As the high-profile Oath Keepers' seditious conspiracy trial entered its third week on Monday, an FBI special agent testified that members of the far-right group worked to amass weapons and store them in a Washington, D.C.-area hotel in the days leading up to the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021.
Prosecutors alleged that the group's founder, Stewart Rhodes, traveled from his home state of Texas to Washington, D.C., stopping multiple times along the way to purchase weapons and ammunition, according to bank records presented to the jury in court.
Rhodes and his associates Kelly Meggs, Jessica Watkins, Kenneth Harrelson and Thomas Caldwell stand accused of multiple crimes stemming from their alleged involvement in the events of Jan. 6, including seditious conspiracy, the most serious crime so far alleged in the Justice Department's sprawling investigation. The five defendants have all pleaded not guilty and, although none are actually accused of weapons crimes, the alleged amassing of an arsenal outside the D.C. city limits is key to the government's case.
Rhodes and Caldwell are not accused of entering the Capitol. Meggs, Watkins and Harrelson allegedly formed a military-style "stack" to breach the building, according to the government. Their defense teams say the group was in D.C. largely to provide security to high-profile members of Trump's orbit.
During testimony from FBI agent Sylvia Hilgeman, prosecutors showed security camera footage from inside a Comfort Inn in Ballston, Virginia, where some of the defendants and their associates, some of whom have been charged and others who haven't, allegedly planned for Jan. 6.
The videos showed members of the Oath Keepers, like Harrelson and Meggs, inside the hotel as large containers, which investigators allege held weapons, were brought into the hotel — some on luggage carts, others in duffel bags.
The weapons never entered Washington, D.C. — prosecutors concede the Oath Keepers were cognizant of the city's firearms laws — but the government contends that the group amassed the weapons as part of an armed Quick Reaction Force, or QRF, designed to respond to Washington, D.C. if called into action.
For his part, as Rhodes traveled from to the D.C. area, allegedly amassing weapons along the way, text messages displayed at trial revealed sexually-explicit communications between Rhodes and Oath Keepers attorney-turned Jan. 6 defendant Kellye SoRelle. Prosecutors contend the two had a personal relationship and defense attorneys have so far unsuccessfully argued SoRelle's position as attorney barred her messages from the evidentiary records. SoRelle is charged with multiple counts related to the Jan. 6 attack and pleaded not guilty.
Once in the Washington, D.C. area, the Oath Keepers allegedly prepared to take action. In a podcast on the morning of Jan. 6, Edward Vallejo – a member from Arizona also charged with seditious conspiracy and set to go on trial next month – spoke of resorting to "guerilla war," according to recordings played at trial, advocating for Donald Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act and take a stand against the incoming Biden presidency.
Vallejo was heard saying that Trump needed to take action, adding, "If that doesn't happen, then sh** is on." Vallejo is accused of preparing the QRF leading up to the attack.
FBI agent Hilgeman's testimony also advanced the government's theory of the case, that the the storming of the Capitol was only the beginning, part of a larger seditious plan to prevent the peaceful transfer of power from Trump to Joe Biden. Defense attorneys are contending the Capitol breach was the final event, devoid of any larger conspiracy.
Under cross-examination, Hilgeman told defense attorneys that she believed the allegedly armed QRF was not necessarily meant for the Capitol itself, but to occupy the city and prevent Joe Biden from ever becoming president, "whatever form that took."
Hilgeman said Caldwell talked of sending a boat full of weapons across the Potomac River from their Virginia hotel to the Capitol, if necessary.
Seizing on the fact that none of the Oath Keepers are accused of bringing guns into Washington, D.C., Rhodes' attorney Philip Linder asked the agent, "The armed rebellion was unarmed?"
"The armed rebellion wasn't over," Hilgeman responded, acknowledging the government's contention that the Oath Keepers planned to continue their resistance after the events of Jan. 6.
And when asked by another defense attorney if Biden's impending presidency was the impetus for the Oath Keepers' presence in D.C. that day, Hilgeman responded by recalling her recollection of Rhodes' own words that if Trump failed to act, "we will."
"This was the 'we will' part," the agent said.