‘Quick Reaction Forces’ And The Lingering Mysteries Of The Plot Against The Capitol

The Oath Keeper “QRFs” show how things could have been a lot worse, and how much more there is to learn.
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty/AP

The Comfort Inn location just off the interstate has three stars on Yelp, where reviewers noted it had free parking and free breakfast, but poor WiFi. It did well on TripAdvisor too, although one person reported they found a dead roach in the shower.

As a staging ground for an alleged seditious conspiracy, however, it was a pretty solid choice. The Comfort Inn Ballston had rooms available for members of the right-wing Oath Keepers organization at a reasonable rate. The hotel’s luggage carts were strong enough to lug the bins of weapons, ammunition and supplies that they wheeled in to prepare for Jan. 6, 2021. Its location right off the ramp to Route 66 eastbound, outside of rush hour, can get you to the U.S. Capitol in a hurry. Critically, it was located in the state of Virginia, where the alleged co-conspirators wouldn’t have to worry about those pesky D.C. gun laws until it was time to take over the federal government. Then the laws wouldn’t matter.

The indictment of Oath Keepers founder Elmer Stewart Rhodes III, who was integral to the plot that unfolded in Ballston, on seditious conspiracy charges this month has once again drawn national attention to how supporters of President Donald Trump plotted to help stop the certification of President Joe Biden’s election victory on Jan. 6. Even after more than 700 arrests, and the hundreds of potential cases that remain, the latest indictment indicates there is much more we still don’t know about the most high-profile conspiracy case to emerge from the Jan. 6 investigation — and how much worse things could have been.

Part of the Oath Keepers’ conspiracy was standing up “Quick Reaction Forces” (QRFs) just outside of D.C. that were on standby to deliver guns into the capital on Jan. 6. The “base of operations,” according to the indictment, was the Comfort Inn Ballston, where the North Carolina QRF team leader reserved three rooms: one for their North Carolina team, another for the Arizona QRF team, and the third for the Florida QRF team. The indictment alleges they used those rooms to store and guard the firearms, although the four men on the North Carolina QRF team “kept their rifles ready to go in a vehicle parked in the hotel lot” according to a court filing.

“While certain Oath Keepers members and affiliates inside of Washington, D.C., breached the Capitol grounds and building, others remained stationed just outside of the city in QRF teams,” the indictment states. “The QRF teams were prepared to rapidly transfer firearms and other weapons into Washington, D.C., in support of operations aimed at using force to stop the lawful transfer of presidential power.”

Comfort Inn’s parent company did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but the inclusion of surveillance camera photos in court documents indicates it is cooperating with the FBI investigation.

A federal magistrate judge in Texas, where Rhodes was arrested, ordered the Oath Keepers founder held until trial this week. “Defendant created, staged, and controlled the QRF as a strategic force to escalate armed violence in support of the Raid upon his request,” wrote the federal magistrate judge.

Jessica Watkins, an Oath Keepers member from Ohio, explained ahead of a pro-Trump rally in November that a QRF would consist of “guys outside DC with guns” who were awaiting “orders to enter DC under permission from Trump, not a minute sooner.” In a more recent detention memo for Ed Vallejo, who was also ordered held pretrial, prosecutors wrote that he and others “staged as armed QRF teams across the Potomac River, awaiting deployment — a deployment which proved unnecessary, because the co-conspirators were able to breach the Capitol with the forces they had on the Capitol grounds.”

The “stack” of Oath Keepers marched up the stairs in formation and breached the Capitol just after 2:30. Vallejo messaged Rhodes that they were “standing by” at the hotel at 2:38.

Court documents don’t indicate much about what happened after that, when the Capitol had been breached without the QRFs being called in. There’s no explicit acknowledgement that any of the three QRFs at the hotel left the facility, and there’s little reference to the specific activities of other groups that Rhodes seemed to allude to on Jan. 6.

“We will have several well equipped QRFs outside DC,” Rhodes wrote on Jan. 6 before leaving his hotel. “And there are many, many others, from other groups, who will be watching and waiting on the outside in case of worst case scenarios.”

But there are indications that the hotel wasn’t the only location involved in the plan. There are repeated references to QRF RPs — rally points — besides the hotel. Plus there was the plan to ferry guns over by boat, which of course couldn’t be done from a landlocked hotel three miles inland from the Potomac River.

Alleged co-conspirator Thomas Caldwell texted someone he thought to be associated with anti-government militia Three Percenters and suggested a plot that involved participants “more or less be hanging around sipping coffee and maybe scooting on the river a bit and pretending to fish” and then, if things went to “shit,” ferry weapons across the river. “Dude! If we had 2 boats, we could ferry across and never drive into D.C. at all!!!!” the feds said he wrote. “PLEASE pass the word among folks you know and see if someone would jump in the middle of this to help,” Caldwell wrote, according to the feds. He messaged other contacts about having someone stand by at a dock ramp “near the Pentagon.”

Kelly Meggs, a former car dealership manager who headed Florida’s Oath Keepers chapter, sent a copy of a map showing “QRF rally points” with the message “1 if by land, North side of Lincoln Memorial, 2 if by Sea, Corner of west basin and Ohio is water transport landing!!” In the Jan. 2 “Leadership” chat on messaging app Signal, the North Carolina QRF team leader wrote they had “sources in DC working on procuring Boat transportation as we speak.”

