WASHINGTON — As the Capitol was overrun on Jan. 6, armed supporters of President Donald Trump were waiting across the Potomac in Virginia for orders to bring guns into the fray, a prosecutor said Wednesday in federal court.
The Justice Department has repeatedly highlighted comments from some alleged riot participants who discussed being part of a “quick reaction force” with stashes of weapons. Defendants have dismissed those conversations as bluster. But in a detention hearing for Kenneth Harrelson, accused of conspiring with other members of the Oath Keepers militia group to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s election win, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Nestler said the government has evidence indicating otherwise.
“This is not pure conjecture,” Nestler said. In a court filing this week, he noted, prosecutors obtained cellphone and video evidence from the day before the riot showing that Harrelson asked someone about the quick reaction force. He then went to a Comfort Inn in the Ballston area of Arlington for about an hour before driving to Washington, D.C., prosecutors said. The day after the riot, surveillance video from the hotel shows him moving “what appears to be at least one rifle case down a hallway and towards the elevator,” according to the court records.
In court, Nestler said another Oath Keeper carried what appeared to be a rifle under a sheet out of the hotel on Jan. 7.
“We believe that at least one quick reaction force location was here and that Mr. Harrelson and others had stashed a large amount of weapons there,” Nestler said. “People affiliated with this group were in Ballston, monitoring what was happening at the Capitol and prepared to come into D.C. and ferry these weapons into the ground team that Kenneth Harrelson was running at a moment’s notice, if anyone said the word.”
Nestler did not detail the number of arms the group is alleged to have stashed.
Judge Amit Mehta called the evidence among the “most troubling and most disconcerting” he has seen in nearly a dozen cases related to Oath Keepers.
It is “the strongest evidence that the government has presented that there was a quick reaction force outside the District of Columbia, the location of the quick reaction force and that members of this conspiracy provided weapons to this quick reaction force,” he said. Harrelson, he added, is “clearly is prepared to have weapons at the ready for violent conduct.”
Harrelson was a high-ranking member of the Oath Keepers, prosecutors said, in regular contact with group leader Stewart Rhodes. While members use the jargon and trappings of a paramilitary organization, in practice the group is made up of loosely connected chapters united by a right-wing ideology.
In conversations after the riot produced in court documents, Harrelson and others argued over the group’s leadership and direction.
“Look, I WAS THERE. I WAS RIGHT OUSIDE. Patriots stormed in. NotAntifa. And I don’t blame them,” wrote Rhodes, identified as Person Number One in documents.
“This organization is a huge … joke,” someone replied.
Harrelson, a 41-year-old Army veteran, subsequently apologized to Rhodes in a message on an encrypted chat service for not “step[ping] up to the plate” on Jan. 6.
“Not your fault, my fault,” Rhodes said, adding that he should have “held a mandatory meeting” the night before the riot and given out operating orders.
Harrelson deleted other communications, and Mehta found that Harrelson was “deceptive” in claiming he had left the group.
Defense attorney Nina Ginsberg argued that the commentary both on and after Jan. 6 indicates a lack of planning.
“It’s kind of difficult to imagine how people could have been effectively communicating with each other in the midst of that mob,” she said. “There was no preplanned agreement to overtake the Capitol, to storm the building, to force entry into the building, but that this was something that evolved as it was occurring.”
She said any inference about plans for armed backup at the Capitol were “speculation.”
In a court filing last month, the defense attorney for one of Harrelson’s alleged co-conspirators said the quick reaction force was “one person” who is “in his late 60s, obese, and has cardiopulmonary issues, a bad back, a bum knee, and is need of a hip replacement.”
The person described in that filing has not been charged, and there is no evidence that any backup force arrived at the Capitol with weapons on Jan. 6.
In court filings, prosecutors have quoted Rhodes messaging the group in advance about preparations for “worst-case scenarios,” writing, “We will have several well equipped QRFs outside DC.”
Rhodes also recommended helmets, hard gloves, eye protection and weapons, according to prosecutors, writing: “Collapsible Batons are a grey area in the law. I bring one. But I’m willing to take that risk because I love em.”
Rhodes, who has not been charged with any crimes, has denied a plan to enter the Capitol and accused prosecutors of trying to manufacture a conspiracy.
In interviews, Rhodes has said that the national Oath Keepers organization never did muster a quick reaction force for Jan. 6, and that some members and their associates went off mission.
Police on Jan. 6 charged only a handful of firearms offenses in Capitol-related cases. Because so few arrests were made on the scene that day, however, investigators say the true number of rioters who were carrying firearms will never be known.
In charging papers, the FBI and Justice Department allege that many defendants discussed bringing firearms to Washington, as well as not carrying them to the Capitol because of the District’s gun laws.
One of those arrested late Jan. 6 for not leaving Capitol grounds was Maryland tow truck driver Christopher Alberts. Police said they stopped him outside the building carrying a loaded black Taurus G2C 9mm handgun on his hip and a loaded, 12-round spare magazine in separate holsters, along with a gas mask, pocket knife and first-aid kit.
The oldest detained defendant, Lonnie L. Coffman, 70, of Alabama was arrested after returning to his truck parked near the Capitol, where police allegedly found 11 homemade, Molotov cocktail-type incendiary devices, a rifle, shotgun, two 9mm pistols, a .22-caliber pistol — all loaded — as well as a crossbow, several machetes, a stun gun and smoke devices. Prosecutors alleged that the 11 jars were prepped with gasoline and melted plastic foam to produce a dangerous “napalm-like” explosion of sticky, flammable liquid.
Other charging and detention documents allege that many defendants discussed leaving weapons in vehicles, parking lots, hotel rooms, bags or with others to ensure quick access.
New York dating coach Samuel Fisher, also known as Brad Holiday, was arrested after allegedly posting on social media photos of himself at the Capitol and with firearms including a pistol and a rifle.
“If it kicks off I got a Vest and My Rifle,” he wrote, according to court documents.
Prosecutors have alleged that Erik Munchel of Nashville stashed weapons in a tactical bag outside the Capitol before bringing a stun gun inside. A search of his home found a legal arsenal of 15 firearms including assault rifles, a sniper rifle and tripod, other types of rifles, shotguns and pistols, a drum-style magazine, and other magazines and ammunition.
Searching the home of Karl Dresch of Calumet, Mich., investigators say they found a backpack containing a Hagerstown, Md., gas station receipt, a Metro transit card, radar detector, handheld radio and 160 rounds of ammunition. In his home they found a 12-gauge shotgun, a Glock pistol, a Remington rifle and a Russian-made AK-47-style rifle compatible with the ammunition.
A Dresch attorney said the weapons were “the type of ordinary firearms that are commonplace in rural households throughout America.” Attorneys for the other defendants have emphasized that they are not accused of weapons-related crimes.
D.C. police Officer Daniel Hodges said in a January interview that one reason he did not draw his weapon during the riot was that police understood the crowd to be armed.
“I knew they had guns — we had been seizing guns all day,” he said. “And the only reason I could think of that they weren’t shooting us was they were waiting for us to shoot first.”
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The Washington Post’s Tom Jackman contributed to this report.