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Prosecutors secure first guilty plea in Capitol riot cases

Jon Schaffer, a member of the Oath Keepers, pleaded guilty to unlawfully entering Congress and obstructing an official proceeding.

An Indiana man accused of being a longtime member of the Oath Keepers pleaded guilty Friday to illegally entering the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 riot, an important milestone in the government's effort to understand the forces behind the siege.

It was the first guilty plea secured by the federal government in connection with the riot, which occurred 100 days ago.

"On this 100th day since the horrific January 6 assault on the United States Capitol, Oath Keepers member Jon Schaffer has pleaded guilty to multiple felonies, including for breaching the Capitol while wearing a tactical vest and armed with bear spray, with the intent to interfere with Congress's certification of the electoral college results," acting Deputy Attorney General John Carlin said.

Schaffer's plea came on two of the six counts filed against him in January, which included an allegation that he was among rioters who assaulted Capitol Police officers with bear spray. His plea did not include that original charge.

He appeared by video conference Friday to enter his plea in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.

Prosecutors have said that two far-right groups, the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys, were in the vanguard of planning for violence in Washington on Jan. 6 and in breaching the Capitol. Schaffer's plea could give them new insight into what was going on in one of those groups.

Asked Friday if his plea agreement includes a requirement for him to cooperate with the government, including submitting to interviews by investigators, Schaffer answered, "Yes, your honor."

Chuck Rosenberg, a former federal prosecutor and MSNBC contributor, said the plea was a significant development.

"The best way for prosecutors to build cases is when the people who know the most about the crime — typically the criminals — begin to plead guilty and cooperate.”

If the government is satisfied with his cooperation, prosecutors could urge the judge to reduce Schaffer's sentence.

Friday's development was not a surprise. A prosecution document inadvertently posted on a court website in early April disclosed that his lawyers were involved in "advanced plea negotiations" with the Justice Department.

Schaffer had attracted extra attention because he is well known in the world of heavy metal music as a guitarist for the band "Iced Earth."

Image:  Guitarist Jon Schaffer, of the heavy metal band Iced Earth, performs during a rock festival 2017 in Blekinge, Sweden.
Guitarist Jon Schaffer, of the heavy metal band Iced Earth, performs during a rock festival 2017 in Blekinge, Sweden.Gonzales Photo/Terje Dokken / PYMCA/Avalon/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Band members have decried the Jan. 6 riot, saying in a statement posted by then-bassist Luke Appleton days after the attack that they do not "condone nor do we support riots or the acts of violence."

The band went on to say that they hope "all those involved that day are brought to justice."

Schaffer surrendered Jan. 17 after his picture was featured on an FBI poster seeking the public’s help in finding rioters, officials said.

By pleading guilty, Schaffer secured release from pretrial detention. No sentencing date has been set yet, and the next hearing will be in two months.