Oath Keeper in Capital Riot Pleads Guilty, Will Cooperate
(Bloomberg) -- A founding member of the far-right Oath Keepers group has entered the first guilty plea stemming from the U.S. Capitol riot and agreed to cooperate with the Justice Department as it continues its investigation of the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection.
Jon Schaffer entered his guilty plea on Friday to two counts, including obstruction of an official proceeding. He has agreed to fully cooperate with authorities, according to a plea deal read aloud in court by U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta in Washington.
The plea marks a major breakthrough in a wide-ranging probe as federal prosecutors continue the meticulous task of collecting evidence against hundreds of Donald Trump supporters who joined the mob that laid siege to the U.S. Capitol. The government has focused heavily on the role of groups like the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys in planning and orchestrating the riot.
“There’s always a first domino to fall,” said Jennifer Rodgers, a former federal prosecutor not involved with the investigation. “This will prompt all these other people who have been charged to say ‘I don’t want to be the last guy standing.’”
A front man for the heavy-metal band “Iced Earth,” Schaffer entered the Capitol wearing a baseball cap that read “Oath Keepers Lifetime Member,” according to prosecutors.
Federal prosecutors have charged 12 other Oath Keepers with conspiracy in connection with the Capitol siege, the biggest case to emerge from the investigation so far. Though it’s not clear whether Schaffer has any specific insight into the activity of the other members of the group, he may still be able to provide useful information to the government, said Rodgers.
“The Oath Keepers is not like a government agency or business where you can get information from other sources,” she said. “You want to have someone with the ability to explain what are the Oath Keepers, why this person joined, why people generally joined.”
Schaffer admitted that he attempted to impede Congress’s certification of the Electoral College vote and carried bear repellent pepper spray while at the Capitol, according to court papers.
Prosecutors have been working on plea agreements with accused Capitol rioters for weeks, court records show. On April 5, the Justice Department informed a federal judge that it was deep in negotiations with Schaffer, who was arrested on charges that he attacked police officers with bear spray.
“The government’s ongoing plea negotiations with this defendant are the first and most advanced plea negotiations involving any of the over 300 Capitol Riot defendants,” prosecutors said in the filing. “Plea terms have thus required extensive review and approval at various levels of government necessitating more time than usual to approve and negotiate.”
Federal prosecutors have long understood that there were gradations of misconduct at the Capitol, with some rioters engaging in violence or vandalism while others simply followed the crowd into the building. In the coming weeks, those distinctions are likely to shape decisions about whether the government strikes deals with defendants or devotes resources to proceed to a criminal trial.
Even before the riot, courts in Washington and across the country were struggling with a backlog of cases created by shutdowns during the Covid-19 pandemic. A series of quick plea deals would help alleviate that burden, and potentially allow prosecutors to focus more resources on complex conspiracy cases targeting the right-wing groups that allegedly helped plan and fuel the riot.
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