Looking back at the Capitol riot, Tasha Adams ponders her time as an Oath Keeper’s wife and asks: “What if I had not supported him?”
“Him” is her estranged husband, Stewart Rhodes, founder and leader of the Oath Keepers, an anti-government group whose members stand accused by federal authorities of having played a crucial role in the Jan. 6 insurrection. During nearly 23 years of marriage, Adams says she devoted herself to Rhodes’ aspirations. She worked as an exotic dancer to help put him through college, assisted in writing his papers and encouraged him to successfully apply to Yale Law School. When he was looking for direction in life — a cause — Adams helped him start the Oath Keepers.
Over the next few years, Adams became disillusioned by the far-right organization and her marriage. The Oath Keepers, she says, increasingly promoted conspiracy theories while engaging in extremist activities and rhetoric that demonstrated racial and ethnic biases. Meanwhile, her husband became emotionally and physically abusive, she says. In 2018, hoping to put Rhodes and the organization behind her, she left him and filed for divorce.
With congressional committees and federal investigators examining the threat posed by domestic extremists and their contribution to the insurrection, Adams has been conducting an exploration of her own life and culpability in the forming of the Oath Keepers. Her journey provides behind-the-scenes insights into how a Las Vegas car valet transformed into the leader of an organization that sought to overturn a presidential election.
Stewart Rhodes, founder and leader of the far-right Oath Keepers militia group, is charged with seditious conspiracy in the Jan. 6 attack.
“If I hadn’t helped him start it, I mean, there would probably still have been an insurrection,” Adams, 49, says in an interview in this old logging town, not far from where she lives. “But what would it have looked like? That is what I’m trying to figure out.”
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Adams has not been shy about sharing her experiences — tweeting critically about Rhodes and his organization, while launching an online crowdsourcing campaign to fund her divorce. Last month, she spoke at length with investigators for the special House committee examining the Capitol riot.
Dissecting what transpired in any relationship can be a fraught endeavor. This story is based on Adams’ recollections, as well as reviews of court records and interviews with two of her adult children, Dakota Vonn Adams and Sedona Rhodes, who confirmed their mother’s account. More than a dozen current and former officers and board members of the Oath Keepers did not respond to requests for comment.
Rhodes did not respond to repeated phone calls and text messages. The 56-year-old has not been charged in the insurrection. He has said the Oath Keepers were in town to provide security for advisors to then-President Trump and supporters and did not intend to enter the building.
The Justice Department faces challenges in seeking to prosecute Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes because he stayed outside the building.
Adams, who speaks in rapid-fire sentences that frequently end in quips, starts each day by firing up a laptop on her kitchen countertop, scanning for news about the Oath Keepers.
She has read how 18 Oath Keepers have been indicted on conspiracy charges for forcing their way into the Capitol, and she has studied prosecutors’ damning portrait of Rhodes. They allege in court papers that Rhodes urged Oath Keepers to come to Washington to “fight” for Trump.
He was on the Capitol grounds during the insurrection, prosecutors say, and provided live updates to his members storming the building. There’s no indication that he entered the Capitol during the riot. Rhodes described the rioters as “patriots” and later compared the insurrection to the Boston Tea Party, prosecutors say.
Adams met Rhodes when she was an 18-year-old dance instructor at an Arthur Murray studio in Las Vegas, and he was a 25-year-old student.
She was the daughter of strict white Mormon parents who ran a window manufacturing business. Rhodes was an intense and worldly former Army paratrooper who maintained his military physique and parked cars for a living. He told her of growing up in a multi-ethnic Christian family, spending summers picking fruit alongside relatives. Rhodes has described himself as a quarter Mexican and part Native American, invoking that heritage at times to deflect against allegations that the Oath Keepers are sympathetic to racists.
Adams says she was drawn to Rhodes’ life experience because “it was so different from mine.”
They had been dating four months when Rhodes accidentally dropped a .22-caliber handgun and shot himself in the face, blinding himself in the left eye. She says she felt obligated to assist him.