‘A Straight Line Of Sight’

Jan. 6, 2021, was another busy day for Jay Westcott. The longtime photojournalist and U.S. military veteran works for ARLNow, a local news site in Arlington, Virginia, just across the Potomac River from the nation’s capital. He had a few assignments in the Crystal City section of Arlington that morning, and when he heard the news that Trump supporters were headed to the Capitol, his instincts kicked in.

Westcott headed for a spot where he knew he could get a good shot: The U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial, which recreates a famous image of Marines raising the American flag at Iwo Jima during World War II. Located on the edge of Virginia, the memorial is directly across the Potomac from the National Mall, giving visitors a stunning view of the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument and U.S. Capitol lined up in a row.

The U.S. Marine Corps' Iwo Jima Memorial can be seen as the morning sun begins to rise behind the U.S. Capitol and Washington Monument on Nov. 7, 2020, in Arlington, Virginia.
The U.S. Marine Corps' Iwo Jima Memorial can be seen as the morning sun begins to rise behind the U.S. Capitol and Washington Monument on Nov. 7, 2020, in Arlington, Virginia.
Al Drago via Getty Images

At about 3:30, about an hour after the Capitol was breached, Westcott was at the memorial with his camera. He saw what he felt was a suspicious group of men hanging out at the location. They were using radios; one had an earpiece in. He was vastly outnumbered and didn’t want a confrontation, so he shot some photos from a distance.

“It is a straight line of sight three miles to the Capitol building,” he said. “The radios that they had were very capable of getting there.” He also noted that not only was the location closer to the Capitol, but it had different route options.

“The thing about that location is you have access to every major road into D.C. just from that one spot,” he said. “A quick reaction force with a lead foot, they could’ve been in the Capitol building in less than 10 minutes.”

A year ago, Westcott reached out to the FBI. Then, a few months after the Capitol attack, in March 2021, ARLNow published a story that featured several of Westcott’s photos with the faces of the men blurred out. Westcott was also in touch with some of the online sleuths investigating the Capitol attack, but nothing emerged that definitively identified the men or linked them to the broader Oath Keepers conspiracy, or figured out precisely how they fit into the puzzle.

But he says no one from the FBI got in contact with him after he reached out or after the story ran, and he wonders why they wouldn’t want this potential lead.

“I haven’t heard anything. I’ve heard zero,” he said. “It’s unbelievably frustrating to know that I have hard evidence, tangible physical evidence that shows details, that shows faces, and that the government and FBI have the technology to take advantage of that and haven’t.”

The FBI declined to comment on the ongoing investigation into the QRFs. But there are a few potential explanations for what’s happening. Bureaucracy could play a role: The massive scope of the Jan. 6 attack is overwhelming, and plenty of rock-solid tips have been overlooked in a sea of hundreds of thousands of tips that flooded into the FBI after Jan. 6. The FBI could also already know who was in the group at the memorial and don’t need the photos. There’s also the possibility that the FBI concluded there wasn’t enough to open or sustain an investigation: Apart from the context of Jan. 6, the bureau would not be investigating a group of men hanging in a public park. The men were in Virginia, and didn’t display any weapons anyway, so it would take a more definitive link to tie them to a broader criminal conspiracy.

A number of surveillance images have been released in court filings, but there’s nothing that ties the group to the broader conspiracy. The current acting president of the Oath Keepers said that she doesn’t recognize the men featured in the photos at the memorial.

“I don’t think that’s them,” Kellye Sorelle, the acting president of the Oath Keepers, told HuffPost of the photos posted on ARLNow. “Nobody recognized them.”

Sorelle, whose phone was seized by the FBI in September as part of the Oath Keepers investigation, said she had “no earthly idea” if Rhodes was in contact with other “QRF” groups besides those stationed at the hotel in the days surrounding Jan. 6. (Sorelle, as BuzzFeed News first reported, has denied Rhodes’ claim that he was in a relationship with her and had lived with her since May 2020. Sorelle previously said that Rhodes only “occasionally” stayed with her when he was in the area, and told BuzzFeed News that Rhodes probably only claimed a relationship after his arrest because he “was wanting to get released to my house.”)

Westcott, meanwhile, is just hoping his photos can be helpful in the ongoing probe. Nearly 11 months after blurred-out versions of Westcott’s photos were published, he’s willing to provide the photos, while acknowledging the tension between his work as a photojournalist and what he sees as his patriotic duty.

“It’s a sticky situation to be in. On one hand, as a journalist I have a responsibility to protect my notes and raw files as protected under the First Amendment,” Westcott said. But, he added, it was important to him to find out if they were indeed part of broader plot by right-wing groups who “want to throw the First Amendment away,” he said. “If they had succeeded, there wouldn’t be a First Amendment to protect anymore.”

Westcott worked at the Capitol for 10 years, and its breach had a major impact on him.

“I know all those tunnels, I know all the little staircases, I’ve been to every place you could possibly be in that Capitol building,” he said. “When that building was breached, I felt violated, I felt personally violated. I have friends who were put in harm’s way, people who are dear to me were put in harm’s way.”

“There have to be consequences.”

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