On Friday, we learned of the first publicly entered guilty plea from among the over 400 people charged in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. A guilty plea in such a sweeping and high-profile investigation is significant on its own. But when sealed documents in the case accidentally became visible in the federal court’s automated records system, it became clear that there is more to this plea than a defendant simply admitting his guilt.
There is more to this plea than a defendant simply admitting his guilt.
The guilty plea contains a provision requiring the defendant Jon Ryan Schaffer — who admitted to the court that he was a “founding lifetime member” of the far-right, anti-government extremist militia group known as the Oath Keepers — to cooperate with the government. That means a long-time Oath Keepers veteran has been "flipped."
This only happens when prosecutors care more about the information a defendant can provide than about nailing him with a maximum sentence. There are at least three reasons why this guilty plea, in this investigation, from this defendant, may become the gift that keeps on giving as prosecutors seek to hold accountable those responsible for the attack on our democracy.
First, this particular defendant, who is also reportedly the front-runner of the heavy metal band “Iced Earth,” is well positioned to tell the feds a whole lot about the Oath Keepers. At least 12 of the group’s members are facing conspiracy or other charges in connection with the Jan. 6 attack.
Schaffer pled guilty to obstructing an official proceeding and entering a restricted building with a dangerous weapon. Those felonies could put Shaffer in federal prison for 30 years, which is likely what motivates him to inform against his associates. As reported by The New York Times, Schaffer’s guilty plea and related cooperation appear to be so potentially devastating to the violent extremist movement, and perhaps to powerful people fueling that movement, that prosecutors told a judge they would sponsor Schaffer for the witness protection program.
It could prevent future violence by revealing how the paramilitary group recruits its members from among active duty and retired law enforcement and military.
Learning more about Oath Keepers isn’t just an academic or legal exercise; it could prevent future violence by revealing how the paramilitary group recruits its members from among active duty and retired law enforcement and military. Exposing who amongst our guardians of democracy are secretly conspiring against it would be invaluable to countering the most organized and capable within the violent extremist movement.
Shaffer could also potentially disclose how the Oath Keepers group is funded or directed by current or former political leaders, advisors or government officials. This could allow prosecutors to charge people in powerful positions who may have helped finance and plan the Capitol riot.
Second, Shaffer could shed light on another aspect of the far-reaching investigation: the potential coordination of the riot planning between the Oath Keepers and other similar groups, including the Proud Boys. As reported by Pete Williams and Rebecca Shabad of NBC News on another case, a person of interest "was in contact with similar groups, including the Proud Boys, as early as mid-December to plan for potentially violent action in Washington on Jan. 6, according to a newly filed court document.”
The report detailed a court filing in the case of Kelly Meggs, who prosecutors claim helped lead the Capitol attack. According to that court filing, Meggs posted a Facebook message that read, “This week I organized an alliance between Oath Keepers, Florida 3%ers, and Proud Boys. We have decided to work together and shut this s--- down." A mere three days later, he posted, "Contact with PB and they always have a big group. Force multiplier." According to prosecutors, Meggs organized and participated in around 10 online discussions between Dec. 12 and Jan. 4 that were affiliated with the Oath Keepers.
Shaffer may have insights into who around then-president Donald Trump, including Trump’s advisors and his sycophants in Congress, might have coordinated or knew of plans for the Jan. 6 violence.
Shaffer’s knowledge of any coordination between violent extremist groups would prove helpful in furthering what prosecutors call an “enterprise theory ” of investigating organizations. That approach asserts that the criminal acts of group members aren’t isolated events but are committed in support of the organization itself. This approach allows the government to dismantle criminal enterprises through asset forfeiture, seizures and other techniques. Shaffer’s knowledge of a relationship between the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys could, in effect, help investigators take down the proverbial two birds with one stone.
Third, Shaffer may have insights into who around then-president Donald Trump, including Trump’s advisers and his sycophants in Congress, might have coordinated or knew of plans for the Jan. 6 violence. At least two Oath Keepers members who have already been charged for breaching the Capitol are known to have provided security to longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone. As reported by Politico, one of those members, Joshua James, is seen in photos flanking Stone ahead of the Jan. 6 riot, and was later viewed on camera inside the building amid a crush of rioters who overran police. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas., has attended and spoken at least one rally with the Oath Keepers, with their militia flags flying behind him.
Congress members Marjorie Taylor-Greene and Lauren Boebert both have documented ties to the Three Percenters militia group. And congressman Republican Matt Gaetz, currently under investigation for a series of charges including sex trafficking, attended a Florida political event where the Proud Boys provided security.
With a prominent Oath Keeper-turned plea bargain deal-maker, many in Washington might have cause for concern — and prosecutors are just beginning their work.