The news has gone from bad to worse for former New Jersey Oath Keeper Roberto Minuta since he was arrested a year ago on charges he forced his way into the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in an attempt to stop Congress from certifying the 2020 presidential election. Now he finds himself the subject a U.S. Department of Justice probe as the agency arrests its way up the Jan. 6 ladder, homing in on the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys alt-right militia groups.
The DOJ investigation is historic, producing 750-plus defendants. But its strategy is strictly by the book: Start with the low-hanging fruit, compel defendants to cooperate and climb the food chain of complicity. The strategy is paying off. Prosecutors are piling up a growing number of plea bargains and now allege a months-long conspiracy by the two militias to violently abort the 2020 presidential election.
Earlier this month, a significant plea bargain reached with another Oath Keeper strengthened an already robust case prosecutors say they have assembled against Minuta and 10 of his extremist allies. Over the past year, authorities have methodically added increasingly tougher charges against Minuta, and his once defiant political tirades have given way to a submissive, downcast devotion to God.
Out on bail since April 15 last year, Minuta, a former Hackettstown resident, returned to his vandalized tattoo parlor in Newburgh, New York — Casa di Dolore (House of Pain) — where he posted a short video on Facebook, standing in front of a makeshift sign that read “John: 8:32.” For the uninitiated, he proclaimed, “The truth shall set you free.”
But for Minuta, the truth is a moving target. He has offered three conflicting versions of his involvement on Jan. 6. First, he claimed he never entered the building. Then he claimed that when he arrived the Capitol doors were wide open, and people were coming and going freely. His most recent account is that he was assisting the evacuation of Capitol Police officers who were in distress. Videos and photographs filed in court documents refute all three versions.
Conspiracy charge added
Off camera in his Facebook video was another sign just a few feet away, which has been on the tattoo parlor’s front door for years: “Firearms Welcome.” He ended his brief video in a wistful tone: “I’m praying for all of you who have such hate in your hearts that you find it necessary to destroy an already broken man.”
Minuta’s dejection was not without cause. Just two weeks earlier prosecutors had added a conspiracy charge, upping his potential prison sentence. And it came at a time when prosecutors were negotiating plea bargains to advance their investigation. Rumors were circulating that an Oath Keeper was cooperating.
The rumors proved true. On April 14, Indiana Oath Keeper Jon Ryan Schaffer, who was also the frontman of the heavy metal band Iced Earth, signed off on a protective order that prohibited him and his lawyer from disclosing sensitive evidence regarding his case — a sign he would be cooperating.
The next day it became official: Schaffer officially flipped, giving him the distinction of being the first person involved in the Capitol attack to plead guilty.
It was an important achievement for the government, which had made the Oath Keepers the top priority and provided the first crack in their fortress. During a May court hearing, prosecutors said they had recently begun reaching out to the defendants’ attorneys about the “possible resolution of these matters short of trial.” They would soon land four more plea bargains with Oath Keepers. One of them landed particularly close to home for Minuta.
On June 30, Alabama Oath Keeper Mark Grods pleaded guilty to conspiracy and also promised to cooperate. Grods, who had not been included in the Oath Keepers indictment, admitted that he brought firearms to Washington, D.C., and supplied them to a fellow member who established a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) at a Virginia hotel.
‘I gave up a lot of things for what I thought was right.’
Grods also admitted that he was part of an Oath Keeper team assigned to provide security on Jan. 5 and Jan. 6 for Roger Stone, another former New Jersey resident and longtime Trump adviser, dating back to his Atlantic City casino days. Minuta too was part of that detail. Grods also admitted to being part of a select leadership team that planned the attack for two months prior to the Capitol insurgency. Minuta was allegedly part of that elite crew. And Grods further confessed he lined up in military “stack” formation and forced his way into the Capitol. Minuta is charged with being part of that maneuver.
That guilty plea was a significant setback for the Oath Keepers, particularly Minuta.
Moved to Texas
On Oct. 7, Minuta posted another Facebook video, from his new home in Texas. His beard and hair were longer and unkempt. His demeanor was solemn and subdued.
“I don’t know why I just feel I had to make this video and say you gotta just trust God. Just know when you put your trust in Him and take a leap in faith when it feels like everything is about to fall apart … It’s not your choice anyway, ya know, you’re not really in control, and you’re not in charge either.
“So for someone out there who needs … a little shove when you’re on the fence about a decision that kinda jeopardizes your comfy little life. Just put that trust in God, and chances are you will be rewarded for that trust. I gave up a lot of things for what I thought was right.”
