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Stewart Rhodes’ son: ‘How I escaped my father’s militia’

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    21 hours ago

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The son of militia leader Stewart Rhodes spent years plotting to help his family escape from his father’s control. Now that the elder Rhodes faces decades in prison, the rest of the family is rebuilding their lives.

The time had come. It was a dreary February day in 2018. Dakota had it all planned out.

His mother and five younger siblings were in the truck – some of them crouched out of sight on the floor.

They’d bundled into it as much as they could and made up an excuse – ostensibly they were heading to the trash dump just off the main highway, slick with black ice and crusted snow.

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But just as they started to pull away, Dakota’s father burst out the door of their remote cabin in the mountains of northwest Montana.

Dakota and his mother Tasha stiffened. The leader of the Oath Keepers militia had dominated their lives until that moment. Tasha and Stewart had been married for nearly 25 years, and she was familiar with his manic periods. He’d been up all night on a tear – working out, listening to music, practising Filipino stick fighting, pacing the floor.

It was a pattern of manic activity, Dakota said, that was familiar throughout years of emotional abuse and heightened paranoia.

Would he now stop them from fleeing? Had he noticed his favourite gun was missing? Would he question why John-Boy, the family dog, was along for the ride to the dump? Dakota gripped the wheel while Tasha looked down at her daughters, hidden under the windows, their eyes opened wide.

“Hey,” Rhodes growled. “Pick up some steak on your way back.”

Dakota and Tasha murmured assent, and drove off towards the highway without a backwards glance.

Militiaman’s son

Stewart Rhodes

Image source, Getty Images

With his beard and eye patch, Stewart Rhodes is one of the most recognisable faces of America’s anti-government militia movement.

Since September, Rhodes and four members of the Oath Keepers, a militia group he founded in 2009, have been on trial in Washington for their roles in the 6 January Capitol riot. They were charged with seditious conspiracy – in this case, attempting to stop the certification of the 2020 election and the inauguration of Joe Biden – a crime that carries a maximum sentence 20 years in prison.

On the other side of the country, Dakota and Tasha, were closely watching the trial.

Dakota grew up “absolutely believing” in his father’s view of the world – what he described as a “vision of a shadowy, malicious communist conspiracy seeking to institute a New World Order… aiming to seize total power and institute a one world government that would intentionally sow chaos”.

It took until his teenage years for his faith in the coming government-backed apocalypse to be shaken, and until his early adulthood to finally escape.

Early memories

Things were not always that bleak.

Dakota Adams – he and his mother now use her maiden name – spent much of his earliest years not in the backwoods of Montana, but in the middle of America’s east coast power centres.

His parents had met and married in the 1990s, and he was their eldest child.

Dakota lived his first years in the suburbs of Washington, DC where Rhodes was once an aide for libertarian congressman Ron Paul. When Dakota was about four or five years old, the family moved to Connecticut after Rhodes was accepted to Yale Law School.

Dakota recalled living on Chapel Street in New Haven and “having a set of neighbours that was so diverse that my street looked like the set of Sesame Street”.

“I thought that that was just how the entire world was,” he said.

Stewart Rhodes with son Dakota

He remembers the local pizza place and bagel shop, and playing with the children of graduate students from all around the country and the world, speaking the common language of Star Wars fandom.

“That was the one time I had a fairly normal childhood,” he said. “It was the one time I had real friends and real social interaction.”

Yet even then, according to Tasha, Rhodes displayed strange bouts of paranoia – the seeds of doubt that would later fuel his anti-government mission.

When they met, Rhodes was not particularly political, Tasha said, but was always devising strategies to avoid imagined enemies.

For example, for something as mundane as when he was checking the oil in his car, he would make Tasha stand guard “to make sure that no-one slammed the hood on his head,” she said.

Dakota also recalled some dark memories. He remembered when he was around four years old waking his father up from a nap, only to have Rhodes jump up and pull out a folding knife.

“He would jokingly play it off as some kind of ultra manly animalistic caveman brain being activated before he was fully awake,” Dakota said. “I’ve never heard of anything like that before or since.”

Birth of the Oath Keepers

After graduating from Yale in 2004, Rhodes moved his family to various states in the American West while he worked as a lawyer. Over the course of these moves, his paranoia and anti-government sensibilities hardened.

The couple had five more children as the family ping-ponged across Arizona, Nevada and Montana. None attended a formal school. Some did not even have birth certificates.

In April 2009, the family was living in Nevada when Rhodes founded the Oath Keepers.

According to Tasha, the group was born of an all-night writing session during one of Rhodes’s manic spells.

Tasha remembered trying to soothe one of her children as her husband blasted heavy metal music, and kept her from leaving the room.

He bashed out a foundational manifesto: “Declaration of Orders We Will Not Obey.”

“I’m trying to get this poor baby to sleep, and he kept saying, ‘Wait, wait till you see what I wrote,'” Tasha recalled.

Dakota with mother Tasha

The militia movement has long been a feature on the fringes of American life.

Militia members have a range of views but are generally concerned with the power of the US federal government, clampdowns on individual freedom and gun ownership – concerns that sometimes tip over into outright paranoia. In 2021, there were 92 militia groups active across 30 different states according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a non-profit that tracks extremist groups.

Rhodes – who once served as an Army paratrooper – founded Oath Keepers with the goal of recruiting military veterans, police officers and other first responders, as he imagined calling up legions of trained people who could fight against government tyranny.

His founding document began with a quote from George Washington and included some of the greatest hits of the militia world.

