Officers describe chaos, fear on Jan. 6 as judge weighs prison time for Oath Keepers’ Rhodes

May 25, 2023, 7:00 PM

FILE - This artist sketch depicts the trial of Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes, left, as he test...

FILE - This artist sketch depicts the trial of Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes, left, as he testifies before U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta on charges of seditious conspiracy in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, Nov. 7, 2022. Rhodes and members of his antigovernment group will be the first Jan. 6 defendants sentenced for seditious conspiracy in a series of hearings beginning this week that will set the standard for more punishments of far-right extremists to follow. (Dana Verkouteren via AP, File)

(Dana Verkouteren via AP, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Police officers who defended the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and public servants who fled the mob’s attack told a judge on Wednesday that they are still haunted by what they endured, as the judge prepares to hand down sentences in a landmark Capitol riot case.

U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta heard victim impact statements a day before he’s expected to deliver the first Jan. 6 seditious conspiracy sentences to Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and an associate convicted of plotting to block the transfer of power from President Donald Trump to President Joe Biden.

Prosecutors are seeking 25 years behind bars for Rhodes, which would be the longest sentence by far handed down among hundreds of Capitol riot cases.

Metropolitan Police Officer Christopher Owens crossed paths with Oath Keepers members in Senate hallways as rioters invaded the building, shouted insults and threw projectiles at police. Owens recalled his wife bursting into tears when she saw the blood and bruises on his arms and legs after the riot.

“We experienced physical trauma, emotional trauma and mental trauma,” Owens said during the hearing in Washington’s federal court . “The traumas we suffered that day were endless.”

Rhodes scribbled notes on a yellow legal pad as he listened to the statements.

Terri McCullough, who was chief of staff to then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, said rioters were trying to hunt down the California Democrat as her staffers hid in a conference room for hours, hearing chants and threats.

“The defendants violated our workplace, our government and our democracy,” McCullough said, adding, “Democracy succeeded.”

Capitol Police Special Agent David Lazarus, who was assigned to Pelosi’s security detail, said some of his co-workers have quit because of what they experienced.

“Lives and careers have been ruined and will never return to normal,” he said.

Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn, who encountered Oath Keepers in the Rotunda, said rioters turned the “citadel of American democracy” into a crime scene. Dunn said he is a “shell of his former self” and dreads coming to work every day.

While he still feels scarred by Jan. 6, Dunn said he found “a little relief” from the jury’s conviction of Rhodes and other Oath Keepers, adding that he is “profoundly grateful that, in this case, justice has been done.”

The judge also heard statements from Virginia Brown, who was a Senate chamber assistant and helped carry a box of electoral votes across the Rotunda on Jan. 6. As the mob breached the Capitol, Brown kicked off her shoes so she could run faster. She recalled fearing for her life and praying that she wouldn’t encounter any insurrectionists.

“I constantly relive the memories of that day,” said Brown, who was a college sophomore at the time. “I cannot measure how many hours of sleep I’ve lost.”

Rhodes was convicted of seditious conspiracy in November alongside Florida chapter leader Kelly Meggs after prosecutors spent weeks making the case that Rhodes and his extremist group followers had plotted an armed rebellion to keep Biden, a Democrat, out of the White House in favor of Trump, a Republican.

Rhodes, who didn’t go inside the Capitol, took the witness stand at trial and told jurors that there was never any plan to attack the Capitol and that his followers who did went rogue.

Meggs will also be sentenced on Thursday, followed by two Oath Keepers on Friday who were acquitted of seditious conspiracy but convicted of other crimes. Another four Oath Keepers convicted of the sedition charge during a second trial in January will be sentenced next week.

Prosecutors are seeking prison sentences ranging from 10 to 21 years for the Oath Keepers besides Rhodes.

The judge canceled the sentencing scheduled this week for one defendant, Thomas Caldwell, of Berryville, Virginia, as he weighs whether to overturn the jury’s guilty verdict on obstruction and a documents tampering charge.

Prosecutors are urging the judge to apply enhanced penalties for terrorism, arguing the Oath Keepers sought to influence the government through “intimidation or coercion.” Judges have so far rejected the Justice Department’s request to apply the so-called “terrorism enhancement” in the handful of Jan. 6 cases it has sought it in so far, but the Oath Keepers case is unlike any others that have reached sentencing to date.

More than 1,000 people have been charged with federal crimes stemming from the riot. Just over 500 of them have been sentenced, with more than half receiving terms of imprisonment ranging from a week to over 14 years. The remainder have received sentences such as probation or home detention.

The sentences for the Oath Keepers may signal how much time prosecutors will seek for leaders of another far-right group, the Proud Boys, who were convicted of seditious conspiracy in a separate trial this month. Those defendants include former Proud Boys national chairman Enrique Tarrio, who is perhaps the most high-profile person charged in the sprawling Jan. 6 investigation. The Proud Boys are scheduled to be sentenced in August and September.

Over seven weeks of testimony, jurors heard how Rhodes rallied his followers to fight to defend Trump, discussed the prospect of a “bloody” civil war and warned that the Oath Keepers may have to “rise up in insurrection” to defeat Biden if Trump didn’t act.

On Jan. 6, Rhodes’ followers shouldered their way through the crowd in military-style stack formation before forcing their way into the Capitol. The Oath Keepers had stashed weapons at a Virginia hotel for “quick reaction force” teams prosecutors said were ready to get weapons into the city quickly if needed. The weapons were never deployed.

Rhodes’ lawyers are urging the judge to sentence him to the roughly 16 months behind bars he has already served since his January 2022 arrest. In court papers filed this month, Rhodes’ attorneys argued that all of Rhodes’ writings and statements were “protected political speech.”

“None of his protected speech incited or encouraged imminent violent or unlawful acts, nor were any likely to occur as a result of his speech,” they wrote.

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Officers describe chaos, fear on Jan. 6 as judge weighs prison time for Oath Keepers’ Rhodes