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Capitol riot suspects had more ties to Oath Keepers than previously known

Rioters take to the steps of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. An NPR analysis found more Capitol riot defendants may have ties to the Oath Keepers, a far-right group, than was previously known.
Kent Nishimura
Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Rioters take to the steps of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. An NPR analysis found more Capitol riot defendants may have ties to the Oath Keepers, a far-right group, than was previously known.

Prosecutors have brought some of the most serious charges stemming from the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol against alleged members of the Oath Keepers, a far-right group that targets law enforcement and military veterans for recruitment. More than 20 suspected members of the Oath Keepers have been arrested, and some are facing charges of conspiracy. Now, an examination of hacked records - purportedly taken from Oath Keeper web servers - shows more defendants may have ties to the group than has been previously known.

The Oath Keeper records were obtained from the nonprofit organization Distributed Denial of Secrets. The organization describes itself as a "transparency collective" and has publicized a variety of leaked material. Included in the Oath Keepers leak were chat logs, emails and a list of nearly 40,000 names and contact information for members. Many of the people whose information appears in the Oath Keepers leak have confirmed to NPR and other news organizations that they did, in fact, sign up with the group.

Some defendants that appear in the leaked data have already been described as Oath Keepers by federal prosecutors. For example, Mark Grods signed up for an annual membership with the group in October 2016, according to the data. Grods has since pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy and obstruction of an official proceeding related to the storming of the Capitol, and has agreed to cooperate with the government.

At least five defendants charged in the Jan. 6 attack, however, have identifying information that appears in the leaked records, but have not been tied to the Oath Keepers as part of their Jan. 6 criminal cases. The news organization ProPublica first reported on three of those defendants. By comparing the Oath Keepers membership data to NPR's ongoing database of all Capitol riot criminal cases, NPR was able to identify another two.

NPR contacted all five defendants as well as their attorneys by phone and email. Only one responded: Kevin Loftus of Chippewa Falls, Wisc.

Loftus entered the Capitol building on Jan. 6 and posted photos of himself inside the building on Facebook with the message, "That is right folks some of us are in it to win it," according to court documents. He pleaded guilty to Parading, Demonstrating, or Picketing in a Capitol Building, a misdemeanor, and is set to be sentenced at the end of January 2022. He has not been accused of committing any violence or property damage. None of the court documents in his case allege a connection to the Oath Keepers.

The Oath Keeper records, meanwhile, indicate that Loftus signed up for an annual membership with the group in November 2016. Loftus confirmed those details. He told NPR by phone that he first heard about the Oath Keepers from podcasts and web shows like Infowars, the conspiratorial media organization led by Alex Jones. Infowars has regularly featured the Oath Keepers on podcasts, videos, and articles going back about a decade.

Loftus said he served in the U.S. Army in the 1990s, and he was attracted to the group's pro-Trump stance and their motto - taken from the military's oath of enlistment - that they "defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic." So Loftus paid for an annual membership with the group, which cost $40 at the time. (The membership fee is now $50 per year.)

Loftus said he ultimately only participated in one event with the Oath Keepers. In October 2019, the group called on volunteers to provide "security escorts for rally attendees" at a Trump event in Minneapolis, Minn. Oath Keepers have frequently been seen at similar events openly carrying rifles, but Loftus said he went to Minneapolis unarmed, and just helped escort rally-goers back to their cars. He said he also briefly met the eyepatch-wearing founder and leader of the Oath Keepers, Stewart Rhodes.

Loftus said he decided to stop paying dues to the group just a few months later. He said he was concerned with how the Oath Keepers spent the money received from members' dues. "I don't know where the money goes," said Loftus. "There was no transparency."

Around that time, Loftus said, he also started turning away from some of the media that introduced him to the Oath Keepers in the first place. "Back in those days, I'd listen to Alex Jones," Loftus said. "I don't listen to that nutbag anymore."

By the time of the Capitol riot, Loftus said he had lost track of the group, and wasn't aware that members of the group were in Washington, DC that day. When he heard the Oath Keepers were under federal investigation for their alleged involvement in the attack, Loftus said he thought to himself, "I'm glad I stopped paying dues." He condemned the rioters who committed violence on Jan. 6, and said he accepted responsibility for his own actions. "I understand I did something wrong," Loftus said, "and I'm going to pay the piper."

It's unclear to what extent any of the remaining four defendants may have been involved in the Oath Keepers. The leaked records that appear to match these defendants state that they all signed up for memberships with the group long before the Capitol riot, and as far back as 2012. Here's what court papers and these records state:

Dawn Frankowski of Naperville, Ill., allegedly breached the Capitol and can be seen on video inside the building. She has pleaded not guilty to all charges. Court records reference the last four digits of Frankowski's phone number. The leaked Oath Keeper records include a membership entry for Dawn Frankowski and a phone number with the same last four digits. The records state that Frankowski signed up for an annual membership with the group in February 2012.

