Vegas parking valet, Yale law graduate, unhinged Oath Keepers leader: Who is Stewart Rhodes?

January 6 marked for Rhodes the culmination of a career of self-aggrandizement and manipulation of thousands of followers, many who saw his group as a bulwark against an oppressive government.

Will Carless

In many ways, Jan. 6, 2021 was the day that Stewart Rhodes had been waiting for his whole life. 

For a dyed-in-the wool conspiracy theorist who had been planning for dystopian collapse for at least two decades, the attack on the Capitol presented the ideal opportunity: A chance to finally square off against the federal government in the name of a twisted version of freedom Rhodes has promoted for much of his adult life.

Elmer Stewart Rhodes, the eye-patch wearing, gruff-talking Yale law school graduate who founded the extremist militia group the Oath Keepers, is currently the most high-profile defendant in the criminal prosecutions to come out of the January 6 insurrection. 

Rhodes and 10 other Oath Keepers face 17 criminal counts including a charge of seditious conspiracy, which carries a maximum of 20 years in prison. Prosecutors allege he and the other Oath Keepers planned and trained for a violent uprising at the nation’s Capitol, with the goal of preventing Congress from certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election. The conspirators stockpiled weapons in hotel rooms a few miles from the Capitol, conducted training drills and talked of bloody revolution, prosecutors allege.

This week, Rhodes' co-defendant Joshua James pleaded guilty to the seditious conspiracy charges and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in the case against the Oath Keepers. Court documents in the James case suggested his testimony could be severely damaging to Rhodes, who has twice been denied bail in federal court.

Jan. 6 marked for Rhodes the culmination of a long career of conspiracy spreading, self-aggrandizement and manipulation of thousands of dogged followers, many of whom saw his organization as a bulwark against an oppressive federal government. Since founding the Oath Keepers in 2009, Rhodes has painted himself as a hero for American conservatives, creating a public image of a gun-toting revolutionary with a private army willing to die for libertarian causes. 

But that rhetoric hides a darker and unhinged side, according to four former board members of the Oath Keepers and Rhodes’ ex-wife, Tasha Adams, who legally separated from him in 2018 and is still in court fighting to divorce him.

Stewart Rhodes, founder of the Oath Keepers, said weeks before the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021, that his group was “armed, prepared to go in if the president calls us up.”

Rhodes’ former allies told USA TODAY that he has spent much of the last 20 years in alternating periods of deep paranoia and hysteria. Adams, who was married to Rhodes for 24 years, and others, said the militia leader is obsessed with his own role in history and more interested in stroking his ego and filling his own pockets than he is in helping others.

Rhodes has used the Oath Keepers to stockpile expensive weapons, bulk up on prime steak and buy himself “hundreds of pairs of shoes” while his six children walked around their remote Montana cabin in thrift store sneakers, former board members of the group said. Rhodes the father would disappear for weeks, leaving his family to survive off “apple chips and oatmeal,” only to return and treat everyone to a meal out on the Oath Keepers’ dime, Adams said.

The militia leader threatened and bullied his family, Adams said. Things got so bad, she said, that whenever she talked to Rhodes she found herself positioning her body with her back to a part of the house she knew to be empty. 

“I would always think, what if he shoots me?” Adams said. “I was paying attention to the kind of ammunition he was carrying – is it something that's going to go through a wall? I was making these calculations, without ever even considering how absurd it was. Like, if you shoot me, and I'm angled here, that's okay. It won't hit one of the kids.”

In 2018, Adams asked a Montana judge for a temporary order of protection against Rhodes, claiming he waved his handgun around, pointed it at his own head and at one point grabbed their teenage daughter by the throat until stopped by their son. 

Rhodes, who is incarcerated pending trial, responded to some of these allegations through his attorneys. They pushed back on Adams’ allegations, pointing out that the Montana judge didn't approve the restraining order against him.

“Protective orders like that are regularly granted, and to be denied one is very unusual,” said James Bright, one of Rhodes’ defense attorneys.  

Four former Oath Keepers board members said they watched in dismay as an organization they believed was founded on noble values collapsed into a dangerous group run by an unbalanced narcissist. Former police officers who sat on the board and a former high-ranking Oath Keeper who headed the organization’s disaster relief efforts said they ultimately felt used by Rhodes.

“Stewart Rhodes ended up where he wanted to end up and he used a lot of us to get his foot in the door in the law enforcement community because he couldn't get in there any other way,” said Chauncey Normandin, a former Massachusetts police captain who served as one of two vice-presidents of the Oath Keepers until 2011. “We were just pawns.”

A smart guy stuck parking cars

Adams met Rhodes in a dance class in Las Vegas in 1991 and said she was immediately struck by his gregariousness and intelligence. Rhodes, then 25, told Adams he had spent his life traveling across the country, moving from high school to high school and spending time in California, Arizona, Nevada and Oklahoma.

