By MICHAEL KUNZELMAN and ALANNA DURKIN RICHER
WASHINGTON (AP) — A member of the far-right Oath Keepers extremist group who was part of a security detail for former President Donald Trump’s longtime adviser Roger Stone before storming the U.S. Capitol was sentenced on Thursday to more than four years in prison.
Roberto Minuta, who was seen on video guarding Stone hours before the riot on Jan. 6, 2021, was among six Oath Keeper members convicted by jurors of seditious conspiracy for what prosecutors said was a violent plot to stop the transfer of power from Trump to President Joe Biden after the 2020 election.
Also on Thursday, an Arizona man was sentenced to three years behind bars followed by one year of home confinement for his role in the same plot. Edward Vallejo, a U.S. Army veteran from Phoenix, oversaw a “Quick Reaction Force” at a Virginia hotel that was prepared to deploy an arsenal of weapons into Washington if needed, authorities say.
Vallejo and Minuta were both convicted in January of seditious conspiracy, the most serious charge the Justice Department has brought in the Jan. 6 attack.
Two other Oath Keepers, including founder Stewart Rhodes, were sentenced last week after being convicted of the rarely used charge. Rhodes was ordered to serve 18 years behind bars — the longest sentence that has been handed down so far in hundreds of Capitol riot cases. Kelly Meggs, who led the group’s Florida chapter, was sentenced to 12 years.
U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta agreed with the Justice Department that Rhodes and the other Oath Keepers’ actions could be punished as “terrorism,” increasing the recommended sentence under federal guidelines. But the judge has consistently issued sentences shorter than those prosecutors have sought for Oath Keeper members.
Mehta told Vallejo that he can’t conspire to “undo” the results of an election just because he and his cohorts believed the process failed them.
“It can’t be that dozens of judges got it wrong,” he said, referring to the judges who rejected legal challenges after the 2020 election brought by Trump and his Republican allies. “If you believe in the system, if you believe in democracy, you take the good with the bad.”
The Justice Department had sought 17 years in prison for both Minuta and Vallejo.
Minuta told the judge he is ashamed of his actions and was “repulsed” by the lack of remorse Rhodes showed at his own sentencing.
“My emotions got the best of me, and I’m deeply apologetic, your honor,” he told Mehta. “I was misled and naïve.”
Before handing down the sentence of four years and six months, the judge told Minuta that the law doesn’t permit anybody to “gather up arms to battle your government.”
“This is not about politics. This is not about your beliefs. It’s about your conduct,” Mehta said.
Minuta, who owned a New York tattoo shop, was in communication on Jan. 6 with Rhodes, who described Minuta in a message as one of his “most trusted men,” according to federal prosecutors. Minuta purchased 5,500 rounds of ammunition as Jan. 6 approached, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors said he hasn’t shown true remorse, noting that Minuta took to social media after his arrest to slam the investigation as politically motivated and referred to Jan. 6 defendants as “POLITICAL PRISONERS.” A fundraiser page that was linked to his Twitter page said the government “has been weaponized to destroy dissidents.”
“That’s his worldview,” Justice Department prosecutor Troy Edwards said. “Mr. Minuta is a danger to himself and to his republic because of his worldview.”
Lawyers for the Oath Keepers say there was never any plot to storm the Capitol or stop the transfer of power.
Minuta’s attorney, William Shipley, said his client came to Washington to serve in the Oath Keepers’ personal security detail for Stone and “had no intention or plan to engage in any other activity.”
Shipley said Minuta’s fears of government “tyranny” were not sparked by the baseless claims that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, but grew out of his tattoo shop being shut down by lockdown measures during the coronavirus pandemic. Shipley said Minuta’s actions on Jan. 6 were “regrettable” and “idiotic.”
“But worthy of a multiyear prison sentence? I don’t think so,” he added.
Minuta was among several people in Oath Keepers gear seen flanking Stone on Jan. 5 and Jan. 6.
Stone, an informal Trump adviser, has denied having any knowledge of or involvement in anything illegal on Jan. 6.
Vallejo told the judge his life has been destroyed and he regrets ever associating himself with Rhodes.
“I assure you that I’m not a traitor or a terrorist,” he said, fighting back tears. “I’ve learned my lesson and keeping my big mouth shut.”
Justice Department prosecutor Louis Manzo said Vallejo, as a “Quick Reaction Force” leader, managed one of the most important components of the Oath Keepers’ conspiracy: the cache of firearms stashed at the Virginia hotel. The weapons were never deployed.
On a podcast recorded early Jan. 6, Vallejo warned of a “guerrilla war” if Congress went ahead with the certification of Biden’s electoral victory. A day after the riot, Vallejo traveled into Washington to “conduct surveillance” and “probe the defense line” of police and National Guard troopers protecting the Capitol, according to prosecutors.
Defense attorney Matthew Peed said Vallejo was a relatively minor figure in the case. Vallejo brought a stockpile of food with him to Washington because he thought there would be an “ongoing protest,” not a war, the defense lawyer said.
“He thought there was going to be a movement,” Peed said.
Last Friday, the judge handed down punishments for two other Oath Keepers who were acquitted of seditious conspiracy but convicted of other serious charges. Mehta sentenced Jessica Watkins, of Woodstock, Ohio, to eight years and six months behind bars and sentenced Kenneth Harrelson, of Titusville, Florida, to four years in prison.
Two more Oath Keeper sentencings are scheduled for Friday.
The Oath Keepers sentencings come weeks after leaders of another far-right group — the Proud Boys — were also convicted in the Jan. 6 attack. Former Proud Boys national chairman Enrique Tarrio and three other group leaders were found guilty in May of seditious conspiracy for what prosecutors said was a separate plot to keep Trump in the White House. They’re scheduled to be sentenced in August.
Richer reported from Boston.