Prosecutor: Riot was ‘moment to celebrate’ for Oath Keepers

‘Our democracy was under attack, but for the defendants it was everything they trained for,’ Louis Manzo said

U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington
Members of the Oath Keepers extremist group stand on the East Front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington.Manuel Balce Ceneta (AP)

The Capitol riot was the culmination of weeks of preparation and a moment of triumph for the Oath Keepers, a federal prosecutor said Wednesday in closing argument in the second seditious conspiracy trial against members of the far-right extremist group.

Prosecutor Louis Manzo told jurors that Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes, who was convicted in an earlier trial, began pushing to stop the transfer of power from then-president Donald Trump to Democratic challenger Joe Biden almost immediately after the 2020 election, and that members of Rhodes’ group took up the cause.

Manzo said they brought weapons from around the country to create an arsenal stashed at a hotel just outside Washington before two groups of Oath Keepers stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, with hundreds of other rioters.

“Our democracy was under attack, but for the defendants it was everything they trained for and a moment to celebrate,” Manzo said.

Rhodes and a Florida chapter leader were convicted in November of seditious conspiracy and other charges in a major victory for the Justice Department. Three co-defendants were acquitted of seditious conspiracy, which carries up to 20 years behind bars.

The question in the current trial is whether prosecutors can persuade jurors to convict lower-level defendants.

In a separate trial at the same courthouse, the government is also trying to secure seditious conspiracy convictions against former Proud Boys national chairman Enrique Tarrio and four associates. The trial against Tarrio opened this month and is expected to last several weeks.

The four Oath Keepers now on trial are Joseph Hackett of Sarasota, Florida; Roberto Minuta of Prosper, Texas; David Moerschel of Punta Gorda, Florida; and Edward Vallejo of Phoenix. They are charged with several other felonies in addition to seditious conspiracy.

Defense lawyers argue that there was never any plan to storm the Capitol, and that prosecutors cherry-picked from a vast number of online messages to try to make their case.

“The government has built its case upon selective evidence selection and scary words,” said William Lee Shipley, who was representing Minuta. Authorities say the New York Oath Keepers leader was part of a group of people who entered the Capitol in a military-style line after heeding Rhodes’ call to race to the building.

While there is not evidence specifically spelling out a plan to attack the Capitol, prosecutors said the Oath Keepers seized upon the riot as an opportunity to help keep Trump in power. “Attacking the Capitol was a means to an end,” Manzo said.

Defense lawyers said the guns stashed in Virginia were not intended for an attack on the Capitol, but were an emergency backup measure as part of their plan to provide security at a “Stop the Steal” rally on Jan. 6 where Trump addressed a crowd of his supporters. The weapons were never deployed.

“The government’s entire case played out like a heavily edited reality show,” said defense lawyer Angela Halim, who represents Hackett. He is accused of breaching the Capitol with Moerschel and other Oath Keepers.

Prosecutors said Hackett repeatedly warned other Oath Keepers about “leaks” and the need to secure their communications before Jan. 6, and later changed his screen names. They said Hackett and Moerschel were part of another group of people who approached the Capitol in a military-style line before they entered the building.

Moerschel’s lawyer, Scott Weinberg, said his client quickly realized on Jan. 6 that the situation “wasn’t what he signed up for” and left both the Capitol and the Oath Keepers group. Rhodes treated the group like his “personal piggy bank,” Weinberg said.

Vallejo, an Army veteran, drove from Arizona and stayed with the arsenal of weapons at the hotel in Virginia, just outside Washington and sent unanswered messages offering to deploy a “quick reaction force,” or QRF. He also spoke about a “declaration of a guerilla war” on the morning of Jan. 6, according to an audio recording played in court.

“This is life or death for Mr. Vallejo. He is deadly serious,” Manzo said.

But Vallejo’s lawyer said Vallejo “wears his heart on his sleeve and has no guile” and did not have close ties to the other defendants. “No one was counting on Mr. Vallejo as part of a QRF,” said Matthew Peed.

Seditious conspiracy, a Civil War-era offense, can be difficult to prove, especially when the alleged plot is unsuccessful.

Rhodes and Kelly Meggs of Florida were the first people in decades found guilty at trial of the charge. All five defendants in the first trial were convicted on a separate charge of obstructing Congress’ certification of Biden’s win.

Three other Oath Keepers have pleaded guilty to seditious conspiracy and agreed to cooperate with investigators in the hopes of getting lighter sentences.

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