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Oath Keepers militia group at center of Capitol riot cases had big NY following until rift emerged

New Yorkers who led the state's Oath Keepers chapter say it used to be large but fizzled long before a dozen members were charged in the Capitol riot.

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New Yorkers who led the state's Oath Keepers chapter say it used to be large but fizzled long before a dozen members were charged in the Capitol riot.

Published Updated

Militia members dressed in black-and-yellow Oath Keepers T-shirts and hats seemed a harmless sideshow when Roberto Minuta staged a rally outside his Newburgh tattoo shop last May to denounce COVID-19 restrictions.

But less than a year later, the Oath Keepers have moved from the wings to center stage.

Minuta and 11 fellow members now face federal conspiracy charges for allegedly planning their participation in the pro-Trump riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

People participate in a rally outside tattoo shop Casa di Dolore in Newburgh on Saturday, May 30, 2020.
People participate in a rally outside tattoo shop Casa di Dolore in Newburgh on Saturday, May 30, 2020.
ALLYSE PULLIAM/For the Times Herald-Record

Court documents describe a battle-dressed Minuta and his cohorts racing through Washington streets in two golf carts to join an invasion, with Minuta swerving around police cars and exhorting others by radio.

Roberto Minuta outside U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, with military gear including hard-knuckle tactical gloves, ballistic goggles, a radio with an ear piece, and possibly bear spray.
Roberto Minuta outside U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, with military gear including hard-knuckle tactical gloves, ballistic goggles, a radio with an ear piece, and possibly bear spray.
U.S. Department of Justice

"It's literally going down right now," Minuta is quoted as saying. "Patriots storming the Capitol building."

The developing criminal cases against Minuta and the other Oath Keepers have cast a national spotlight on a group that was founded on fervent devotion to the Constitution more than a decade ago before evolving into something more militant, leaving many of its early members behind.

New Yorkers who once led the state’s Oath Keepers chapter or found the group alluring say they dropped out several years ago, once founder Stewart Rhodes began steering the Oath Keepers from a political group to a militia. One said Stewart also alienated members by concealing the group's membership roster and finances, although no other information about those alleged conflicts.

Robert Minuta, on the January 6 Capitol riots
It's literally going down right now. Patriots storming the Capitol building.

“He was turning this into the Brown Shirts," said John Mahoney, a 77-year-old retired police officer who lives in Greene County and used to lead a five-county Oath Keepers region that included Orange, Ulster and Sullivan counties. He was referencing Adolf Hitler's Storm Troopers during the Nazi regime.

Mahoney, who retired from the New York City police as a sergeant in 1978, called Stewart a "self-appointed fuhrer" and voiced disgust for the assault on police guarding the Capitol, which he said was antithetical to the group's founding spirit.

“We support our police departments," he said with dismay in a phone interview. "We’re not looking to get into street fights with them.”

Despite its humble beginnings, the alt-right movement has been gaining national attention with its provocative message.

Rise of the Oath Keepers

William Pepe, a Metro-North Railroad worker, is seen in the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. He was arrested and faces federal charges.
William Pepe, a Metro-North Railroad worker, is seen in the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. He was arrested and faces federal charges.
SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

Nine current and former Hudson Valley residents in all have been charged in connection with the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, out of several hundred arrests from around the country. Among those local suspects, at least two allegedly had ties to extremist groups with roles in that day's violence: William Pepe, a 31-year-old Dutchess County resident said to belong to the Proud Boys; and Minuta, the Oath Keeper.

Those who used to be active or interested in New York's Oath Keepers remember the movement gathering steam after the 2013 SAFE Act, a state gun-control law enacted after the school massacre in Newtown, Conn., that enraged gun rights activists for years to follow. In Orange and Sullivan counties, the concerns led to interest in the Oath Keepers and the group's pro-Second Amendment stance.

Orange County Undersheriff Kenneth T. Jones recalls that he and Sheriff Carl DuBois had been going to meetings of the Orange-Sullivan Tea Party group to answer questions about the new law and what it meant.  

“At the time, there were all kinds of crazy rumors about what would happen to gun owners,” Jones said. 

Second Amendment activists and conservatives were fairly hot about the SAFE Act, which they viewed as a dangerous encroachment on a Constitutional right. 

John Wallace, a retired lieutenant colonel with the New York State Police, started the New York Oath Keepers.  

“So I had no reason to believe it was anything but legitimate,” Jones said. “You don’t get to be a lieutenant colonel in the New York State Police by being a white supremacist.” 

