When officers arrested Robert Morss of Pennsylvania on charges related to the January 6 Capitol riot, they found in his car a notebook with a page titled, “Step by Step to Create Hometown Militia.”
Beneath it Morss allegedly scribbled bullet point reminders, fleshing out the idea of forming a violent cell — “bring assault rifle” and “set up your kit” — and notes on “formation.”
In the Morss case and others, the Justice Department repeatedly has documented the emergence of what could be called small, right-wing extremist groups.
This comes along with rising warnings from US intelligence about violence from right-wing extremists. Since January, prosecutors have alleged that several people who are charged with participating in the insurrection or with planning politically motivated violence also showed interest in organizing others, according to an extensive review of Capitol riot and other Justice Department cases by CNN.
The cases are so distinct in the thoroughness of the initial allegations and the depth of the investigative work so far, that they have become in some ways their own class of cases among the Capitol riot investigation, which so far has resulted in more than 500 criminal defendants in federal court in Washington, DC. Like most of the Capitol riot defendants so far, Morss, charged with nine criminal counts including assaulting and robing officers, has pleaded not guilty.
The cases also reach beyond the Capitol riot investigation, which the Justice Department now calls the largest investigation and prosecution in American history.
On Friday, federal prosecutors in northern California announced charges they had made of two men so devoted to former President Donald Trump and so angry about the 2020 election result, that they allegedly plotted to blow up the Democratic headquarters building in Sacramento. One commented over an encrypted messaging thread, where the two discussed planning, that he realized they would be perceived as domestic terrorists, and the second man had previously joined an anti-government militia group, according to court documents.
Investigators arrested one of the men, who carried a card that touted White supremacy and Trump and who had 49 guns and five pipe bombs, on January 15. That was just five days before Joe Biden’s inauguration in Washington, after which the men said their “war” would commence, according to their communications documented in court filings.
“All of the political and social conditions that motivated them to plan what they themselves described as a terrorist attack remain,” a prosecutor wrote in a court filing last week. “Though they understood that they would be viewed as domestic terrorists, they hoped that their violent acts might start a movement to overthrow the government.”
The two men, Ian Rogers and Jarrod Copeland, have not yet been arraigned in federal court on charges related to the alleged Democratic headquarters conspiracy. An attorney for Copeland declined to comment following his arrest, and a lawyer for Rogers could not be reached.
The cases involving these ad hoc groups include neighbors, online acquaintances, road-trippers, even a “Bible study” that also discussed secession and combat training after January 6, according to court records. Many spoke or wrote about wanting to fight, and, according to investigators, assembled arsenals.
The defendants at times crossed paths with named, known organizations such as the Three Percenters, but they stand apart from the cases against members of more established, structured groups such as the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, which are being prosecuted in several major conspiracy cases in the Capitol riot investigation.
The totality of the January 6 cases “aren’t necessarily a barometer of what the far right really is,” said Jon Lewis, who researches anti-government movements at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. But this group of cases — identifying freelance individuals meeting others and interested in acting like militias — is zeroing in on the far right’s version of terrorist cells, Lewis said.
“There is the potential to go from flash to bang very quickly. If it’s two or three folks who share that same kind of extreme ideology, it’s much easier in that small leaderless cell,” Lewis said.
‘Disorganized militia’ cooperator
Last week, prosecutors took a major step forward in another Capitol riot case — what independent journalist Marcy Wheeler dubbed a “disorganized militia” — when they secured the plea deal and cooperation of Idahoan Josiah Colt. Colt pleaded guilty to one count, obstructing Congress’ certification of the election.
Colt allegedly hung from the Senate balcony on January 6, which was captured in a photograph that went viral, after driving with two friends cross-country with weapons in the car. On the way, the trio had stopped at TGI Fridays and took video of themselves discussing opposing the certification of the election, according to court records.
One of Colt’s fellow travelers, Nathaniel DeGrave, had written to a Facebook contact in December that he wanted to “grow my army strong so probably will be making connections” on their January 6 trip, according to investigators.
Colt’s cooperation, which will include possible testimony to a grand jury and at trial, is set to affect at least two other ongoing cases where defendants are fighting almost a dozen charges each related to their alleged violence in and around the Capitol, against DeGrave of Nevada and the third road-tripper, Ronald Sandlin of Tennessee.
DeGrave and Sandlin both pleaded not guilty — and DeGrave’s attorney has argued in court that he is “mortified and remorseful” for his behavior on January 6, and that he was only interested in protecting the country at Trump’s prompting, and not harming it. Sandlin’s attorney has said he didn’t bring weapons into the city on January 6, and that he and the others went into the Capitol only because “they were caught up in the emotions of the day,” court papers say.
Other cases alleging these kinds of small extremist group efforts are still in early stages.
In a new arrest this month in another case, prosecutors revealed how a Northern Virginia man told an undercover FBI agent after January 6 about how his group could build ties to others. “The defendant has been organizing,” a prosecutor told a judge in Washington, DC, on July 2.
The Justice Department declined to comment further for this story.
Cracking down on domestic terror
The recent attention toward these upstart groups comes as the intelligence community continues to warn of possible summertime violence from right-wing extremists fueled by Trump telling his followers the 2020 presidential election was illegitimate.
