TAMPA, Fla. - Four men from Central Florida are among 11 defendants facing seditious conspiracy charges for their roles in the January 6 breach of the U.S. Capitol.
After a year-long investigation, federal prosecutors say they've uncovered messages showing members of the Oath Keepers spent two months planning, strategizing, and recruiting to try to stop the peaceful transfer of presidential power on January 6, 2020.
"When there's evidence that shows there's communication between parties that says we're going to do this, we're going to disrupt this, we're going to go with force, have the arms ready we've been called to action... that takes it to a whole different level," explained former federal prosecutor Bryant Camareno.
Federal prosecutors say planning began two days after the 2020 election when on November 5, Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes sent a message to an invite-only encrypted group chat on the Signal App. Among those in the so-called "Leadership Intel Chat" was Dunnellon resident Kelly Meggs. According to the indictment, Rhodes urged the group to reject the election result stating, "We aren't getting through this without a civil war. Too late for that. Prepare your mind, body, spirit."
Tampa resident Anthony Fischer, III, charged with civil disorder and assaulting or resisting officers using a dangerous weapon.
On November 9, 2020, prosecutors say Meggs sent a message to fellow Oath Keepers in Florida, including Joseph Hackett, of Sarasota, Kenneth Harrelson, of Titusville, and David Moerschel, of Punta Gorda, saying, "We have been issued a call to action for DC. This is the moment we signed up for."
From there, the indictment alleges the Florida Oath Keepers, as well as other groups around the country, began arranging and conducting tactical and combat trainings for what Rhodes said would be "a bloody and desperate fight" if then-president-elect Joe Biden were to assume office.
Throughout December, prosecutors say the group discussed stockpiling firearms, weapons, and ammunition, which were later stashed in an Arlington, VA hotel room, not far from the National Mall.
"All there is are surveillance video of gun cases and there's nothing illegal about having guns in Virginia," said defense attorney Bradford Geyer, who is mounting a defense for Harrelson.
On December 23, Rhodes allegedly published an open letter on the Oath Keepers website saying that "mission-critical gear" would be "stowed nearby", explaining that on January 6, 2020, he and others might have to "take to arms in defense of our God-given liberty" according to the indictment.
The indictment also includes messages sent on January 2 where Oath Keepers who made the trip to the Washington area discuss renting a boat or truck for a team to load and deliver "heavy weapons" stashed in the Virginia hotel room to "our waiting arms" across the bridge.
On January 6, the men joined thousands of others in a march on the Capitol. Prosecutors say some carried weapons, projectiles, zip ties and pepper spray. Defendants Hackett, Joshua James, Meggs, Roberto Minuta, Moerschel, Brian Ulrich and Jessica Watkins wore tactical vests, helmets, goggles and hard-knuckle tactical gloves and formed military-style "stacks" to push their way through Capitol Police officers and into the building, causing thousands of dollars in damage and injuring officers set to defend the Capitol and members of congress inside.
"This is America. We have freedom of association. We have freedom of ribald political expression," said Geyer.
Those charged face up to 20 years in prison for the sedition charge.
Camareno believes, based on other trials, judges will rule harshly.
"I think these guys are going to be set as an example and I think it's going to send a message to future generations," said Camareno, who is now a criminal defense attorney. "People are not going to forget January 6. I think this set of indictments and the penalties that are going to come with it will send a huge message to protestors down the road."
So far more than 725 people have been arrested for crimes related to the riot, but seditious conspiracy is by far the most serious charge any participant has faced to date.
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