Jones said he started attending meetings of an Orange County chapter to see what the group was about. The chapter got involved in veterans’ activities, with POW-MIA picnics and Honor Flight and Second Amendment rallies, he said.   

“We were all saying the same thing: It sounds good on paper,” Jones said, but he was cautious because of the nature of such groups.  

“They tend to morph into militias,” Jones said. “I’m not interested in joining a militia.” 

Then came the standoff at the Bundy Ranch, where cattleman Cliven Bundy rallied protesters and armed militia members into a standoff with federal officers in 2014.

“They (Oath Keepers) wanted to confront government,” which seemed off for a group that purported to be for police and military, Jones said. “How is it you can take an oath to the Constitution, and then consider yourself a problem-solver by acting outside the Constitution? You can’t protect the Constitution by breaking it.”  

New York started weighing designating the Oath Keepers as a hate group, he said. 

“That’s when I left, and everybody I knew at the time, we all left en masse,” Jones said. “I know erratic when I see it, and I just bailed out.” 

He said he stopped paying attention to Oath Keepers after that, until the aftermath of Jan. 6. 

Today, the website for New York's Oath Keepers is a relic, listing state and regional leaders who no longer belong and who say the chapter is effectively defunct. That includes the most recent state president, Dan Devlin, a retired police detective from Lockport in the western reaches of the state.

In this file photo, Roberto Minuta displays his opposition to the NY law that removed religious exemption to measles vaccinations for children entering public schools, outside his business  Casa Di Dolore in Newburgh, on June 21, 2019.
In this file photo, Roberto Minuta displays his opposition to the NY law that removed religious exemption to measles vaccinations for children entering public schools,... In this file photo, Roberto Minuta displays his opposition to the NY law that removed religious exemption to measles vaccinations for children entering public schools, outside his business Casa Di Dolore in Newburgh, on June 21, 2019.
ALLYSE PULLIAM/TIMES HERALD-RECORD FILE PHOTO
Kenneth T. Jones, Orange County Undersheriff
That’s when I left, and everybody I knew at the time, we all left en masse. I know erratic when I see it, and I just bailed out.

Devlin told the Times Herald-Record that New York once had thousands of Oath Keepers, but that the chapter already had begun fragmenting when he assumed the presidency around 2019. He no longer identifies himself as an Oath Keeper and says other members "must wrestle with his own conscience and decide what to do."

He described the group in its original form as a political advocacy group focused on pressuring elected officials to "honor their oath and to protect and defend the Constitution.” Holding them accountable was the group's most vital mission, he said, adding, “That oath that they take is a contract with us.” 

From tattoo artist to Trump follower 

By the time Minuta was arrested on March 6, internet sleuths and news outlets already had identified him in his Oath Keepers garb from a sea of photos and videos circulating online about the events of Jan. 6.

Roberto Minuta uses a cellphone to video U.S. Capitol officers during Jan. 6, 2021, riot in Washington, D.C.
Roberto Minuta uses a cellphone to video U.S. Capitol officers during Jan. 6, 2021, riot in Washington, D.C.
U.S. Department of Justice

One video had shown him playing bodyguard for Trump ally Roger Stoneoutside a hotel near the White House on the morning of the riot. Others showed him berating and pointing furiously at police officers guarding the Capitol and captured fleeting images of Minuta inside the building in the pro-Trump mob that had illegally entered. 

The charges against him deepened on March 31 when a grand jury indicted a dozen Oath Keepers on conspiracy charges, among other offenses. That indictment and a later court filing traced a web of coordination that alleges that Minuta and others held planning discussions before Jan. 6 and had multiple phone calls that day with Rhodes, the Oath Keepers founder, who was outside the Capitol and has not been charged.

Rhodes himself had been in Orange County last year, traveling from Texas to join the rally outside Minuta's tattoo shop and later lying on a table inside for Minuta to tattoo the words "We the People" on Rhodes' forearm.

Minuta staged his rally that day to proclaim he had reopened his shop in defiance of the state's continued lockdown of businesses due to the pandemic. Part of the Oath Keepers' credo is defying government orders that members feel are unconstitutional.

Rhodes started the national group in 2009

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Oath Keeper enters first guilty plea in Capitol attack inquiry, agrees to help government

Capitol riot: Capitol defendant from Goshen seeks move to local jail

“I joined Oath Keepers in 2012 because I saw our country, its people, and those who represent us losing appreciation and respect for our Constitution,” Chip Murray of Slate Hill wrote in response to questions about the Orange County group, to which he belonged from 2012 to 2018. “Stewart Rhodes founded the Oath Keepers in 2009 after personally witnessing the mass violations of citizens’ rights in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.” 

