Federal prosecutors have charged 10 members of the far-right Oath Keepers with conspiring to storm the US Capitol on January 6 and allege that militia members prepared for the “operation” by “attending or scheduling trainings to learn paramilitary combat tactics.” Video and images reviewed by Mother Jones show that three of the indicted Oath Keepers attended two “gunfight-oriented training” sessions last fall at the Ares Firearms Training Facility in Leesburg, Florida.
These sessions, held on September 20 and October 25, are notable. In the first, an instructor coached the three militia members and others on how to “drop” adversaries by shooting them in the heart, lungs, or head. The instructor, a Florida resident named Andrew Smrecek, who describes himself as a former Marine Corps rifleman, posted the video and images from this training online with hashtags that include “#stopantifa,” “#stopcommunism,” and “#giveviolenceachance.” Members of the group at the training, including Smrecek, later acted as security guards for Roger Stone at “stop the steal” events where the longtime Trump adviser claimed Donald Trump had been cheated out of an election win in November and urged Americans to fight to keep Trump in office.
In a video from the September 20 session, Smrecek wears a shirt from a company he runs called Combat Art Training with the slogan “Keep Fighting Communism” on the back. He instructs the group of six on how to shoot foes “to stop a threat” and suggests aiming at the collar line in hopes of hitting the heart or lungs to create “massive hemorrhaging” or “a sucking chest wound.” He also tells trainees to “think about…a headshot” at close range and to aim “in between the eyes…[at] the squishy stuff.”
“That’s where the rounds are gonna penetrate the best,” Smrecek says. “That’s where we’re gonna end up hitting the brain stem. And they’ll drop. They’ll just drop.”
During the training, Smrecek says that “anything worth shooting once is worth shooting twice,” and added, “Free Kyle,” a reference to Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenage far-fight cause célèbre who faces homicide charges for shooting three people, killing two, during a protest over police violence in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last August.
Smrecek, who has not been accused of any role in the January 6 attack, did not respond to inquiries. On Facebook, he has described the investigation into the Capitol attack as a “witch hunt” and said Oath Keepers facing charges “were there to SAVE LIVES.”
Benjamin Decker, a researcher who runs a digital investigations consultancy, working with Capitol Terrorists Exposers, a group working to identify perpetrators of the January attack, first found video and images from the combat training session. The group shared the material with Mother Jones.
The material shows that Kelly Meggs, who later claimed to have been named the head of the Oath Keeper’s Florida chapter, and his wife, Connie, as well as Kenneth Harrelson, all of whom were later charged with plotting to storm the Capitol, attended the September 20 training. Prosecutors say that on January 6, the trio were part of a squad of combat fatigue–clad Oath Keepers who formed a tactical formation called a “stack,” a line in which members place their hands on the person in front of them, to push through the crowd outside the Capitol and enter the building. Another man who was at the training also appears to have been among the Oath Keepers who breached the Capitol, according to images published by the New York Times. He has not yet been identified. The training also included the Meggs’ son Zack, who since his parents’ February arrest has been raising money to cover his family’s living expenses. “My parents are good people who love their country and wanted to support their president, Donald Trump, and did nothing wrong,” he wrote in one solicitation.
In court filing on Thursday evening, prosecutors cited the September 20 training to argue that Kelly and Connie Meggs should remain incarcerated before trial. They noted that when Kelly Meggs was interviewed by the FBI after his arrest in February, he “reported that the group of Oath Keepers did not participate in any firearms training.” The video shows that Meggs lied to the agents.
Pictures posted online by Smrecek’s partner, Ashley Cain, and since deleted, show that most of the same people attended another “gunfight training” session at that location on October 25. Mother Jones has not seen video of this session. Cain did not respond to inquiries.
Three days after the September 20 training session, Kelly Meggs, Harrelson, and the attendee who remains unidentified traveled to Louisville, Kentucky, where they were among a contingent of armed Oath Keepers who confronted Black Lives Matter protestors demonstrating over the lack of murder charges against police officers who fatally shot Breonna Taylor in March 2020. Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes, who has called Black Lives Matter a “communist front,” claimed that Oath Keepers were in Louisville to protect local businesses from arson, not to intimidate protestors.
