Oath Keepers founding member is first to plead guilty in U.S. Capitol riot

By Mark Hosenball

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -A founding member of the right-wing Oath Keepers on Friday became the first person to plead guilty to taking part in the U.S. Capitol riot, signaling a new stage in the investigation of the deadly Jan. 6 assault on the seat of American democracy.

Jon Schaffer, a native of Indiana and founder of the band Iced Earth, entered a guilty plea to two felony charges of obstructing the certification of the 2020 election and breaching a restricted building.

During a hearing in Washington D.C. federal court, U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta said Schaffer, 52, had no previous criminal record and voluntarily contacted authorities shortly after the Capitol riot. The judge indicated that Schaffer was involved in discussions about cooperating with government investigators and agreed to release him from custody on his own recognizance, with another hearing scheduled for mid-June.

Schaffer is among hundreds of supporters of former President Donald Trump who stormed the Capitol in an attempt to overturn the November election results. Rioters battled with police, smashed windows and sent lawmakers fleeing for safety.

Five people, including Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick, died in the violence.

Prosecutors said Schaffer wore a tactical vest and carried bear spray repellant when he joined the attack on the Capitol 100 days ago.

A lawyer for Schaffer agreed at Friday’s hearing that Schaffer entered the Capitol that day as Congress prepared to certify the Electoral College vote in favor of Joe Biden.

In a court filing, prosecutors said Schaffer, who was photographed during the Capitol riot wearing a cap with the insignia of the right-wing Oath Keepers, “was among the rioters who sprayed United States Capitol Police officers with ‘bear spray.'”

Prosecutors said Schaffer was “photographed and captured on surveillance video” carrying the bear spray and also was filmed “engaging in verbal altercations with Capitol Police officers inside the Capitol Building.”

More than 400 people have been arrested and charged with taking part in the violence. The most serious charges have been assault, conspiracy and obstruction of Congress or law enforcement.

(Reporting by Jan Wolfe and Mark Hosenball; Editing by Scott Malone, Chizu Nomiyama, Steve Orlofsky and Dan Grebler)

U.S. charges another Oath Keepers associate in Capitol riot probe

By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Justice Department this week charged another associate of the anti-government Oath Keepers militia over his alleged role in storming the U.S. Capitol.

Joshua A. James, 33, of Arab, Alabama, is at least the 11th person associated with the far-right militia to face charges in connection with the deadly Jan. 6 siege.

Nine of the group’s alleged associates are charged in a superseding indictment with conspiring to storm the Capitol as far back as November.

James is at least the second Oath Keepers associate who was captured in photographs providing security for Roger Stone, Trump’s longtime friend and ally, who spoke at political rallies leading up to the attack.

Earlier this week, Roberto Minuta, 36, was also identified as providing security to Stone before he allegedly stormed the Capitol. He is also facing criminal charges.

The photographs of Stone’s Oath Keepers security detail were published in the New York Times last month, and the article is referenced in the charging documents for both Minuta and James.

Stone, in a statement earlier this week, denied knowing Minuta, and said he had no advanced knowledge the Capitol would be attacked.

According to the charging documents, James was captured in photographs on Jan. 6 wearing tactical gear with Oath Keepers insignia.

“Publicly-available video also captured James inside the Capitol building,” the complaint says.

James is due to appear in a federal court in Alabama on Thursday for a detention hearing. His public defender declined to comment.

More than 300 people have been charged so far in connection with the attack on the U.S. Capitol, and the FBI has been increasingly focused on suspects with ties to right-wing extremist groups.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch in Washington; Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball in Washington; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

Oath Keepers militia members accused of conspiracy for roles in U.S. Capitol siege

By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Prosecutors on Tuesday accused three people affiliated with a far-right militia group with conspiring to breach the U.S. Capitol, the first time they have directly accused people of organizing the violent uprising that left five people dead.

Thomas Edward Caldwell, 65, of Clarke County, Virginia, whom investigators said has a leadership role in the Oath Keepers group, was named in a criminal complaint as having participated in the Capitol riots. His fellow members Jessica Watkins, 38, of Champaign County, Ohio, and Donovan Ray Crowl, also of Ohio, were also charged.

Caldwell, Watkins and Crowl are accused of conspiring against the United States and conspiring to prevent the government from discharging its duties, among other offenses.

Caldwell, who told a federal judge on Tuesday he is on disability after retiring from the U.S. Navy, said he looks forward to proving at trial that “every single charge is false.”

Jon Schaffer, a guitarist for the Indiana heavy metal band Iced Earth who was photographed during the riot wearing an Oath Keepers cap, also stands accused of using bear spray on police officers as the crowd tried to force its way past them, but was not named in the conspiracy.

Investigators said Caldwell used Facebook to communicate with fellow members of the Oath Keepers and helped make hotel arrangements for their stay in the Washington, D.C. area. He later posted photos from the siege, saying: “Us storming the castle. Please share… I am such an instigator!”

Watkins and Crowl appeared in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio on Tuesday. Asked by a federal judge if she understood the charges against her, Watkins said: “I understand what you said. I don’t understand how I got them.”

A federal prosecutor told a judge in Caldwell’s case it was “likely” additional charges could be on the table, including rioting and seditious conspiracy.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; additional reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York, and Brad Heath and Mark Hosenball in Washington; Editing by Dan Grebler)