Chip Murray of Slate Hill, Orange County chapter of the Oath Keepers
Labeling Oath Keepers as anti-government is false and despicable which is not surprising as it originated with Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization even the FBI has discredited. That is all I have to say on the matter.

Murray said he took over the Orange County chapter in 2015, which was after Jones and Thomas left. Murray said the chapter “focused on developing a backup to county emergency services through our CPT (Community Preparedness Team) in the event of natural or man-made disaster in our area,” and on the “Reach, Teach, and Inspire” program, meant to remind military and police of the oath they swore to uphold and to appreciate the U.S. Constitution.  

From the Oath Keepers website, its credo says:  “Oath Keepers reaches out to both current serving and veterans to remind them of their oaths, to teach them more about the Constitution they swore to defend, and to inspire them to defend it.”  

Like Jones and Thomas, Murray saw a change in the organization over time. 

Oath Keeper President Stewart Rhodes outside Roberto Minuta's tattoo at his shop, Casa di Dolore, in Newburgh on Saturday, May 30, 2020.
Oath Keeper President Stewart Rhodes outside Roberto Minuta's tattoo at his shop, Casa di Dolore, in Newburgh on Saturday, May 30, 2020.
ALLYSE PULLIAM/For the Times Herald-Record

“I had joined a 'Constitutional' organization. I left the organization in 2018 because of the failure of national OK leadership to address the ambiguity and confusion as to whether we were a Constitutional org or a militia … which made recruiting active-duty law enforcement and first responders next to impossible,” Murray wrote. 

Still, he disputed the characterization of the Oath Keepers that has emerged in the wake of the events at the Capitol. 

“Finally, labeling Oath Keepers as anti-government is false and despicable which is not surprising as it originated with Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization even the FBI has discredited. That is all I have to say on the matter,” Murray wrote. 

Oath Keepers recruit military, law enforcement

The Oath Keepers are “a far-right anti-government extremist group, part of the militia movement,” said Alex Freidfeld, a senior investigator with the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. 

In this Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, file photo, rioters storm the Capitol, in Washington. At least 10 Ohioans have been charged in connection with the deadly insurrection at the U.S Capitol after being identified through social media and surveillance footage to the FBI. The group includes people linked to the Oath Keepers militia group who have been indicted on charges that they planned and coordinated with one another in the attack.
In this Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, file photo, rioters storm the Capitol, in Washington. At least 10 Ohioans have been charged in connection with the... In this Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, file photo, rioters storm the Capitol, in Washington. At least 10 Ohioans have been charged in connection with the deadly insurrection at the U.S Capitol after being identified through social media and surveillance footage to the FBI. The group includes people linked to the Oath Keepers militia group who have been indicted on charges that they planned and coordinated with one another in the attack.
John Minchillo, AP

However, Freidfeld said, the Oath Keepers national group has evolved since its 2009 national founding. 

“In 2013, they hadn’t quite become the Oath Keepers we know,” Freidfeld said. 

In 2014, as they started to take a more aggressive posture, the Oath Keepers lent their presence in Nevada at the Bundy ranch. After that, the Oath Keepers offered support to Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis after she refused to sign marriage certificates for same-sex couples (she declined their assistance, according to the New York Times) and in miners’ disputes with federal regulators in Montana and Oregon.  

Opposing what they see as government overreach has been a core tenet for Oath Keepers. 

In this April 12, 2014, file photo, the Bundy family and their supporters gather together under an Interstate 15 overpass just outside of Bunkerville, Nev., in order to confront the Bureau of Land Management and demand the release of their impounded cattle. A federal agent testified in Las Vegas on Feb. 15, 2017, that he saw a "sniper" on a freeway overpass pointing a military-style weapon at him while a crowd of protesters gathered in a dry river bed calling for the government to release Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy's cattle.
In this April 12, 2014, file photo, the Bundy family and their supporters gather together under an Interstate 15 overpass just outside of Bunkerville, Nev.,... In this April 12, 2014, file photo, the Bundy family and their supporters gather together under an Interstate 15 overpass just outside of Bunkerville, Nev., in order to confront the Bureau of Land Management and demand the release of their impounded cattle. A federal agent testified in Las Vegas on Feb. 15, 2017, that he saw a "sniper" on a freeway overpass pointing a military-style weapon at him while a crowd of protesters gathered in a dry river bed calling for the government to release Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy's cattle.
Associated Press

During the presidency of Donald Trump, Freidfeld said, the Oath Keepers’ focus shifted. Oath Keepers began showing up to “protect” communities during the 2017 protests in Ferguson, Mo., and began focusing on Black Lives Matter and Antifa as opponents. They became increasingly visible in 2020, showing up at Black Lives Matter and police reform rallies as well as anti-lockdown and anti-mask rallies and protests, frequently wearing camouflage clothing and military-style gear and carrying semi-automatic rifles. 