On November 9, in a Facebook comment recently quoted by prosecutors to argue for his continued detention, Kelly Meggs noted the importance of training while urging political allies looking to start “doing shit” rather than just “talking” to contact him. “If your [sic] waiting for it to come to you in your street your [sic] gonna die,” he wrote. “You aren’t trained , you don’t have any experience and you might do some shooting but that’s not combat or riots . This fight is face to face, not far away.”
Connie Meggs and Smrecek were also part of a group that appeared to act as a security detail for Roger Stone at a “stop the steal” rally in the parking lot of a coffee shop called Conservative Grounds in Largo, Florida, on December 14. In a speech delivered from the bed of a pickup truck, Stone called Trump “the last best hope for the salvation of American and Western civilization,” falsely asserted that there was “irrefutable evidence of cyber manipulation of vote in 2020” and urged onlookers to oppose congressional certification of Biden’s election on January 6, declaring, “The fight is not over.” After the event, Stone posed with members of that detail in a replica Oval Office in the shop, according to pictures Smrecek posted. “Got to hang with my students and Roger Stone last night,” he wrote. “Very cool guy.”
Kelly Meggs and the unidentified man from the training session appear in a video from December 12 guarding Stone at a “stop the steal” rally in Miami. And Meggs is pictured in a photo with Stone taken outside Stone’s Fort Lauderdale home and posted to Facebook on December 13, according to the Washington Post. Meggs was also part of a security detail of Oath Keepers around Stone after he spoke outside the Supreme Court on January 5, Mother Jones previously reported.
This indicates an ongoing association between Stone and the Meggs and others at the shooting session, though Stone has downplayed his ties to Oath Keepers who guarded him and were later arrested for their role in the riot. A Stone associate recently told Mother Jones that Stone “was never told the names of any of those on this detail.” (Another connection: Though Stone is banned from Instagram, his wife, Nydia, and Smrecek’s Combat Art Training account follow each other.)
David Wilson, a lawyer representing Kelly and Connie Meggs, said Wednesday that he “has no knowledge of any relationship between them and Roger Stone.” In a request last week for Kelly Meggs’ pretrial release, Wilson said Meggs has never “undergone any paramilitary training,” a claim contradicted by Meggs’ participation in arms training sessions. Wilson declined to comment on that. Stone, who has issued a stream of statements denying any prior knowledge of the January 6 attack and decrying “guilt by association,” did not respond to requests for comment.
In December, Kelly Meggs, Connie Meggs, Harrelson, and the unidentified man they trained with responded to Trump’s call to come to Washington on January 6. In a December 22 Facebook message quoted in his indictment, Kelly Meggs wrote: “Trump said It’s gonna be wild!!!!!!! It’s gonna be wild!!!!!!! He wants us to make it WILD that’s what he’s saying. He called us all to the Capitol and wants us to make it wild!!! Sir Yes Sir!!! Gentlemen we are heading to DC pack your shit!!”
In other messages, Meggs said the group would not carry guns into Washington but would bring “mace and gas masks, some batons” and would have a “QRF” waiting “10 minutes out.” Federal prosecutors say this is a military phrase for a “quick reaction force,” an “armed unit capable of rapidly responding to developing situations.” In messages sent in late December, Meggs claimed to have coordinated with other extremist groups planning to come to Washington for the January 6 rally, saying he had “orchestrated a plan” with the far right Proud Boys to “beat the hell out of” antifa members.
In charging documents, prosecutors note that on December 26, as the Oath Keepers prepared to rally for Trump in DC, another Florida Oath Keeper, a former Navy reservist named Graydon Young, who also did security for Stone in Largo, emailed a “Florida company that provides firearms and combat training” seeking to book training for himself and three other members of the group. This company, unnamed in the charged documents, was likely a separate company from the one where Meggs and others trained. Young, whose email noted he had previously trained at the same facility, in August posted a positive review of an outfit called Defensive Warfighter Strategies in Bradenton, Florida. The company did not respond to questions.
All of the Oath Keepers whom prosecutors have charged, including the Meggs, Harrelson, and Young, have pleaded not guilty, and their lawyers have argued that the government’s conspiracy claims are exaggerated and that their clients are law-abiding. The footage of the Florida Oath Keepers may indeed look like goofy paramilitary cosplay. But after January 6, the Justice Department is taking their training seriously.
*This article has been updated to include prosecutors’ filing Thursday citing the September 20 firearms training that Oath Keepers took part in.