The Dallas Morning News

Oath Keeper pleads guilty

Plea comes with man’s agreement to cooperate against others in case

- By SPENCER S. HSU and DEVLIN BARRETT

WASHINGTON — A founding member of the Oath Keepers militant group who was 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 said they hoped Schaffer’s plea would spur 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 such as 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.

Plea deal

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 have a grand jury consider an indictment.

Schaffer appeared Friday before U.S. District 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 he is cooperatin­g, which means his sentence could be cut further if he proves valuable to the 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.

One of first to enter

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 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 was not a member of that group, and some 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.

Schaffer was initially charged with six crimes, including engaging in an act of physical violence and targeting police with bear spray.

Friday’s filing shows he agreed to plead guilty to only two charges, but both are felonies carrying stiff 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 10year prison term.

Those two charges have been brought against roughly one-fourth of people charged to date — about 100 of more than 410 defendants — including those accused of the most serious offenses.

Authoritie­s have said the attack on the Capitol led to five deaths and assaults against nearly 140 police officers, as well as a frightenin­g scramble to evacuate lawmakers from the building before the mob found them.

‘A breakthrou­gh’

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 selfstyled 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.

Court papers allege that charged members communicat­ed with Rhodes, the Oath Keepers founder, and his onthe-ground deputy that day and breached the Capitol in formation after guarding GOP figures such as Trump confidant Roger Stone.

 ?? Juan Aguado/redferns ?? Jon Ryan Schaffer, a member of the heavy metal band Iced Earth, admits being “at the front of a large mob” that broke open doors on the west side of the Capitol and being among the first to enter.
Juan Aguado/redferns Jon Ryan Schaffer, a member of the heavy metal band Iced Earth, admits being “at the front of a large mob” that broke open doors on the west side of the Capitol and being among the first to enter.

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