Rhodes’ family is diverse. His mother was Mexican American and his grandparents were migrant farmworkers in California. His parents split when Rhodes was three and he grew up in a largely Hispanic community, Adams said.

By the time Rhodes came into Adams’ life, he hadn’t made much of a name for himself. He had never been to college and was working as a valet parking cars at the Binion’s Horseshoe casino on Fremont Street in Las Vegas. He told Adams he had been in the military briefly in the 1980s and had served as a paratrooper, but had badly injured himself in an accident and had to leave the service. 

“I liked him, I thought he was very smart,” Adams said. “But he was kind of controlling and I noticed that right away. The other thing I noticed right away was that if you disagreed on something with someone – if you expressed any vulnerability to him as a way of getting to the core of why do we disagree on this – he would take advantage of that, and manipulate it immediately.”

As a disabled veteran, Rhodes could attend community college classes in Las Vegas very cheaply, and Adams said he excelled. She said while Rhodes built up his college credits, she worked to support him, ending up working as an exotic dancer to pay household expenses.

Adams and Rhodes married in 1994 during an era of odd jobs for Rhodes while he also sporadically attended college. He worked as a sculptor, creating works of art for casinos and other clients, taught women’s self-defense and toyed with the idea of becoming a teacher, she said. 

But then Rhodes settled on the idea of going to law school. In 1998, he graduated from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and began looking for clerkships. Adams, who was pregnant with the first of six children she would have with Rhodes, quit work and the couple moved in with her mother.

Instead of a clerkship, Rhodes discovered Ron Paul, the libertarian congressman and presidential candidate. Paul hired him for an entry-level position answering donor mail, Adams said. The family moved to Virginia for a year, before leaving suddenly and moving back to Nevada at the end of the '90s. Adams said she doesn’t know why Rhodes left after such a brief time working with Paul, but she said he had found “his people” in the libertarian movement.

“He immediately grabbed all those people right out of the gate,” Adams said. “The Ron Paul people were the original Oath Keeper group.”

As he drifted into libertarian politics, Rhodes also became obsessed with the “prepper” lifestyle, Adams said. She and Rhodes “wasted a year,” preparing for a global catastrophe as 1999 turned into 2000. Adams said Rhodes was all-in on the “Y2K” theory, which posited that software systems worldwide would fail because of their inability to process the changing of the millennium. 

In preparation for the coming apocalypse, Rhodes and Adams filled a trailer on her mother’s property with disaster supplies, Adams said. The gathered junk was like a metaphor for the chaos inside Rhodes’ head, she said. 

“It was a view into him psychologically," she said.     

'An ACLU for the American right'

Rhodes was accepted into Yale Law School in 2001. The family sold everything and moved to Connecticut where they lived off Rhodes’ student loans and disability checks, Adams said. The couple had their third child while Rhodes developed his legal and political philosophy.

In his last year at law school, Rhodes authored an award-winning paper on the political rights of “Enemy Combatants” in the George W. Bush Administration’s “War on Terror.”

Rhodes argued in the paper that the administration’s actions “spell disaster” and are unconstitutional. “The current emergency detention and trial system being constructed by the Bush Administration is not in keeping with our constitutional principles of the supremacy of the civilian over the military,” he wrote.

That core concept: That armed, informed civilians must always remain superior to the military and the federal government, would a few years later, become a bedrock principle of the Oath Keepers.

After a few years spent clerking for an Arizona Supreme Court judge, practicing law at a Montana law firm and working at a Nevada construction defect firm, Rhodes once again got itchy feet, Adams said.

“He kept saying this isn't fulfilling his potential – this isn't what he was put on Earth to do,” Adams said. “There's something bigger, there's something more and then he kept talking about wanting to start a non-profit.”

Adams and two of the original Oath Keepers board members said they heard the same lofty goals for the group. Rhodes wanted to create “an ACLU for the American right,” they said. The idea was to set up an organization that would provide support – legal, financial, educational and, if necessary security – for conservative causes around the country.

At first, there was nothing really “extreme” about the Oath Keepers, said the people who were there at the founding of the organization.

“In the beginning, he had a great mission, and it was to reach, teach and inspire people to follow the Constitution, and to follow your oath,” said Celia Hyde, a former police chief who served on the Oath Keepers board from 2009 to 2011. “In the beginning, he was very inspiring. And he was good. I mean, I don't fall for cults and stuff at all – and this wasn't a cult – but it was a proud organization.” 

But, for Hyde and others, the honeymoon period didn’t last long. 

