WASHINGTON — The founder of the right-wing Oath Keepers militia and several of its members pleaded not guilty to seditious conspiracy for their roles in the January 2021 insurrection, signaling a drawn-out fight over the most serious charges so far stemming from the assault on the U.S. Capitol.

Capitol Riot Seditious Conspiracy

Elmer Stewart Rhodes

Elmer Stewart Rhodes of Texas, who graduated from Yale Law School in 2004 and founded the Oath Keepers a few years later, entered the plea Tuesday during a virtual hearing before U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta in Washington. Half a dozen other Oath Keepers members also entered not-guilty pleas.

Prosecutors said at the hearing that the government is continuing to make extensive amounts of evidence available to the defense as they prepare for at least two trials of Oath Keepers members as soon as April, including some who weren’t charged with sedition. The militia members are among more than 700 people charged since the deadly assault on the Capitol by a mob of former President Trump’s supporters.

In the days before the insurrection, the men accused in the sedition case allegedly set up staging areas for equipment in Washington’s suburbs and organized training sessions to teach paramilitary combat tactics. They also brought gear including knives, batons, tactical vests, helmets, eye protection and radio equipment onto the Capitol grounds, according to the indictment.

During the assault, Oath Keepers member Roberto Minuta of New Jersey was recorded confronting police officers at the Capitol in a mob, yelling, “Get out! Get the cops out! It’s our (expletive) building!” He and another defendant, Joshua James of Alabama, then briefly breached the Rotunda, according the indictment, though James was expelled by officers with chemical spray.

According the indictment, Rhodes communicated with other Oath Keepers members after law enforcement secured the Capitol, telling them in encrypted messages that night, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

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“We aren’t quitting!! We are reloading!!” said another member, Kelly Meggs, of Florida.

Lawyers for Minuta, James and Meggs all entered not-guilty pleas for their clients on Tuesday.

Fact Focus

Violent protesters loyal to President Trump storm the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. The founder and multiple members of the Oath Keepers militia have pleaded not guilty to seditious conspiracy in the attack. John Minchillo/Associated Press

James Beeks, a Broadway actor who joined the Oath Keepers a few weeks before the insurrection, also pleaded not guilty. Beeks, who was part of a traveling production of the musical “Jesus Christ Superstar,” was arrested in Milwaukee in November. According to the criminal complaint, he joined up with a group of Oath Keepers on Jan. 6 while carrying a homemade shield he claimed was “bulletproof.”

Attorneys in related cases stemming from the assault have outlined several possible defenses, including arguing that Congress wasn’t obstructed because it wasn’t in session, and that police allowed rioters to enter the building. In fact, lawmakers fled for their lives, and more than 140 police were injured while securing the Capitol.

Sedition is the crime of inciting a revolt against the government, and it’s seldom charged because of free speech issues. In the action Thursday, the Justice Department formally alleges that there was a deliberate conspiracy to prevent Biden’s election certification.

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