“I was suddenly taking care of a man with a hole in his head,” Adams says.
With Adams contemplating becoming a professional ballroom dancer, the couple struggled to make rent; she says Rhodes began to press her to find a more lucrative trade.
“Every day,” Adams recalls, “he was like, ‘You should be a stripper and make more money.’” She took up exotic dancing, earning $100 a night.
They married in 1994, and she worked at a high-end strip club until she had their first child, Dakota. Each night, Adams says, she helped Rhodes with his assignments at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and nurtured his dreams of becoming a lawyer.
“I wanted a house with a treehouse for Dakota. I thought, man, I struck the jackpot,” she says, describing her emotion upon Rhodes’ acceptance by Yale. “I’m married to a future Yale Law School graduate!”
But Rhodes turned down high-paying internships his first year and took a nonpaying summer gig at a conservative think tank. He was more interested in causes than money, says Adams, adding, “I knew then I was never going to get the treehouse.” She says Rhodes charted a similar course after graduating in 2004, working mostly in smaller practices or as a freelance writer of legal briefs.
Rhodes had always been interested in politics, Adams says, and they both subscribed to libertarianism, a philosophy that promotes free markets and limited government. They fervently supported one of its staunchest adherents, then-Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas).
While volunteering for Paul’s 2008 presidential campaign, Rhodes and Adams met veterans and former police officers who were drawn to the candidate’s libertarian views. That’s when Rhodes decided to form the Oath Keepers, a group focused on recruiting veterans, military personnel and police officers and encouraging them to remain true to the oath they swore to defend the Constitution and to disobey orders they consider illegal.
Adams says she liked the idea and believed in the group’s focus. Its goals aligned with her libertarian views of limited government, and she saw it as a good way for her husband to tap his charisma to earn a living. She says she envisioned Oath Keepers as “a cigar club of like-minded libertarians.”
“I thought it was something he could do well,” she says. “What a great name, right? I thought, wow, we are going to sell a lot of T-shirts and motorcycle jackets.”
By the time Rhodes launched the Oath Keepers in March 2009 — two months after President Obama took office — Adams says she realized the group was not going to be a cigar club, nor a “libertarian version of the ACLU.”
In a blog post that month, Rhodes wrote that his group’s principal mission was to “prevent the destruction of American liberty by preventing a full-blown totalitarian dictatorship from coming to power. Our Motto is ‘Not on our watch!’”
Adams says she accepted Rhodes’ vision for the Oath Keepers because he seemed to mostly be pushing the boundaries of free speech and advocating for limited government.
For its first couple of years, the Oath Keepers operated on a tight budget. Adams says she handled its mailing lists and ran its website, keeping it updated with links to events, missives from Rhodes and links to news stories about the group.
According to pages captured by the Internet Archive, much of the site was dedicated to testimonials from members, many current and former military personnel, who expressed enthusiasm about joining the organization and its mission. “I find no higher calling than to join forces with the Oath Keepers, and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with my fellow Americans in our own defense,” wrote a member who identified himself as an Air Force officer in June 2009.
In November 2009, a person who identified himself as an Army veteran posted: “It’s time to stand up for liberty and truth above all else. To Reclaim the Republic for the people, by the people, of the people from the hands of tyranny.” The poster added he was particularly concerned about “puppet politicians, the Central Banking gangsters, the U.N. ...”
With the rise of the tea party movement, the organization grew rapidly. At its height in 2015, the Oath Keepers had about 35,000 members, Adams says. Anti-hate groups have pegged its top membership at no more than 5,000.
Adams says she stepped away from the group in 2010 or 2011 and focused on raising her children. She and Rhodes would eventually have six. In her spare time, Adams blogged a bit, describing herself as a “homeschooling, breastfeeding, homebirthing, libertarian, freedom fighting, gun-toting really cool mom.”
On the blog, she described her husband as being “cute and sexy” and extolled his rise from being a down-on-his-luck car valet to leader of the Oath Keepers.
Adams cringes when she reads such posts. “I was creating the world I wanted it to be,” she says, “not the one it was.”
