WASHINGTON — The day after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the US Capitol, surveillance video from a hotel in Virginia showed participants in the alleged Oath Keepers conspiracy carrying what appeared to be rifle cases and an object under a sheet that had the “outlines” of a rifle, a federal prosecutor told a judge on Wednesday.
The government’s long-standing theory in the case is that the extremist group came prepared for violence on Jan. 6 and stashed firearms just outside of Washington, DC, which they could easily access via a “quick reaction force” or “QRF.” Until this week, though, prosecutors had shared little evidence other than text messages that referenced a special force. Wednesday’s hearing featured the government’s most comprehensive presentation to date that such a plan was at least partially put into action.
Dozens of people are charged with assaulting police during the riots, but the Oath Keepers case is one of the few that include specific allegations that rioters had planned for violence and specifically made arrangements to have access to guns in DC, where firearms are generally restricted.
Prosecutors filed a brief earlier this week alleging that Kenneth Harrelson of Florida was recorded on the morning of Jan. 7 at the Comfort Inn Ballston in Arlington, Virginia, rolling a luggage cart with what appeared to be a rifle case; the hotel is less than 8 miles from the Capitol. Harrelson is one of 12 people affiliated with the Oath Keepers who have been indicted on charges that they conspired to interfere with Congress’s certification of the election.
During Wednesday’s hearing — where the government successfully argued to keep Harrelson behind bars pending a trial — Assistant US Attorney Jeffrey Nestler said the evidence didn’t include images of guns, but that investigators had studied the footage from the Comfort Inn and believed it showed Harrelson and other members bringing out weapons the day after the insurrection.
None of the defendants indicted in the Oath Keepers conspiracy have been charged with weapon-related crimes, and the government hasn’t presented evidence that any of them brought guns to the Capitol. Nestler told US District Judge Amit Mehta that the government believed other people affiliated with the armed extremist group, whom he did not name, were monitoring events on Jan. 6 from the Comfort Inn and communicating with members who were at the Capitol. These other individuals were “prepared to come into DC and ferry these weapons to the ground team that Mr. Harrelson was running.”
In the case of Thomas Caldwell, another defendant charged in the Oath Keepers conspiracy, prosecutors have alleged that messages he sent before Jan. 6 showed him exploring options to store weapons in Virginia and have them brought into DC via pickup trucks or carried across the Potomac River by boat. Mehta ordered Caldwell to be released to home detention over the government’s objection in March.
In ordering Harrelson to remain in custody, Mehta cited evidence that he was prepared “to bring weapons into the mix” on Jan. 6 and remained in contact with members of the Oath Keepers — particularly leader Stewart Rhodes — in the weeks that followed. Harrelson has been in custody since he was arrested on March 10.
“That is … strong evidence of future dangerousness,” Mehta said.
In an April 12 filing, the government highlighted messages that Harrelson had exchanged with other members of the alleged conspiracy before and after Jan. 6 via a group chat on the encrypted messaging app Signal. On Jan. 5, Harrelson asked another member of the Oath Keepers, identified by the government as codefendant Kelly Meggs, about the address of the “QRF hotel.” Meggs replied, “Dm,” which prosecutors believe stood for “direct message,” suggesting he didn’t want to share messages about the hotel in a group chat.
According to cell site location data, Harrelson arrived at the Comfort Inn roughly three hours after messaging Meggs on Jan. 5, stayed there for about an hour, and then drove into DC. On the morning of Jan. 7, the government said, Harrelson messaged the Signal group, “So we’re just leaving DC and I would like to know where my shits at since it seems everyone’s gone already.” Another person replied, “Did u leave it at Comfort Inn in that room?” Cell site data put Harrelson in the area of the hotel shortly after, according to the government, and that’s when surveillance video showed him with the purported rifle case.
Harrelson’s attorneys have disputed that the surveillance video was proof of anything other than that he had luggage at the Comfort Inn. During Wednesday’s hearing, his attorney Nina Ginsberg tried to distance him from the actions and statements of other Oath Keepers defendants. She pointed out that he wasn’t part of what the government has described as a “stack” of Oath Keepers in tactical gear who advanced on the Capitol, but she acknowledged there was video of him nearby urging them on; she argued that others in the crowd were cheering on the stack. She said the government didn’t have evidence that Harrelson knew most of the charged coconspirators or that he shared their motivations for going to the Capitol.
Ginsberg argued that the evidence showed Harrelson was involved in planning for the Oath Keepers to provide security for Roger Stone and other speakers at rallies that day but said it was “speculation” to say it was proof he was planning to attack the Capitol and disrupt Congress.
Mehta said the evidence was “somewhat ambiguous” about Harrelson’s leadership role before Jan. 6 as far as planning for criminal activity, but the judge gave weight to the government’s argument that he was not an “accidental tourist” in the Capitol. In addition to the video of Harrelson outside the Capitol near the stack, prosecutors said videos from inside the building showed him moving between the Senate and House sides and noted that he was with Kelly Meggs, who messaged someone later about looking for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
The judge said the government’s “strongest” evidence against Harrelson was that he was “actively” trying to find lawmakers and obstruct Congress’s activities.
Of the 12 people charged in the Oath Keepers case, Harrelson is one of three who remain behind bars, along with Meggs and Jessica Watkins; Mehta has granted release to some others indicted in the case over objections from the government. The alleged scope of the conspiracy has continued to grow; a federal grand jury in DC has returned successive superseding indictments with additional defendants. The case could get even bigger; prosecutors have repeatedly referenced Rhodes’ alleged role in coordinating the Oath Keepers’ activities that day as well as other people who were supposedly with the group but haven’t been identified.
Ken Bensinger and Jessica Garrison contributed reporting to this story.