Launched officially in April 2009, the Oath Keepers brand quickly found followers across a conservative political landscape seething at the election of president Barack Obama and fearful of an incoming liberal political agenda that might threaten everything from their guns to their freedoms. 

As the organization grew, the money poured in from donations and dues and, as Hyde put it, Rhodes “began to go sideways.”

Oath Keepers President Stewart Rhodes shows off a new tattoo at the Casa Di Dolore Tattoo shop in Newburgh, NY on June 2, 2020.

‘His ego got huge’

The four former high-ranking Oath Keepers interviewed by USA TODAY all tell the same story: They were initially enamored by Rhodes’ personality and talk of constitutional freedom and patriotism. They saw in him a leader who could help curb any future encroachment on civil liberties by a Democratic president.

But for all of them, Rhodes’s star soon faded.

Hyde and Normandin, the former Massachusetts police captain, described Rhodes’ attitude changing as his public stature grew. Rhodes became dictatorial in his leadership and went from “talking to you, to talking at you,” Normandin said.

“He saw himself as a rising star and his ego got huge, to the point that it got blown out of proportion,” Hyde said. 

Rhodes used former high-ranking police officers to spread the word about the Oath Keepers among current and former law enforcement.

“I had a very significant notebook and address book, and so did Celia (Hyde) and a couple of other people that we ended up talking to, and Stewart was using our address books to be able to do things,” Normandin said. “He was going in with this story to some departments and talking to some cops and he had no credibility.”

The tactic worked. Oath Keepers chapters popped up across the country almost faster than the board could keep track of them.

Accusations of financial mismanagement and waste have followed Rhodes throughout his tenure as leader of the Oath Keepers. 

All the former board members interviewed by USA TODAY described the same problems: Rhodes would constantly ask for more money out of the Oath Keepers accounts, and would spend on everything from steak to hotel rooms, to rifles.

"There was no transparency in the organization; the board would want financial records and he would just say ‘No.’” said Scott Dunn, who left the Oath Keepers board in 2019. “The money played a big part in why everybody left. I think that was the one thing we could all point to and say ‘We're done.’”

As the Oath Keepers grew, Rhodes essentially abandoned practicing the law to focus full-time on the group. In 2015, the Montana Supreme Court disbarred Rhodes after he failed to appear at hearings for a complaint against him.

'More and more confrontational'

A key turning point for the Oath Keepers came in 2011. 

Rhodes was incensed at the killing of Marine Corps veteran Jose Guerena in Tucson, Arizona. The Pima County Sheriff’s Department, shot Guerena while serving him with a warrant to search his home. 

Rhodes quickly organized a “muster” in Tucson against the militarization of the local sheriff and in support of Guerena and his family. But the Oath Keeper leader’s intentions in gathering around the tragic event went deeper, Normandin said. 

“Stewart, the longer we went on, was wanting to become more and more confrontational,” Normandin said. “Then, he started talking about, ‘We can be one of the most significant militias in this country.’”

Shortly after the Tucson meeting, Normandin and two other board members resigned. Normandin estimates that at least 100 other Oath Keepers quit with them, out of concern for the direction the group was taking under Rhodes leadership.

“We said, ‘This doesn't smell right anymore,’” Hyde said. “We saw him self-destruct. He has nobody to blame but himself.”

Normandin believed Rhodes was heading for some sort of cataclysmic confrontation with the federal government, and the former police captain wanted nothing to do with it.

“Stewart had that in his head from the get-go,” Normandin said. “He wanted to be one of the new generation founding fathers. He wanted to go down in history as rescuing this country and bringing it out of the doldrums that it was suffering.”

‘Just trying to live their lives’

In her remote cabin in Montana, Adams and her children have watched Rhodes’ troubles with a mixture of joy, relief and residual fear.  

The day Rhodes was arrested was a jubilant one, she said. The family couldn’t believe that someone who had once hovered so close above their every move was finally behind bars. But then came the realization that there is still a long road ahead as Rhodes faces trial.

Adams has seen Rhodes talk his way out of a lot of trouble before.  She has witnessed his escape plans, his contingencies. Earlier this month, Rhodes confidently gave testimony for seven hours before the Jan. 6th Congressional Committee, his attorney said, and the Oath Keepers leader plans to fight the charges against him all the way.

There is “Zero chance of a plea deal,” Bright, the defense attorney said. He added that he believes Rhodes poses no threat to Adams: "If he was such a danger to her, why did he leave her alone for four years and live his life?"

Still, the thought that Rhodes might one day go free scares Adams.  

“My kids are all saying ‘We see him everywhere,’ ” she said. “They think everyone is Stewart. They see anyone that has a walk like him, who dresses like him, with a shirt like him, you know, hair like his, instantly they have a panic attack. They're all trying to just live their lives.”

Contributing: Erin Mansfield, USA TODAY