Northern Virginia on Jan. 6. As part of her testimony, jurors saw surveillance video of Oath Keeper Ed Vallejo, who is set to be tried as part of the second seditious conspiracy group, and other members of the militia bringing in numerous large canvas bags, totes and other storage items to the hotel on Jan. 5. Prosecutors allege those bags contained rifles, ammunition and other equipment. Another Oath Keeper not charged in the case, Terry Cummings, testified last week that the QRF had amassed more guns on Jan. 6 than he’d seen in one place since his time in the military.

On Monday, prosecutors also showed jurors records of financial transactions they said showed Rhodes had spent more than $22,000 between Dec. 30, 2020, and Jan. 6, 2021. According to materials shown in court and included in Rhodes’ indictment in January, those purchases included:

  • $7,000 on Dec. 30, 2020, for night vision and sights;
  • $5,000 on Jan. 1 and 2, 2021, for a shotgun, scop and magazines;
  • $6,000 on Jan. 3, 2021, in Texas while en route to D.C. on an AR-platform rifle and firearms equipment;
  • $4,500 on Jan. 4, 2021, in Mississippi on additional firearms equipment, including sights, mounts and other parts.

Prosecutors said Monday several of the night vision scopes were sent by Rhodes to the leader of the Virginia Freedom Keepers, which helped organize a medical freedom information rally on Jan. 6. Hilgeman couldn’t account for the other items, though – something Rhodes attorney James Lee Bright repeatedly questioned her about.

In response to a question from Bright, Hilgeman said she wasn’t aware of any allegations of Rhodes “illegally or improperly” owning a weapon. She also acknowledged none of the rooms at the Ballston hotel where the QRF was staged were in Rhodes’ name.

Hilgeman did indicate where many of the items were ultimately discovered though: in a storage locker owned by Alabama Oath Keeper Joshua James.

James pleaded guilty in March to seditious conspiracy and obstruction of an official proceeding and was expected to be called as a witness during the trial. As part of that guilty plea, James agreed to a statement of facts that included information about seeing large amounts of firearms in Rhodes’ vehicle on the evening of Jan. 6 after he and Rhodes began to worry law enforcement was looking for the militia’s leader.

“The group immediately returned to their hotel, collected their belongings, and met at a nearby gas station,” the statement of facts reads. “There, James saw what he estimated to be thousands of dollars’ worth of firearms, ammunition, and related equipment in Rhodes’ vehicle. Rhodes divvied up various firearms and other gear among James and others who occupied a total of three cars. Rhodes left his mobile phone with one person and departed with another person in that person’s car so that law enforcement could not locate and arrest him. The three cars departed in separate directions.”

Linking Rhodes to the QRF is key for prosecutors, who must show each Oath Keeper defendant conspired to forcibly prevent, hinder or delay the execution of the laws governing the transfer of power to secure a conviction on the rarely used seditious conspiracy charge. Last week, jurors saw numerous messages sent by Rhodes’ co-defendant, Thomas Caldwell, about an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to acquire a boat to transport the QRF’s weapons across the Potomac to waiting Oath Keepers. Rhodes’ attorney Bright attempted to distance his client from Caldwell on Monday, asking Hilgeman repeatedly whether Caldwell was in a number of what he described as the most important Oath Keepers Signal groups. Hilgeman pointed out, to Bright’s consternation, that jurors had seen direct messages between Caldwell and Rhodes, but acknowledged Caldwell had not been in many of the group chats.

Pushing back on the Justice Department’s theory, defense attorneys have said many of those chat groups show the militia made a regular habit of staging QRFs nearby events, including during prior events in D.C., and had never deployed them offensively. The defense has argued the Oath Keepers were in D.C. to conduct security and that the Jan. 6 QRF was done in preparation for former President Donald Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act. 

No Oath Keepers have been charged with bringing weapons onto Capitol grounds or into the D.C. city limits on Jan. 6 — something else Bright questioned Hilgeman about.

"So the armed rebellion was unarmed?" he asked.

“The armed rebellion wasn’t over," Hilgeman replied.

As part of the day’s evidence into Rhodes’ cross-country trip to D.C., jurors also saw a series of sexually explicit text messages between Rhodes and Kellye SoRelle, who the defense argues was the Oath Keepers’ general counsel and Rhodes’ personal attorney on Jan. 6. The messages make clear the two had an intimate relationship in the days leading up to Jan. 6 – rebutting, prosecutors say, the notion that she and Rhodes had a professional attorney-client relationship. That could prove to be a key piece of evidence later in the trial should the defense call SoRelle to the stand to testify that she was acting as Rhodes’ and other Oath Keepers’ lawyers in advising them to delete electronic messages after Jan. 6.

WUSA9 reporter Jordan Fischer will be in court throughout the trial providing daily coverage. Follow him on Twitter at @JordanOnRecord and subscribe to our weekly newsletter “Capitol Breach” for all the latest Jan. 6 coverage. 

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