“They are staunchly anti-BLM,” considering people participating in that social justice movement to be part of a Marxist insurrection, Freidfeld said. 

Oath Keeper President Stewart Rhodes, center left, and Roberto Minuta, right, talk to Black Lives Matter counter-protesters Monique Nicholas and Candace Nicholas outside of Casa Di Dolore Tattoo shop in Newburgh. The counter-protesters did not take issue with the shop opening but found the timing and the pro-Trump attire of some protesters to be insensitive after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Oath Keeper President Stewart Rhodes, center left, and Roberto Minuta, right, talk to Black Lives Matter counter-protesters Monique Nicholas and Candace Nicholas outside of Casa... Oath Keeper President Stewart Rhodes, center left, and Roberto Minuta, right, talk to Black Lives Matter counter-protesters Monique Nicholas and Candace Nicholas outside of Casa Di Dolore Tattoo shop in Newburgh. The counter-protesters did not take issue with the shop opening but found the timing and the pro-Trump attire of some protesters to be insensitive after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

What differentiates Oath Keepers from other extremist groups is their proclivity for targeting current and former police and military for membership.  

Philadelphia Proud Boys leader Zachary Rehl, left, and Seattle Proud Boys leader Ethan Nordean, right, walk toward the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Both have been charged in the insurrection.
Philadelphia Proud Boys leader Zachary Rehl, left, and Seattle Proud Boys leader Ethan Nordean, right, walk toward the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Both have been charged in the insurrection.
Carolyn Kaster, AP

Freidfeld said the pitch is seductive: They tell cops or military that they just want to make sure no one does anything unconstitutional. Oath Keepers see themselves as a barrier between an oppressive government and what they view as unlawful orders.  

“What’s unconstitutional gets warped” by the group’s penchant for conspiracy theories, he said.  

Another of the Capitol defendants, Pepe, is purported by authorities to be a member of the Proud Boys, another group widely considered to be right-wing extremists.

The Proud Boys started in New York in 2016 or so, formed by Vice magazine founder Gavin McInnes of Westchester County. The group gained some notoriety after a brawl with Antifa members outside the Metropolitan Republican Club in New York City in 2018. Police arrested several members, two of whom got prison time for attempted gang assault and riot. Another man who was arrested lived in Warwick; he pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, a violation, and was sentenced to five days of community service.  

Rob Minuta speaks Saturday to the crowd outside his tattoo parlor and piercing shop, Casa di Dolore in Newburgh.
Rob Minuta speaks Saturday to the crowd outside his tattoo parlor and piercing shop, Casa di Dolore in Newburgh.
FILE PHOTO

The group considers itself a fraternal organization of “Western chauvinists.” They’ve earned a reputation for violence, and showed up at far-right demonstrations and Trump rallies. With their most recent leader, Enrique Tarrio, facing charges of vandalizing a church just before the Capitol riot and apparently is now cooperating with federal officials, the group is experiencing leadership issues, ADL Center of Extremism Senior Researcher Alex Freidfeld said. 

Proud Boys are active online Freidfeld said, using sites like Telegram. 

“They got a big boost starting in September when the president name-checked them in a public debate,” he said. “They’ve been the face of this anti-left mentality.” 

Since the Capitol riot, with several of their members arrested, the group is seeing more attention from law enforcement, and many of their online pages or hubs have been taken down. 

How police say they keep extremists in check

The Orange County Sheriff’s Office performs thorough background checks on job applicants, Undersheriff Jones said, including examining social media accounts and body tattoos “to make sure they’re not affiliated with groups that express hatred.”

Paul Rickard, Mount Hope Police Chief and president of the Orange County Police Chiefs Association
I think there’s a difference between going to the Capitol and holding up a sign, and going into the building. There were clearly people who were intent on busting down the doors.

Mount Hope Police Chief Paul Rickard, who’s president of the Orange County Police Chiefs Association, said his department has policies prohibiting membership in extremist groups and policies on social media conduct, and it’s easy to do checks on job applicants.  

“There’s psychological testing — we can look at social media,” he said. 

