WASHINGTON — Derek Kinnison, a self-identified member of the Three-Percenter militia group, was one of six California men indicted by a federal grand jury last year in connection with the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Kinnison, the indictment alleged, was part of a conspiracy to obstruct the certification of President Joe Biden’s electoral college victory, joining a group that came to D.C. armed and “ready and willing to fight” in the nation’s capital.
Kinnison was also a member of the Oath Keepers, a far-right anti-government organization whose members have pleaded guilty to seditious conspiracy in connection with the Jan. 6 attack, according to texts and images reviewed by NBC News.
As the Justice Department and the House Select Committee press their investigation into the Jan. 6 attack, the central role of the Oath Keepers is coming into sharper focus. The Oath Keepers, headed by Stewart Rhodes, have links to many of the primary figures being investigated in connection with the Capitol breach and the lead-up to the attack.
The Oath Keepers, founded after the election of President Barack Obama, is a far-right militia group that recruits veterans and members of law enforcement. The Anti-Defamation League has estimated it has 1,000 to 3,000 members and has said their influence is far greater. Dozens of individuals apparently affiliated with the Oath Keepers have been charged in connection with the Jan. 6 attack.
While both members of the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers have been charged with conspiring to storm the U.S. Capitol, the Oath Keepers played a security role that gave them direct access to prominent figures in then-President Donald Trump’s orbit, like longtime adviser Roger Stone. As members of the Oath Keepers were offering security for figures like Stone, prosecutors allege, Rhodes and members of the organization plotted to set up heavily armed “quick reaction forces” outside of D.C. that they hoped Trump would call upon to keep himself in power.
Kinnison’s relationship with the Oath Keepers as well as his communications with Rhodes and others, which have not been previously reported, shed light on the central organizational role the group played in the events surrounding Jan. 6. Redacted chats released by a defense lawyer last month in connection with the broader Oath Keepers case show that Rhodes added Kinnison — who he referred to as a “CA Oath Keeper who is in with a four-man team” — to a Signal chat. Kinnison, according to his indictment, was in the four-man group Rhodes referred to, traveling to D.C. in an SUV rented from Enterprise with three of his co-defendants: Erik Scott Warner, Felipe “Tony” Martinez, and Ronald Mele.
The ties between the California Three Percenter defendants and the Oath Keepers indictment were uncovered by the anonymous investigative group Capitol Terrorist Exposers, one of several groups in the broader “Sedition Hunters” community that are investigating Jan. 6 suspects. By tirelessly poring over videos and photographs, members of the public have helped identify and build cases against hundreds of Jan. 6 defendants, and they say they’ve identified hundreds of additional rioters who have not been arrested by the FBI.
Online sleuths noticed that the radio channel referred to by Kinnison in his indictment, 142.422, was the same one mentioned in chats released in connection with the Oath Keepers case last month. From there, citizen investigators say they connected Kinnison to chats hacked from the Oath Keepers, where Kinnison apparently went by “BIGDEE.” They also say they traced his location on Jan. 6 and the days leading up to the attack, matching up his locations in videos and photos with his chats.
Nicolai Cocis, an attorney for Kinnison, initially spoke with NBC News, but stopped responding to further inquiries about Kinnison’s Oath Keeper ties. But those ties may prove difficult to combat: Kinnison, online sleuths discovered, was even wearing an Oath Keepers patch on the back of his hat on Jan. 6.
Rhodes has been in government custody since he was arrested in January, with a federal judge calling the evidence against him “compelling.” Rhodes, who spent six hours testifying before the House Jan. 6 committee on Zoom when he was in federal custody, has pleaded not guilty to all charges and is set to go to trial in September.
On the evening of Jan. 6, a member of the organization told a court in recent weeks, Rhodes attempted to get into touch with Trump himself, imploring a Trump intermediary to call upon militias and stop the transfer of power. “I just want to fight,” Rhodes told others after unsuccessfully trying to get connected to Trump, according to William Todd Wilson, a head of a county offshoot of the Oath Keepers in North Carolina. (Rhodes’ legal team was not aware of the alleged call before media reports on Wilson’s guilty plea, but have said Rhodes did not have a way to talk to Trump.)
Rhodes was a member of the “Friends of Stone” Signal chat, first reported by The New York Times last week, which gave him access to several key prominent figures in Trump’s orbit. NBC News obtained a version of the membership list, which includes Rhodes as well as Enrique Tarrio of the Proud Boys and Owen Shroyer, an InfoWars host who has also been charged in connection with Jan. 6.
The man prosecutors have identified as Kinnison pops up in video from around D.C. in the days leading up to Jan. 6. Authorities say the group arrived in D.C. on Jan. 4, and online sleuths found them in livestream footage that night. They can be seen in the background of a Jan. 5 photo of Roger Stone being driven around in a golf cart. On Jan. 6, Kinnison can be seen sporting a gas mask as members of the crowd attack law enforcement with pepper spray. His locations at those times match up with what the individual was communicating in the Oath Keepers chat.
While he was communicating with the Oath Keepers, Kinnison, according to authorities, was also in charge of communications for a group of Californians traveling to D.C. organized by another co-defendant Russell Taylor. Taylor’s chat of more than 30 people was called “The California Patriots-DC Brigade,” and the chat’s purpose, Taylor wrote, was to help “able bodied individuals” who were “ready and willing to fight” communicate. “We will come together for this moment that we are called upon,” Taylor wrote.
Kinnison, according to the indictment, sent an introductory message to the chat, including a photo that showed him and two of the others traveling with him flashing the Three Percenters hand sign.
“We will have lots of gear from medical kits, radios, multiple cans of bear spray, knives, flags, plates[,] googles, helmets. … I think we should clear all text in this chat the morning of the 5th just in case for opsec purposes,” Kinnison wrote in a Jan. 2 group chat.
Kinnison has said in an interview with former Trump adviser Seb Gorka that he “stayed on the outside, didn’t step foot in the Capitol,” and prosecutors have not suggested otherwise. Kinnison told Gorka that he was “answering the call” from Trump when he decided to travel to D.C. on Jan. 6. On the anniversary of Jan. 6, Kinnison and his co-defendant Martinez appeared in another Gorka video that proclaimed them the “Real Victims” of the Capitol attack.
At a court status hearing in the Kinnison case on Thursday, a federal prosecutor indicated that the government would extend a plea offer to Kinnison and his co-defendants in the coming weeks. The government also acknowledged sending a letter to the defendant’s lawyer stating that a terrorism enhancement could be applied at sentencing in the cases.
An online fundraiser posted by Kinnison helps illustrate the reach of the Oath Keepers and their connection with high-profile political figures. In a photo, Kinnison poses with Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco, the head of one of the largest sheriff’s offices in California, who was revealed to have been associated with the Oath Keepers. A spokesperson for Bianco, who has defended his prior membership while condemning what happened at the Capitol on Jan. 6, told NBC News that Bianco knew Kinnison, but that they were not close. Kinnison also listed his business address as the local sheriff's station after his arrest, and the Bianco spokesperson said Kinnison did not have permission to do so.
As the Jan. 6 committee gears up for public hearings starting next month and as major Jan. 6 cases move closer to trial, the wide reach of the Oath Keepers on Jan. 6 will get a broader airing. Video released by lawyers in connection with Tarrio’s case this week shows a meeting between the Proud Boys head and the Oath Keepers in a garage on Jan. 5. In the video, a man who accompanied Rhodes to the meeting seems to anticipate what will happen the next day.
“It’s inevitable what’s going to happen,” he says. “We’ve just got to do it as a team together — strong, hard, fast.”