It was a far cry from the steady stream of Minuta’s vitriolic tirades posted before his arrest last March. Nor did he seem to be the same person who, according to prosecutors, held up two fingers as he departed the Capitol and yelled at a police officer, “All that’s left is the Second Amendment!”
It is not publicly known when Minuta joined the Oath Keepers, but he was not always a far-right extremist. Growing up in a large Roman Catholic, Italian family in Newburg, , he was the captain of his high school football team. After graduation, he aspired to become a doctor, enrolled in medical school, and worked in a local emergency room. But in 2013, he met his soon-to-be wife and decided to become a family man. In an abrupt career change, he left med school and opened his tattoo parlor, Minuta said in an interview that aired Jan. 5 on Newsmax TV, a conservative news channel that promotes conspiracy theories.
‘It’s not a time to sit down and do nothing, that’s for sure.’
Soon, Minuta and his wife had two children. When it came time for them to start school, the Minutas obtained religious exemptions for their children being vaccinated. In the spring of 2020, a measles outbreak prompted county health officials to inform him that his children could not attend summer camp without being vaccinated. Minuta and others sued — one of their lawyers was Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the national anti-vaccine leader — and lost. Shortly after, the New York Legislature eliminated the religious exemptions. So, Minuta and his young family moved to Hackettstown.
Although it is not publicly known when Minuta joined the Oath Keepers, he was clearly completely on board in 2020. In January that year he answered Stewart Rhodes’ “urgent” message to militia members to join him at a Second Amendment rally in Richmond, Virginia. Rhodes is the leader of the Oath Keepers.
“Although it’s not my state, I’m here for everyone,” Minuta told a local news reporter. “It’s not a time to sit down and do nothing, that’s for sure.”
Later that year, Minuta’s anti-vaccine militancy found a new focus with the outbreak of COVID-19. Even before he attended anti-vaccine demonstrations in New Jersey, he created a media stir with a protest rally outside his tattoo parlor and defied a statewide shutdown of nonessential businesses.
Traveling from Texas to join him was Stewart Rhodes, who made Minuta a lifetime member of the Oath Keepers that day. A grateful Minuta then inked a large tattoo on Rhodes’ forearm that read “We the People.”
COVID-19 was also about to feed a new conspiracy theory, which became the foundation of Trump’s Stop the Steal movement. With COVID-19 cases and deaths soaring, states started adopting mail-in ballot provisions for the 2020 elections for public health reasons. Led by Trump’s Twitter feed, right-wing extremists viewed it as a plot to subvert democracy — a Democratic scheme to steal the election.
“So when election time came … my wife and I actually received five mail-in ballots for the two of us,” Minuta said in the Newsmax interview. “And who knows how many times that could have happened. So that was enough for me to question the election.”
A week after Minuta’s Newsmax interview aired, federal investigators upped the ante. In a new, separate indictment they charged Rhodes with orchestrating a long-planned “seditious conspiracy” that would culminate with the attack on the Capitol to overturn the presidential election. Minuta and nine other Oath Keepers were also charged with sedition, the most severe crime charged thus far in the Jan. 6 probe, which carries a potential 20-year prison term.
Then came the government’s most recent salvo. On March 2, Oath Keeper Joshua James (also from Alabama), pleaded guilty to seditious conspiracy and obstruction of an official proceeding. He was the fifth, and most critical Oath Keeper to flip — and appears to have provided what was needed to indict Rhodes.
‘I’ve been hoarding any ammo I can get my hands on lol.’
In his plea documents, James, a military veteran, admitted that from November 2020 through January 2021, he was part of Rhodes’ small, multistate team that planned the Jan. 6 assault. And he also admitted to removing a cache of weapons from a Virginia hotel, along with Rhodes, on the evening of Jan. 6. What’s more, he revealed he traveled to Texas after the assault, where he joined Rhodes and others for two weeks to amass a stockpile of weapons and ammo to be distributed and used in the event of a civil war.
Minuta had been at James’s side all day on Jan. 6.
Protecting Roger Stone
Both were on the Roger Stone security detail that morning. In the afternoon, when they were notified that the Capitol had been breached, the two men changed into military gear, jumped into a golf cart and sped to the Capitol. James barked out directions to Minuta, who swerved through traffic and barricades, according to court records, while Minuta grabbed his phone and posted a live video of the drive to the Capitol along with his commentary.