In 2013, Rhodes announced that the Oath Keepers would create teams, prepared with military-style training, to respond to the implosion of society. Until that point, such training had been prohibited, Adams says, because Rhodes didn’t want “his group to be considered a militia.”
“There is a stigma attached to militias,” she says. “And he wanted to avoid that.”
Suddenly, she says, “Oath Keepers were running around playing army.”
The Oath Keepers in 2014 and 2015 assisted ranchers and miners in Nevada and Oregon in armed disputes with federal authorities. Rhodes also deployed Oath Keepers in 2014 to Ferguson, Mo., to patrol and protect businesses during protests unleashed by the shooting of a Black 18-year-old, Michael Brown, by a white police officer.
Rhodes was criticized by anti-hate groups for that action, and he was chastised by a local Oath Keepers leader for engaging in a racial double standard by failing to assist Black residents accusing law enforcement of abuses. Adams says she raised similar concerns with Rhodes, particularly after the Oath Keepers had defended white ranchers and miners.
Members of the Oath Keepers have generally avoided the kind of inflammatory rhetoric utilized by white supremacists. The group’s bylaws prohibit anyone from joining “who advocates, or has been or is a member, or associated with, any organization, formal or informal, that advocates discrimination, violence, or hatred toward any person based upon their race, nationality, creed, or color.”
But experts say such circumspection belies how the Oath Keepers’ actions, and statements by members, have assisted in the spread of racist language and hate.
“Members of Oath Keepers think of themselves as rejecting racism, yet they and allied groups have served as de facto security for neo-Confederate and alt-right groups,” Sam Jackson, a professor at the University at Albany-SUNY wrote in his eponymous book about the Oath Keepers. “In other words, like most of the contemporary patriot/militia movement, the [Oath Keepers] is not organized around a perceived racial identity, but neither is it as free of racism and bigotry as it likes to claim.”
Jackson noted that Rhodes has wielded his Mexican heritage to push back on claims that he or the Oath Keepers are in league with racists, even as his group has disseminated videos that display bigotry toward undocumented migrants and Mexicans. Rhodes has compared Latino and Black Lives Matter activists to jihadist terrorists and “well funded Marxist and racist agitators.” He has said that illegal immigration was an “invasion” and described as “dirtbags” the mostly Black NFL players who protested racial injustice by kneeling during the national anthem.
Adams says she once believed that anti-hate groups were exaggerating the dangers the Oath Keepers posed because Rhodes convinced her the criticism was unfounded and a ploy to raise money.
After Ferguson and the armed standoffs, however, Adams says her views changed. While Rhodes and leaders did not tolerate discriminatory language — “I never heard him say anything like the N-word,” she says, “and he would get rid of anyone who did” — the estranged wife believes her husband and other Oath Keepers nevertheless exhibited racial and ethnic biases in several, frequently subtle ways. She cited their refusal to back Black residents protesting police abuse in Ferguson, their harsh rhetoric about immigrants and their vision for America. “They described America as if they were looking out at a crowd at a baseball game,” she says, “and seeing a sea of white faces with rosy cheeks.”
She adds that the Anti-Defamation League is correct in describing the Oath Keepers as a “large right-wing anti-government extremist group.” And the Southern Poverty Law Center is accurate, she says, in claiming the Oath Keepers “is based on a set of baseless conspiracy theories about the federal government working to destroy Americans’ liberties.”
Among the conspiracy theories that Rhodes advocated on the Oath Keepers’ website and in frequent appearances on conservative TV and radio shows: A U.S. military exercise in 2015 might be a prelude to a coup, baseless claims about voter fraud in the 2016 election and a “deep state” takeover of the U.S. government. Later, after the 2020 election, he fully embraced and promoted unfounded conspiracies that the election had been stolen and supported Trump’s efforts to stay in office.
Adams says she tried to temper Rhodes’ conspiratorial rhetoric because it “didn’t serve any purpose except make him look crazy.”