In court, in the Capitol riot investigation, major conspiracy cases that allege planning and premeditation before the insurrection are some of the most serious. They command teams of experienced prosecutors and extensive searches, and arrests are still being made daily.
“The attackers on January 6 included a number, and the number keeps growing as we build out our investigations, of what we would call militia violent extremism,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said at a March Senate hearing on the January insurrection and domestic terrorism. At the time, he described the extremists as those connected to the Oath Keepers, a loosely organized coalition that recruits ex-military and law enforcement as members, and the Proud Boys, a nationalist organization that often has their members undergo initiations. Wray in the hearing also noted some violent extremists were motivated by White supremacy.
But these more well-known groups aren’t the only focus of federal authorities. In an intelligence report on domestic terrorism this spring, federal authorities outlined how violent extremists alone or in small cells are more likely to attack than organized extremist groups.
Ad hoc extremists are sometimes referred to as having militia membership “a la carte,” meaning the person gloms onto an established group’s events, or as “salad bar extremists,” meaning their ideological motivations don’t fall into clear categories for domestic terrorists, according to several experts who study militant movements.
Network in northern Virginia
Those assessments appear to track with some of the extremist group cases of recent weeks.
“The US has a problem with these private unregulated militias. Whether it’s four or five guys in their back yard in Ohio, or two guys in suburban Virginia. How do you crack down on the underlying actions?” Lewis, of George Washington University, said.
In the case against Fi Duong of Northern Virginia, made public on July 6, undercover FBI agents kept tabs on Duong and acquaintances after January 6 as they allegedly discussed secession from the US, surveilling the US Capitol and testing homemade bombs in a group that also discussed Scripture. They also crossed paths with others interested in a right-wing militant revolution.
At one point, Duong introduced his so-called Bible study group to a guest speaker, whom Duong said was connected to the Three Percenters, according to investigators. Prosecutors have tracked Three Percenters’ participation in the Capitol insurrection closely, identifying them as a collection of far-right groups that believe a small group of citizens can overthrow a government in the style of the American Revolution of 1776.
Duong told the undercover agent about his wish to build a “cloak and dagger”-like secretive group in Northern Virginia, and about how he liked to stay close to organized groups in the area, according to his court record. He also kept a “miniature arsenal” of 13 rifles and pistols, plus a shotgun, at his home, prosecutors have said in court.
“My objective is to find guys, local to this area, guys that we can, kind of, exchange information, build a more robust network,” investigators quoted Duong saying on January 13. “As much as I hate the situation, we have to accept it as well. And so how do we deal with it? Community. And this is how we build resistances and what not, in terms of planning for what will inevitably come as a worst, right?”
Duong has been charged with four crimes related to entering the Capitol during the insurrection, but not with anything related to his actions after January 6. He has not yet been formally indicted, so has not entered a plea. An attorney representing Duong declined to comment following his first court appearance.
Armed fighters from the OC
In other cases, investigations into more well-known figures or groups can lead investigators to smaller extremist cells.
“Oftentimes people with those ideologies may run in the same circles. They’ll be seeing each other at meetings, seeing each other at rallies,” said Matthew Schneider, the former US Attorney in the Eastern District of Michigan who prosecuted gangs and right-wing groups. “These types of folks are often inspired by other people’s actions.”
One major conspiracy case of a group of ad hoc armed extremists has already landed, in the arrest of six men from Orange County, California, in June, after the FBI raided the homes of two higher-profile right-wing figures months earlier.
The case notes how right-wing grassroots organizers and speakers Alan Hostetter and Russell Taylor linked up with three Three Percenters online to come to Washington, DC.
Hostetter and Taylor had advocated against government-mandated pandemic lockdowns in 2020, then advanced on YouTube and in speeches at rallies Trump’s belief that the election was stolen from him, court records in the case against them say. Their organizing group, American Phoenix Project, then encouraged followers to coordinate travel to pro-Trump marches, including the January 6 rallies in DC.
Some of those followers included a group of four men who discussed their plans to come to fight in DC. One of the men wrote in a chat thread that he and the others were part of the “3 percent” and that they trained together. The six men charged in the January 6 conspiracy have pleaded not guilty, according to court records.
“This thread is exclusive to be utilized to organize a group of fighters to have each other’s backs and ensure that no one will trample on our rights,” Taylor wrote in one of the chats.
And by January 6, prosecutors say, the four followers had found radios for communications, and one took a selfie wearing a bandolier of shotgun ammo, before they piled into an SUV to drive from coast to coast.
By 6 p.m. the day of the riot, Taylor was allegedly jubilant of how his loosely organized followers had come together, among the crowd of hundreds on the National Mall. “WE STORMED THE CAPITOL! Freedom was fully demonstrated today!” he wrote on a Telegram chat, investigators say.
But the storming of the Capitol on January 6 was not the end of the risk these groups pose, according to repeated Justice Department arguments in Capitol riot cases. Prosecutors have argued that several of the Capitol riot defendants and the California Democratic headquarters would-be attackers could continue to be a threat to public safety because their beliefs haven’t changed and Trump’s rhetoric hasn’t toned down.
In the Orange County Capitol riot conspiracy case, Hostetter posted a message on Instagram after the insurrection. He compared 2021 to 1776. “That war lasted 8 years. We are just getting started,” he wrote.
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