But for existing employees, there’s no mechanism to randomly check social media unless some kind of intel provides cause.  

Rickard is mindful of what happened on Jan 6, and of the fact that a handful of police officers from around the country were involved and facing charges. 

Police as a group tend to be conservative, he said. 

“I think there’s a difference between going to the Capitol and holding up a sign, and going into the building,” Rickard said. “There were clearly people who were intent on busting down the doors.” 

Supporters loyal to President Donald Trump clash with authorities before successfully breaching the Capitol building during a riot on the grounds, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. A number of lawmakers and then the mob of protesters tried to overturn America's presidential election, undercutting the nation's democracy by attempting to keep Democrat Joe Biden from replacing Trump in the White House.
Supporters loyal to President Donald Trump clash with authorities before successfully breaching the Capitol building during a riot on the grounds, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021.... Supporters loyal to President Donald Trump clash with authorities before successfully breaching the Capitol building during a riot on the grounds, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. A number of lawmakers and then the mob of protesters tried to overturn America's presidential election, undercutting the nation's democracy by attempting to keep Democrat Joe Biden from replacing Trump in the White House.
John Minchillo, AP

Sullivan County Undersheriff Eric Chaboty said he and Sheriff Michael Schiff try to keep an eye on any groups with potential for issues. 

“That’s how we ended up at that Oath Keepers meeting in 2013,” he said. “We wanted to see what they were about.” 

Eric Chaboty, Sullivan County Undersheriff
The Oath Keepers we interacted with then, they had their schtick down pretty good. But then they got into all that other crazy stuff.

The group in Sullivan County was older and pretty diverse in terms of ethnicity, Chaboty said. A number of them had been involved in local Tea Party politics, Chaboty said, and he saw no extremists or racists among them.

“The Oath Keepers we interacted with then, they had their schtick down pretty good,” he said, all about the Constitution and following one’s sworn oath to uphold it. “But then they got into all that other crazy stuff.” 

Chaboty said the Sullivan group had a speaker, a black FDNY firefighter who was slated to be on a TV show about "preppers," people who believe in stocking up and preparing for disaster - who was providing survivalist advice. 

“He said you should have a stock of toilet paper, and we all laughed at him,” Chaboty said. “2013.” 

Pro-Trump supporters storm the U.S. Capitol following a rally with President Donald Trump on  Jan. 6, Washington, D.C.
Pro-Trump supporters storm the U.S. Capitol following a rally with President Donald Trump on Jan. 6, Washington, D.C.
Samuel Corum/Getty Images/TNS

Rhodes also came to a Sullivan County Oath Keepers meeting in 2013, his first visit there, touting his Yale law degree and claiming Hispanic heritage on his mother’s side. 

“Shortly after he came through this area, he got placed on the no-fly list,” Chaboty said. He thinks that made a lot of locals reconsider the organization. “It kind of fell apart, and that was it, didn’t hear much about it until the Bundy Ranch.” 

James Gagliano, who served as the FBI’s supervisory senior resident agent for the Hudson Valley region, including the Hudson Valley Safe Streets Task Force, from 2008-2012, said the primary domestic terrorist concern for much of that time was sovereign citizens.  

Gagliano said there’s a degree to which right-wing groups respond to the left – sort of a political version of Newton’s Third Law of Motion: “As there is a rise in groups like Antifa and Black Lives Matter, there will be an equal and opposite reaction.” 

But merely being a member of a group such as Oath Keepers doesn’t automatically make someone a subversive, Gagliano said. It’s like the country is a football field, and 80% of us are on the big section of field between the opposing 10-yard-lines.  

James Gagliano, former FBI supervisory agent for the Hudson Valley region on rise of the Oath Keepers
The internet provides a lot of places, a lot of dark recesses we cannot access because of civil liberties.

“It’s those 10 yards and on either side that we have to worry about,” he said. 

The challenge for law enforcement is figuring out, within constitutional means, who’s in those fringes.  

“The internet provides a lot of places, a lot of dark recesses we cannot access because of civil liberties,” Gagliano said.   

The First Amendment right to political speech and the question of what constitutes a true threat are also considerations. 

Orange County District Attorney David Hoovler said the First Amendment provides for a broad range of expression, even when the ideas might be repugnant. 

“Much of that, in a non-criminal forum, is protected speech,” Hoovler said. And so, “you watch.” 

CORRECTION: Sullivan County Sheriff Eric Chaboty said that he saw no racists or extremists among groups of people who got involved in the Oath Keepers in 2013 in Sullivan County. Chaboty was misquoted in an earlier version of this story.

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