“Patriots are storming the Capitol building; there’s violence against patriots by the D.C. Police; so we’re en route in a Grand Theft Auto golf cart to the Capitol building right now … It’s going down, guys; it’s literally going down right now … Patriots storming the Capitol building… f**king war in the streets right now… Word is they got in the building … Let’s go.”
Court records also show that Minuta and James were in frequent contact before the insurrection, when they worked previous Make America Great Again/Stop the Steal rallies. They exchanged approximately eight phone calls on Nov. 13 and Nov. 14, 2020, when both attended a MAGA Millions March. (Minuta provided security for Alex Jones, the incendiary right-wing media personality.) On Dec. 1, 2020, Minuta messaged James in a chat on Parler, “the premier free speech social media platform,” saying, “I’ve been hoarding any ammo I can get my hands on lol.” The two also exchanged phone calls on Dec. 11, the day before the MAGA Millions rally in Washington, where the two men marched alongside former Trump national security adviser Mike Flynn.
James, it appears, has plenty to share about Minuta with prosecutors. And as the plea deals pile up, they pose another problem for Minuta, reducing his leverage if he seeks a plea deal himself. The fact that James pleaded to sedition, the most severe of all the charges, raises Minuta’s exposure. In addition, what now could Minuta possibly give the government that James hasn’t already provided?
Oath Keepers and Proud Boys
Just six days after James’s plea deal, another piece of the feds’ puzzle fell into place when authorities announced the indictment of Enrique Tarrio, former chairman of the Proud Boys, on conspiracy and other charges. The indictment was significant not only because of Tarrio’s status, but also because he wasn’t present on Jan. 6. That made him the first “noncombatant” to be charged, expanding the scope of the conspiracy beyond the Capitol grounds.
It also underscored prosecutors’ assertions that the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys had joined forces in the alleged plot.
Evidence of that alliance first surfaced in a March 2021 detention hearing for Florida Oath Keeper Kelly Meggs, when prosecutors produced numerous private web postings by Meggs, including one from Dec. 19, 2020: “This week I organized an alliance between Oath Keepers, Florida 3%ers, and Proud Boys,” Meggs wrote. “We have decided to work together and shut this (expletive) down.”
There was a lot going on Dec. 19, the same day Meggs boasted about the alliance with the Proud Boys.
It was the day President Donald Trump published his now notorious tweet: “BIG PROTEST IN DC ON JANUARY 6TH. BE THERE, WILL BE WILD.” Hours later, Infowars broadcaster Alex Jones joined in during his live radio show: “This is the most important call to action on domestic soil since Paul Revere and his ride in 1776,” he proclaimed. Jones had longtime ties to Oath Keeper Rhodes, who was a frequent guest on his show.
Also on that day, Minuta sent a message to an unnamed person, according to court records, recounting the phone call with Rhodes a day earlier: “Oath Keepers president is pretty disheartened. He feels like it’s go time, the time for peaceful protest is over.”
A week earlier, Minuta had marched with Tarrio and other Proud Boys at a MAGA rally in Washington, D.C., that turned violent. A VICE News report identified Minuta in several livestreams from Dec. 11, which showed him standing outside the Harrington Hotel, a favorite Proud Boy haunt, with other Proud Boys. He was also seen marching with them that night.
‘Lords of War’
Later that month, Tarrio publicly posted a picture of Minuta and Proud Boy Dominic “Spazzo” Pezzola side by side at a Dec. 12 MAGA rally. Along with the picture, Tarrio posted his own headline: “Lords of War.” Pezzola, who would later be indicted for his part in the Capitol conspiracy, was the first person to breach the Capitol on Jan. 6, using a police riot shield to break a window next to the Senate wing door, Justice department court records say.
Minuta posted a prompt response to Tarrio’s public Parler account: “Bad Ass! … Honor to stand with you guys. See you Jan 6.”
Then, Minuta’s father joined the chat, offering another clue regarding his son’s radicalism: “THAT IS MY SON ROB STANDING FOR WHAT’S RIGHT,” he wrote. “SPAZZOLINI IS THE MARINE IN FRONT. AN ICONIC MARINE,” he added, suggesting he knew the Proud Boy previously.
The FBI has shown growing interest in a 30-minute parking garage meeting between Tarrio and Rhodes on Jan. 6, according to a justice department court filing last week. They said audio of the event was captured by a documentary film crew and sheds new light on Tarrio’s role on Jan. 6. Then the “New York Times” reported that a document found by federal prosecutors in Tarrio’s possession contained a detailed plan to surveil and storm government buildings around the Capitol on Jan. 6.
