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For Oath Keepers and founder, Jan. 6 was weeks in the making

Stewart Rhodes, founder of the citizen militia group known as the Oath Keepers, center, speaks during a rally outside the White House in Washington, on June 25, 2017.Susan Walsh/Associated Press

WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) — Two days after the election on Nov. 2, 2020, the Oath Keepers were already convinced that victory had been stolen from President Donald Trump and members of the far-right militia group were making plans to march on the U.S. Capitol.

“We aren't getting through this without a civil war,” leader Stewart Rhodes wrote fellow members, according to court documents. “Too late for that. Prepare your mind. body. spirit.”

Five days after the election, when The Associated Press and other news outlets declared Democrat Joe Biden the winner, the documents say Rhodes told Oath Keepers to “refuse to accept it and march en-masse on the nation’s Capitol.”

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The indictment last week of Rhodes, the leader of the Oath Keepers, and 10 other members or associates was stunning in part because federal prosecutors, after a year of investigating the insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021, charged them with seditious conspiracy, a rarely-used Civil War-era statute.

But the documents also show how quickly Trump’s most fervent and dangerous supporters mobilized to subvert the election results through force and violence, by any means necessary, even though there was no widespread election fraud and Trump’s Cabinet and local election officials said the vote had been free and fair.

Hundreds of people have been charged in the violent effort to stop the congressional certification of Biden’s victory. Many were animated by Trump’s speech at a rally near the White House, just before the riot, where he said: “We fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”

But for Rhodes and others, there was no need for Trump’s words of encouragement. Action was already planned.

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Elmer Stewart Rhodes III, 56, founded the Oath Keepers in 2009. He and some friends decided they would form an organization around the perception of “imminent tyranny,” concerned about federal overreach and a series of unrecognized threats such as that the government was planning to attack its own citizens.

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Rhodes, out of high school, joined the Army and became a paratrooper, but was honorably discharged after he was injured during a night parachuting accident, according to a biography on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s website on extremism.

He went to night school at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. His first job in politics was supervising interns for Ron Paul, who was then a Republican congressman from Texas. Rhodes later went to Yale Law School.

He recruited current and former military, police and first responders. Before long he had thousands of members and he was neglecting his Montana law practice to work on the group. He was disbarred in 2015.

The Oath Keepers engaged in a series of confrontations with the government during Barack Obama's presidency. The most notable was a heavily-armed standoff at Bundy Ranch in Bunkerville, Nevada.

Trump was elected in 2016. While Rhodes insisted the Oath Keepers were nonpartisan, they came to the nation’s capital in January 2017, when Trump took office, to protect peaceful “American patriots” from “radical leftists.”

When it looked like Trump was going to lose the 2020 presidential election to Biden, the Oath Keepers got to work, prosecutors said.

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On Nov. 9, 2020, Rhodes instructed his followers during a GoToMeeting call to go to Washington to let Trump know “that the people are behind him,” and he expressed hope that Trump would call up the militia to help stay in power, authorities say.

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“It will be a bloody and desperate fight,” Rhodes warned. “We are going to have a fight. That can’t be avoided.”

The Oath Keepers worked as if they were going to war, discussing weapons and training. Days before the attack on the Capitol, one defendant suggested in a text message getting a boat to ferry weapons across the Potomac River to their “waiting arms,” prosecutors say.

On Dec. 14, 2020, as the electors in the states cast their votes, Rhodes published a letter on the Oath Keepers’ website “advocating for the use of force to stop the lawful transfer of presidential power,” according to the documents.

As that transition in Washington drew close, Oath Keepers spoke of an arsenal they would keep just a few minutes away and grab if needed. Rhodes is accused of spending $15,500 on firearms and related equipment including a shotgun, AR-15, mounts, triggers, scopes and magazines, prosecutors said.

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On the morning of Jan. 6, 2020, members turned up in camouflaged combat attire and helmets. They entered the Capitol with the large crowds of rioters who stormed past police barriers and smashed windows, injuring dozens of officers and sending lawmakers running.

The indictment against Rhodes alleges Oath Keepers formed two teams, or “stacks,” that went inside. The first stack split up to separately go after the House and Senate. The second stack confronted officers inside the Capitol Rotunda, the indictment said.

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An Oath Keeper was the first defendant to plead guilty in the investigation. Jon Ryan Schaffer also agreed to cooperate with the government’s investigation and the Justice Department has promised to consider putting him in the witness security program.

Other cracks in the group are showing. Before his arrest, Rhodes sought to distance himself from those who’ve been arrested, insisting the members went rogue and there was never a plan to enter the Capitol.

After the riot, the North Carolina Oath Keepers branch said it was splitting from Rhodes’ group. Its president, who didn’t return messages from The Associated Press, told The News Reporter newspaper it wouldn’t be “a part of anything that terrorizes anybody or goes against law enforcement.”

A leader of an Arizona chapter also slammed Rhodes and those facing charges, saying on CBS’ “60 Minutes” that the attack “goes against everything we’ve ever taught, everything we believe in.”

More than a dozen of his members were arrested on conspiracy charges, and Rhodes was referred to in their indictments as “Person One," but as the months wore on it seemed increasingly unlikely anyone would face sedition charges.

Rhodes faced a judge on Friday and was ordered to be held in custody. After the hearing, his lawyers said he entered a not guilty plea and plans to fight the charges.