WASHINGTON – A founding member of the Oath Keepers arrested in the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol pleaded guilty Friday and agreed to cooperate against others in the case – the first defendant to publicly flip in the sprawling domestic terrorism investigation that has led to charges against more than 410 people.
The plea comes exactly 100 days after Jon Ryan Schaffer and hundreds of other supporters of former president Donald Trump stormed the Capitol, allegedly in an effort to prevent Joe Biden from being confirmed as the next president. Prosecutors hope Schaffer’s plea spurs others to provide additional evidence in hopes of avoiding long prison sentences.
The plea marks a new stage in the historic investigation, as prosecutors seek to work up the chain of defendants to gather evidence and better understand the full scope of any planning and organizing of the violence – particularly among groups like the far-right Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys. Dozens of members from both groups appeared to act in concert to storm the building, prosecutors have alleged.
Peter Skinner, a former federal prosecutor, called it a “huge” development, saying such cooperation deals are “what the government needs to investigate and possibly prosecute the leaders of the organization.”
“Clearly, they’re trying to send a strong signal to other Oath Keepers and leaders that there’s somebody in the organization that is going to be telling them everything they know about the organization,” said Skinner.
Schaffer, 53, a guitarist and lead songwriter for the heavy metal band Iced Earth, was charged on Friday by criminal information, a type of charging document used when a defendant waives the right to an indictment.
He was initially charged with six crimes, including engaging in an act of physical violence and targeting police with bear spray.
Schaffer pleaded guilty to only two charges, but both are felony offenses carrying heavy penalties that federal prosecutors are relying on heavily in the wider probe. One, obstruction of an official proceeding of Congress, is punishable by up to 20 years in prison; the other, trespassing on restricted grounds of the Capitol while armed with a deadly or dangerous weapon, carries up to a 10 year prison term.
Schaffer appeared Friday morning before U.S. District Court Judge Amit Mehta, who accepted the plea and a request for Schaffer to be free and allowed to travel while he helps the government and awaits sentencing.
“You’re pleading guilty Mr. Schaffer because you’re in fact actually guilty?” the judge asked. “Yes,” Schaffer said.
Acting deputy attorney general John Carlin praised the FBI and prosecutors for averaging more than four arrests a day since the insurrection, saying they “have worked tirelessly for the last 100 days to bring those who committed criminal acts to justice.”
Under terms of the plea deal signed by Schaffer and his attorney, Marc Victor, he faces a recommended prison term of 41 to 51 months under nonbinding federal guidelines, though his sentence will ultimately be decided by a judge.
“He is the first person to plead guilty in this historic investigation to take responsibility for his role in the Capitol riot. He contacted authorities as soon as he discovered he was a person of interest, and he self surrendered,” Victor said, adding that travel was important to his client because he is “an internationally known musician and recording artist.”
The agreement spells out that Schaffer is cooperating, which means his sentence could be cut further if he proves valuable to the ongoing investigation of any other rioters or conspirators. Prosecutors offered to recommend leniency for his full and substantial cooperation, but also made clear Schaffer could be charged with other crimes of violence if they learn of them.
In plea papers, Schaffer admitted positioning himself “at the front of a large mob” that broke open doors on the west side of the Capitol about 2:40 p.m., and being one of the first six people to enter. Prosecutors have alleged in separate filings that other Oath Keepers associates conspired to forcibly enter through the west Capitol Rotunda doors at about that time.
Schaffer admitted knowing that Congress had begun a joint session to certify the election results and that then-Vice President Mike Pence had announced he did not intend to stop it.
“Schaffer admits that his belief that the electoral college results were fraudulent is not a legal justification for unlawfully entering the Capitol building and using intimidation to influence, stop, or delay the Congressional proceeding,” prosecutors said in a statement of the offense.
Schaffer has been jailed since he turned himself in to FBI agents in Indianapolis on Jan. 18. He was photographed inside the Capitol wearing a hat that said “Oath Keepers Lifetime Member.”
The Indiana Oath Keepers organization, in a statement after Schaffer’s arrest, said he is not a member of that group, and some close observers dispute that Schaffer was an early member. Stewart Rhodes, the group’s founder, has named some individuals “lifetime members” for publicity purposes, these people said.
The two charges Schaffer pleaded guilty to have been brought against roughly one-fourth of individuals charged to date – about 100 of more than 410 defendants – including those accused of the most serious offenses in the riot. Authorities have said the attack on the Capitol led to five deaths and assaults against nearly 140 police, as well as a frightening scramble to evacuate lawmakers from the building before the mob found them.
Schaffer’s knowledge of other Oath Keepers members’ activities is unclear from court filings, but prosecutors say he was an early backer of the group. Plea papers submitted by the government, agreed to under oath by the defendant, state flatly, “Schaffer is a founding lifetime member of the Oath Keepers.”
Robert Mintz, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice, called the Schaffer deal “a breakthrough” for prosecutors.
“Witnesses who actually participated in the crime are always the star witnesses at trial because they can take jurors by the hand and walk them through the criminal conspiracy in real time,” he said. “Cooperating witnesses are the lifeblood for prosecutors because they provide a road map that not only lays out the names and culpability of their co-conspirators, but also reveals the mind-set of those who participated in the crime.”
The Oath Keepers are a large but loosely organized network of self-styled militias that recruit military, law enforcement and first-responder personnel with a disinformation-fueled ideology that the federal government is hurtling toward dictatorship and anarchy.
At a pro-Trump march in November attended by Oath Keepers, the FBI alleged, Schaffer said: “We’re not going to merge into some globalist, communist system. It will not happen. There will be a lot of bloodshed if it comes down to that, trust me.”
The FBI and Justice Department have hit a dozen members or associates of the anti-government group with conspiracy charges for allegedly planning and preparing for violence before Jan. 6. Court papers alleged charged members communicated with Rhodes and his on-the-ground deputy that day and breached the Capitol in formation after guarding GOP figures such as Trump confidant Roger Stone.
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