By 2016, Adams says, Rhodes had become an ardent supporter of Trump, putting aside early doubts: “Stewart thought Trump was too pro-government and pro-spending.” Adams added that her estranged husband’s attraction to the former president is obvious in hindsight: “They are very similar in that they both push conspiracy theories. It’s like watching a demagogue be attracted to a demagogue.”
It was not possible to independently verify Adams’ descriptions of her role in the Oath Keepers. Jackson, the author and professor, says she did not come up in his research of the group. “I would be surprised if they were coequals,” the professor says, referring to Adams and her husband. He declined to speculate further on Adams’ role in the organization, saying he did not delve into Oath Keepers’ private lives because they could be difficult to untangle.
Living in remote areas of Montana, Adams says she had no friends, and her life revolved around keeping her husband happy and raising and schooling her children.
Those who know Adams say they rarely saw her outside the presence of Rhodes. Marcy Kuntz, Adams’ midwife for three births starting in 2006, recalls that Adams didn’t speak much about herself, except to apologize for failing to pay bills on time. She was always accompanied on appointments by her husband.
Kuntz delivered the babies at Adams’ homes, which were generally located deep in the Montana woods. “The house was busy, with all the kids,” Kuntz says, “and I got the sense that her and her children’s world was in that house. They didn’t get out much.”
“She seemed like a very private person,” adds Kuntz, who has spoken to Adams a few times in the years since she separated from Rhodes. “You could tell she supported what Stewart did as his wife, as a wife supports a husband. ...
“In retrospect, it is clear he was very controlling. She kept it all to herself for so long.”
Adams and two of her adult children say that by 2015 — a year after her sixth child was born — they were becoming increasingly disenchanted with Rhodes as a husband and father. He was gone for long stretches, leaving her to raise their children in an isolated part of Montana, said Adams, Dakota and Sedona.
When Rhodes was home, he belittled and berated his wife and kids, kept tabs on their whereabouts and engaged in physical abuse, according to Adams and the two children, as well as allegations included in court records filed by Adams.
In a 2018 application for a restraining order, Adams alleged Rhodes grabbed their then 13-year-old daughter by the throat. Whenever he is “unhappy with my behavior (say I want to leave the house he doesn’t like me to leave), he will draw his handgun (which he always wears), rack the slide, wave it around, and then point it at his own head,” she wrote in the application, which was denied by a judge. It is not clear why the judge declined to grant the order.
According to Dakota and Sedona, their father didn’t just promote conspiracy theories — he brought them home. One night the power and phones went out, Dakota says, and his father became convinced the FBI had cut the lines, presaging a raid.
“It took us 45 minutes to pack the vehicles,” says Dakota, 24. “If the FBI was really coming, would they have given us that much time? We drove off and about an hour later, he was like, ‘I guess they aren’t coming.’ So we turned around and went home to bed.”
Sedona, 22, says her father once ordered the children to dig a tunnel so the family might escape if authorities raided the house. “It had a plywood roof, and he had the little kids go through it to get used to it,” Sedona says.
Adams and her children say it took years of enduring such behavior for her to see the truth.
“Your reality gets warped. He controlled our reality,” says Dakota, who succeeded on Nov. 8 in legally changing his name from Dakota Stewart Rhodes because he disdains his father.
His mother was also concerned that Rhodes could use his legal expertise and connections to keep the children. She says she put those fears aside in 2018 and filed for divorce. Rhodes moved out of the house, and appears to live out of state. The divorce case, which was filed under seal, remains unresolved, in part, because Adams says she is in debt to her lawyers.
Earning a living selling used clothes on the internet, Adams has been pecking away at a memoir and says she has been thinking about getting a college degree in extremist studies. Her goal, she says, is to teach about the dangers posed by extremist groups and their leaders.
Among the questions she thinks she can answer for students: How has Rhodes managed to avoid arrest while other Oath Keepers were indicted in the riot on conspiracy charges? In dissecting her life as an Oath Keeper’s wife and following coverage of the federal prosecutions, Adams says she has a theory: “He is very good at getting others to take the risks.”
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