Andrew Alan Hernandez of Riverside, Calif. also allegedly breached the Capitol on Jan. 6. In court papers, federal investigators said that Hernandez appeared to promote a variety of conspiracy theories, including "Q-Anon, health and science related conspiracies, financial conspiracies, and various conspiracies associated to US political figures." He has pleaded not guilty. The Oath Keeper records match Andrew Alan Hernandez's full name, physical address, and include an email address that exactly matches an online account cited in court documents. The records state Hernandez signed up for an annual membership with the Oath Keepers in February 2012.

John Nassif of Chuluota, Fla. allegedly posted on Facebook about breaching the Capitol on Jan. 6, while wearing a red "Make America Great Again" hat. He has pleaded not guilty. The Oath Keepers records state that a John Nassif signed up for an annual membership, but do not specify a date. The phone number included in the leaked records is associated with a social media account that matches an account cited by prosecutors in the case against Nassif. Some of the Oath Keeper data state what activities new Oath Keepers might be able to assist with. Next to Nassif's entry, it states, "Writing articles. Organizing local chapter. Strategy and planning."

Sean David Watson of Alpine, Tex. allegedly sent texts and photos sent shortly after the riot, one of which read "I was one of the people that helped storm the capitol building and smash out the windows . We made history today. Proudest day of my life!" He has pleaded not guilty. Photos allegedly depicting Watson inside the Capitol are included in court records, and show Watson wearing a T-shirt with the logo of the anti-government Three Percenter movement. The Oath Keepers and Three Percenters share much of the same ideology. According to a photo obtained by Marfa Public Radio, the side of Watson's house features the spray painted phrase "DEMOCRATS STOLE THE ELECTION" on the side. A "Veterans for Trump" sign could also be seen hanging outside. NPR was not able to confirm Watson's military history. The Oath Keepers have focused on current and former military servicemembers and law enforcement officers for recruitment. The group's records indicate a Sean David Watson with the same address signed up with the group in December 2012.

There is no publicly available evidence that any of these defendants joined the criminal conspiracies that federal prosecutors have alleged against Oath Keepers in court related to the Capitol riot. And some people included in the Oath Keepers data leak have since told reporters that they just supported the group's political stances or wanted an Oath Keepers T-shirt and had no further involvement.

Whatever the case, the records suggest that the Oath Keepers' extremist ideology may have been more widely adopted than was initially understood.

Rhodes' message in speeches and interviews often focuses on attacking "Marxists" who have supposedly taken over both the Republican and Democratic parties and are "killing our country from the inside"; making baseless claims of widespread "voter fraud"; and calling for individual Americans to arm themselves with "modern infantry weapons" to protect against a wide range of "domestic enemies." Rhodes has been a vocal supporter of Trump since the former president sought the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

After Trump lost the 2020 election, Rhodes joined the pro-Trump "Stop The Steal" movement that tried to overturn Joe Biden's victory. He also indicated that he was supporting that movement with an armed militia.

Ahead of a Nov. 2020 pro-Trump rally in Washington, D.C. - known as the "Million MAGA March" - Rhodes told Infowars that, "we'll be inside DC, we'll also be on the outside of D.C. armed, prepared to go in, if the President calls us up."

Again, ahead of Jan. 6, 2021, which Trump had promised would be the day of a "wild" protest, Rhodes posted on the Oath Keepers website that the group would "have well armed and equipped QRF [Quick Reaction Force] teams on standby, outside DC, in the event of a worst case scenario, where the President calls us up as part of the militia to to assist him inside DC." That statement has since been cited in indictments of alleged Oath Keepers for allegedly conspiring to attack the Capitol. Prosecutors have alleged that members of the group planned for weeks and months to gather weapons and armor, set up encrypted communication channels, and use military-style tactics to breach the Capitol on Jan. 6.

Rhodes has denied any involvement in the Capitol riot. He was in Washington, D.C., that day, and allegedly met with Oath Keepers who breached the Capitol outside the building, but has not been accused of entering the Capitol himself.

Some commentators on the far-right have suggested that Rhodes may actually be a federal informant himself, because he has not been federally prosecuted. Rhodes has vehemently denied that he has any association with the FBI, and said in an interview in July that the accusation is "a defamation campaign."

He said he also stands by any Oath Keepers who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6.

"I don't think they did anything wrong. I don't think they committed any crimes," said Rhodes. "Do I think it was stupid? Yeah. Because it left our enemies a chance to demonize and persecute them. But I do not disavow them."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Dreisbach is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories.