LONG before he assembled one of the largest far-right anti-government militia groups in US history, before his Oath Keepers stormed the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, Stewart Rhodes was a promising Yale Law School graduate.
He secured a clerkship on the Arizona Supreme Court, in part thanks to his unusual life story: a stint as an Army paratrooper cut short by a training accident, followed by marriage, college and an Ivy League law degree.
The clerkship was one more rung up from a hardscrabble beginning. But rather than fitting in, Rhodes came across as angry and aggrieved.
He railed to colleagues about how the Patriot Act, which gave the government greater surveillance powers after the September 11 attacks, would erase civil liberties. He referred to Vice President Dick Cheney as a fascist for supporting the Bush administration’s use of “enemy combatant” status to indefinitely detain prisoners.
“He saw this titanic struggle between people like him who wanted individual liberty and the government that would try to take away that liberty,” said Matt Parry, who worked with Rhodes as a clerk for Arizona Supreme Court Justice Mike Ryan.
Rhodes alienated his moderate Republican boss and eventually left the steppingstone job. Since then he has ordered his life around a thirst for greatness and deep distrust of government.
He turned to forming a group rooted in anti-government sentiment, and his message resonated. He gained followers as he went down an increasingly extremist path that would lead to armed standoffs, including with federal authorities at Nevada’s Bundy Ranch. It culminated last year, prosecutors say, with Rhodes engineering a plot to violently stop Democrat Joe Biden from becoming president.
Rhodes, 57, will be back in court Tuesday, but not as a lawyer. He and four others tied to the Oath Keepers are being tried on charges of seditious conspiracy, the most serious criminal allegation leveled by the Justice Department in its far-reaching prosecution of rioters who attacked the Capitol. The charge carries a potential sentence of up to 20 years in prison upon conviction.
Rhodes, Jessica Watkins, Thomas Caldwell, Kenneth Harrelson and Kelly Meggs are the first Jan. 6 defendants to stand trial under a rarely used, Civil War-era law against attempting to overthrow the government or, in this case, block the transfer of presidential power.
The trial will put a spotlight on the secretive group Rhodes founded in 2009 that has grown to include thousands of claimed members and loosely organized chapters across the country, according to Rachel Carroll Rivas, interim deputy director of research with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project.
For Rhodes, it will be a position at odds with the role of greatness that he has long envisioned for himself, said his estranged wife, Tasha Adams.
“He was going to achieve something amazing,” Adams said. “He didn’t know what it was, but he was going to achieve something incredible and earth shattering.”
Rhodes was born in Fresno, California. He shuttled between there and Nevada, sometimes living with his mother and other times with grandparents who were migrant farm workers, part of a multicultural extended family that included Mexican and Filipino relatives. His mother was a minister who had her own radio show in Las Vegas and went by the name Dusty Buckle, Adams said.
Rhodes joined the Army fresh out of high school and served nearly three years before he was honorably discharged in January 1986 after breaking his back in a parachuting accident.
He recovered and was working as a valet in Las Vegas when he met Adams in 1991. He was 25, she was 18.
He had a sense of adventure that was attractive to a young woman brought up in a middle-class, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints family. A few months after the couple started dating, Rhodes accidentally dropped a gun and shot out his eye. He now wears an eye patch.
Adams’s family had set aside money for her to go to college, but after their wedding Rhodes decided he should be the first to attend school. He told her she would need to quit her job teaching ballroom and country dancing and instead support them both by working full time as a stripper so he could focus on doing an excellent job in school, according to Adams. They married, but she found stripping degrading and it clashed with her conservative Mormon upbringing, she said.
“Every night the drive was just so bad. I would just throw up every single night before I went in, it was just so awful,” Adams said. Rhodes would pressure her to go further, increase her exposure or contact with men to make more money, she said. “It was never enough … I felt like I had given up my soul.”
She quit when she got pregnant with their first child, and the couple moved back in with her family. They worried about her but didn’t want to push too far for fear of losing her altogether. By then, Rhodes was the center of her orbit.
Rhodes’s lawyer declined to make him available for an interview and Rhodes declined to answer a list of questions sent by The Associated Press.
After finishing college at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Rhodes went to work in Washington as a staffer for Ron Paul, a libertarian-leaning Republican congressman, and later attended Yale, with stints in between as an artist and sculptor. Paul did not respond to a request for comment.
Rhodes’s college transcripts earned him entry to several top schools, Adams said. While at Yale, Adams took care of their growing family in a small apartment while he distinguished himself with an award for a paper arguing that the George W. Bush administration’s use of enemy combatant status to hold people suspected of supporting terrorism indefinitely without charge was unconstitutional.
After the Arizona clerkship, the family bounced to Montana and back to Nevada, where he worked on Paul’s presidential campaign in 2008. That’s when Rhodes also began to formulate his idea of starting the Oath Keepers. He put a short video and blog post on Blogspot and “it went viral overnight,” Adams said. Rhodes was interviewed by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, but also more mainstream media figures such as Chris Matthews and Bill O’Reilly.
He formally launched the Oath Keepers in Lexington, Massachusetts, on April 19, 2009, where the first shot in the American Revolution was fired.
“We know that if a day should come in this country when a full-blown dictatorship would come or tyranny, from the left or from the right, we know that it can only happen if those men, our brothers in arms, go along and comply with unconstitutional, unlawful orders,” Rhodes said in his Lexington speech, which didn’t garner any news coverage.
The group’s stated goal was to get past and present members of the military, first responders and police officers to honor the promise they made to defend the Constitution against enemies. The Oath Keepers issued a list of orders that its members wouldn’t obey, such as disarming citizens, carrying out warrantless searches and detaining Americans as enemy combatants in violation of their right to jury trials.
Rhodes was a compelling speaker and especially in the early years framed the group as “just a pro-Constitution group made up of patriots,” said Sam Jackson, author of the book Oath Keepers about the group.
With that benign-sounding framing and his political connections, Rhodes harnessed the growing power of social media to fuel the Oath Keepers’ growth during the presidency of Barack Obama. Membership rolls leaked last year included some 38,000 names, though many people on the list have said they are no longer members or were never active participants. One expert last year estimated membership to be a few thousand.
The internal dialogue was much darker and more violent about what members perceived as imminent threats, especially to the Second Amendment, and the idea that members should be prepared to fight back and recruit their neighbors to fight back, too.
“Time and time again, Oath Keepers lays the groundwork for individuals to decide for themselves, violent or otherwise criminal activity is warranted,” said Jackson, an assistant professor at the University at Albany.
A membership fee was a requirement to access the website, where people could join discussion forums, read Rhodes’s writing and hear pitches to join militaristic trainings. Members willing to go armed to a standoff numbered in the low dozens, though, said Jason Van Tatenhove, a former spokesman for the group.
Showdowns with the government began in 2011 in the small western Arizona desert town of Quartzsite, where local government was in turmoil as officials feuded among themselves, the police chief was accused of misconduct and several police employees had been suspended. A couple years later, Rhodes started calling on members to form “community preparedness teams,” which included military-style training.
The Oath Keepers also showed up at a watershed event in anti-government circles: the standoff with federal agents at Nevada’s Bundy Ranch in 2014. Later that year, members stationed themselves along rooftops in Ferguson, Missouri, armed with AR-15-style weapons, to protect businesses from rioting after a grand jury declined to charge a police officer in the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
The following year Oath Keepers guarded a southern Oregon gold mine whose mining claim owners were in a dispute with the government. Still, Rhodes was never arrested.
As the Oath Keepers escalated their public profile and confrontations with the government, Rhodes was leaving behind some of those he once championed. Jennifer Esposito hired him as her lawyer after the group’s early outing in Quartzsite, but he missed a hearing in her case because he was at the Bundy Ranch standoff. A judge kicked Rhodes off the case, and no lawyer would represent her.
She has no hard feelings, but Michael Roth, also represented by Rhodes in Quartzsite lawsuits, is less forgiving. He compared Rhodes’s handling of his case to a doctor walking out of an operating room in the middle of surgery.
“He clearly just used us for publicity to gain membership in the Oath Keepers,” Roth said.
The neglect culminated in a disbarment case eventually brought against Rhodes. He ignored the allegations, missed a hearing and wasn’t even represented by a lawyer. The commission examining the case in 2015 found his conduct as an attorney wouldn’t normally get someone disbarred, but his refusal to cooperate did.
Meanwhile, on the national stage, Donald Trump’s political star was taking off. His grievances about things such as the “deep state” aligned with the Oath Keeper’s anti-governmental stance. While Rhodes didn’t agree with Trump on everything, the group’s rhetoric began to shift.
“With the election of Trump, now the Oath Keepers have an ally in the White House,” Jackson said.
For much of the the Oath Keepers’ history, the federal government was the enemy, but gradually the enemy became left-leaning people in the United States and antifa, or anti-fascist groups, became the primary menace, he said.
Rhodes wanted Oath Keepers to go to Cleveland to provide security for Trump — then set to be the GOP presidential nominee — at the 2016 Republican National Convention, even though no one had asked the group for protection, said Richard Mack, a former Arizona sheriff who served on the Oath Keepers’ board for about six years.
“I said, ‘Why are we going — so we can say we protected Trump? We are not going to get anywhere near Trump,’” Mack said. “I said, ‘This was crazy.’ All the other board members voted with me, and Stewart was mad.”
That was a breaking point last straw for Mack.
He wasn’t the only board member to walk away as they saw the direction of the group close up, Van Tatenhove said.
“Once they saw where he was going, they were a lot less comfortable,” he said. But Rhodes always managed to weather the disagreements and hold onto power. “He was always going to be the start and finish of the Oath Keepers.”
A voracious reader and charismatic speaker, Rhodes drew people in and had a talent for molding his message to his audience and holding onto power. He warmed to the “alt-right” movement as its profile rose. Van Tatenhove knew he had to leave when in 2017 he overheard a group of Oath Keepers, in a discussion in a grocery store, denying that the Holocaust happened.
In 2018, Rhodes went too far for Jim Arroyo, a former Army Ranger who serves as president of an Oath Keepers chapter in Yavapai County, Arizona. He rejected a push to send group members to the US-Mexico border for an armed operation to support the US Border Patrol.
Arroyo said that hadn’t been approved by any authority and argued that pointing a gun in the wrong direction along the border could stir an international problem. He refused to go.
“That’s when he pretty much didn’t want anything to do with us,” said Arroyo, who eventually broke away from the national Oath Keepers and hasn’t had contact with Rhodes in over four years.
When Biden won the 2020 election, prosecutors say, Rhodes started preparing for battle. Rhodes and the Oath Keepers spent weeks plotting to block the transfer of power, amassing weapons and setting up “quick reaction force” teams with weapons to be on standby outside the nation’s capital, prosecutors say.
On January 6, 2021, authorities say, two teams of Oath Keepers stormed the Capitol alongside hundreds of other angry Trump supporters.
Rhodes is not accused of going inside, but he was seen gathered outside the Capitol after the riot with several members who did, prosecutors have said.
Defense lawyers have accused prosecutors of twisting their clients’ words. They have argued that the militia group went to Washington only to provide security at events before the riot for right-wing figures such as Trump confidant Roger Stone and that there was never a plan to attack the Capitol.
The case has dealt a major blow to the Oath Keepers, in part because many people associated with it want to be considered respectable in their communities, said Carroll Rivas of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Of the approximately 30 Capitol riot defendants affiliated with the Oath Keepers, nine have pleaded guilty to charges stemming from the attack, including three who have pleaded guilty to seditious conspiracy.
But that doesn’t mean the ideas that Rhodes promoted have faded away.
“He came up with a blueprint that is going to be used in the future by people we don’t even know about,” Van Tatenhove said. “I think it’s very important for us to pay attention.”
Image credits: AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta, AP/Susan Walsh