With the leaders of the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys under heavy legal fire, unanswered questions resurface: How much further did the alleged conspiracy go — and how much appetite does Attorney General Merrick Garland have to find out?
Last week, Garland said he would not “shy away from cases that are controversial or sensitive or political. To do that would undermine an element of the rule of law …What we must avoid is any partisan element of our decision-making about cases.”
As the justice department’s probe continues, a House congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection is seeking to answer those questions as it conducts its own expansive inquiry, much of it focusing on Trump and his inner circle. In that respect, the committee is working top-down, while the DOJ works bottom-up.
Rutgers Eagleton Institute of Politics director, John Farmer Jr., who was lead counsel in the 9/11 Commission, says parallel investigations can get tricky. “In the Iran-Contra investigation, the ultimate criminal cases were compromised when the congressional committee conferred immunity in order to obtain testimony,” he points out. “So, if some of the witnesses who have taken the Fifth are granted immunity, that could potentially complicate or compromise the DOJ’s work.”
The House committee is also interested in the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, and last November subpoenaed both Rhodes and Tarrio to testify. It has also subpoenaed Roger Stone, Alex Jones and Michael Flynn, each of whom appeared and invoked the Fifth Amendment, as well as Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, who is negotiating the terms of his testimony.
On March 3, the day after Oath Keeper James pleaded guilty, the committee filed civil court papers, asserting there is sufficient evidence to conclude that Trump and some of his allies might have conspired to commit fraud and obstruction by misleading Americans about the outcome of the 2020 election and attempting to overturn the result. That filing resurrected speculation about whether the committee might file a criminal referral to the DOJ.
Focus on Trump
The filing also referenced a head-turning ruling last month in a separate civil suit issued by U.S. District Court Judge Amit P. Mehta, who is overseeing the Oath Keepers’ criminal case. In that decision, he found that it was “plausible to believe that the President entered into a conspiracy with the rioters on Jan. 6, 2021 … That civil conspiracy included the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, (Proud Boys leader Enrique) Tarrio, and others who entered the Capitol on January 6th with the intent to disrupt the Certification of the Electoral College vote through force, intimidation, or threats.”
Mehta’s ruling allowed for additional fact-finding — including depositions and document demands on the former president and other co-defendants, who include members of the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys. That discovery might prove such connections “to be an important one,” Mehta wrote.
Stone has drawn particular interest in both investigations as a key nexus between Trump and the two militia groups. He has a long-standing relationship with Tarrio (they both live in Florida) and a more recent one with Rhodes. On Jan. 15, a documentary crew following Stone filmed him using an encrypted communications app on his phone. Among those he was in communication with that day were Rhodes and Tarrio.
‘At the end of the day, I suspect that both investigations will demonstrate that they were fools.’
Stone has been a Trump friend and adviser for more than 30 years, dating back to the 1980s when he worked as a consultant to Trump’s Atlantic City casino business. Stone was not just another speaker at Stop the Steal rallies on Jan. 5, where he was guarded by Oath Keepers; he was the original mastermind of the campaign strategy that drove the Jan. 6 insurrection.
As an informal adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign, Stone founded the “Stop the Steal” initiative — first to fight efforts by some Republicans to wrest the presidential nomination from Trump at their national convention and later to discredit Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton during the general election in an interview on Breitbart’s The Milo Yiannopoulos Show. He had observed then that a voting machine was “essentially a computer” and had reasoned, “Who is to say they cannot be rigged?”
‘A clown posse’
Judge Mehta singled out Stone in his decision. “Stone’s connections to both the President and these groups in the days leading up to January 6th is a well-pleaded fact,” he wrote. “Discovery might prove that connection to be an important one.”
Usually circumspect and understated, Farmer, of the Eagleton Institute, was unusually candid when asked about the role of Stone, Jones and Giuliani in the investigation.
“From the indictments and other filings I’ve seen so far, it’s not clear how resilient our institutions are; what is clear is that the forces arrayed against them amounted to a clown posse of wannabes and incompetents who, however seditious their intent, were laughably inept at carrying it out.
“Time — and further investigation — will determine the ultimate membership and identify the leadership of the clown posse. It may or may not include the former President and his minions as the chief Bozo. At the end of the day, I suspect that both investigations will demonstrate that they were fools.”
As for Minuta, this is his final thought in the recent Newsmax interview: “I wish Jan. 6 had gone differently. I wish it had been peaceful.”
Minuta’s attorney has not responded to emails requesting comment.