“We will NOT obey any order to disarm the American people,” Rhodes wrote.

There were warnings against blockades of American cities, detention camps and “the absurdly totalitarian claimed powers” of the president.

The document went viral in militia circles and would eventually push Rhodes into a series of conflicts with law enforcement.

But his wife didn’t stand in his way.

“He kept saying the reason why he loses his temper, the reason why he’s violent is because he hadn’t found his path in life,” Tasha said. “So part of me thought, well, maybe this will help fix whatever it is that’s wrong with him.”

Stewart Rhodes in woods

Image source, Rhodes family

At first, Rhodes did appear to find his calling.

In April 2009, Oath Keepers launched with an event in Lexington, Massachusetts, the site of the first battle of the American Revolutionary War.

Rhodes began travelling around the country to drum up support. He appeared on conservative YouTube channels, the Alex Jones radio show, and even popped up on mainstream TV networks.

His family became an integral part of the militia project.

Family life became Oath Keepers life. Tasha would welcome members into their home; Dakota would answer militia emails and, when he was older, drive his father to and from Oath Keepers events.

But during long stretches when Rhodes was on the road, the rest of his family felt like life was closing in on them.

“We were so insular and isolated that the date and time and what day of the week it was, or what year it was, had very little bearing on our internal lives,” Dakota said.

Today, Dakota lives in a one-room apartment down a country road outside a small Montana town, not far from the family home he escaped.

Now 25, he wears his dark blond hair to his shoulders – a contrast to the mostly close-cropped haircuts of his childhood photos. He has a considered, precise way of speaking that occasionally tips over with emotion when talking intensely about his family.

He wants to tell his story accurately, so much so that he apologises when he struggles to recall exact dates amid the clear threads of his otherwise sharp memory.

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Reflecting on his childhood now, he said he realised that the family had become “accessories to the Stewart Rhodes brand”.

His father had “made his family the centre point of this cult of personality that he wanted to build for himself,” Dakota said. “And this reality that he wanted to spin into existence, in which he would be a major saviour figure in American history.”

As Rhodes’s eldest son, he said he felt a tremendous pressure to maintain the family facade. He was expected to take up stereotypically manly pursuits that could serve militia purposes. They included a grab bag of survivalist skills, shooting practice, martial arts training and home-school history lessons that focused mostly on the American Revolution and the battle of Thermopylae.

Like many sons, Dakota longed for his father’s approval, which was slow in coming.

“From early childhood on, there was a sort of a layer of adoration towards my father that slowly eroded away over the years,” he said. “I saw myself as nothing but an enormous failure to my family that could never live up to Stewart’s standards.”

Uncomfortable memories

Kalispell, Montana, is a small but growing city that serves as a gateway to nearby Glacier National Park.

Standing outside one of the family’s previous homes, a modest dun-coloured house opposite a row of trailers, it’s clear the place brought up uncomfortable memories for Dakota, who had spent his early teenage years there.

Dakota and Montana scenery

He recounted one incident in particular, sometime around 2012. A beloved pet dog named Yeti was in ill health and eventually died inside the house.

“Stewart was busy with [Oath Keepers] conference calls and emailing people and he put off taking my dog to be cremated,” he said.

It took three days for Rhodes to finally take the dog away. He joked about the smell of the carcass and teased his teenage son about his emotional attachment to the animal.

Dakota was furious.

“I was struggling with the impulse to jump out and circle around to the driver’s side door and yank my father out of the car to beat him in traffic,” he said.

Throughout hours of interviews, in tweets and in posts on their blogs, Dakota and Tasha recounted numerous similar incidents of verbal abuse and neglect. A few stood out – like the time Dakota described Stewart choking one of his sisters on the family’s front porch.

“Until I was an adult man,” he said, “I lived absolutely under the thumb of an emotional terrorist.”

Through his legal team, Rhodes declined to comment for this story.

Heading to the mountains

The small city of Kalispell was not remote enough for Rhodes.

In the early 2010s, the family moved to a cabin hours to the north, in a small community in the mountains populated by like-minded militia members, preppers, and other people who usually prefer to be left alone.

As a young man, Dakota spent one summer digging escape tunnels on the property, preparing for what his father believed was an inevitable government assault on the family compound.

Out in the countryside, miles from the connections he’d made in town, Dakota’s favoured hobbies – martial arts and the Boy Scouts – fell by the wayside.

Isolated and struggling, he slunk into a depressive state. He spent more and more time online, on extreme websites and forums such as 4chan, and described himself at the time as a “neckbeard” – a slang term meaning, to put it politely, a basement-dwelling computer nerd who neglects personal grooming.

Rhodes in Missouri

Image source, Getty Images

Throughout that time, spurred on by Rhodes, Oath Keepers were expanding their reach.

Armed members patrolled Ferguson, Missouri, in 2015, on the one-year anniversary of protests after teenager Michael Brown was shot dead by a police officer. In the mid-2010s they were at the scene of standoffs between anti-government activists and law enforcement at the Bundy Ranch in Nevada and the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon.

But even as the militia grew, Rhodes’s family struggled for money. The militia charged annual membership fees of $30, which later increased to $50, according to evidence in the criminal trial. Funds were supplemented by donations.

While a membership list leaked last year included 38,000 names, including some elected politicians and law enforcement officials, how many paid dues or for what length is unclear. Several people on the list who the BBC spoke to never paid anything. Rhodes has not filed tax returns since he founded Oath Keepers, according to evidence presented at his trial.

The money that did come in was poorly managed by Rhodes, his family said. Expenses – survival gear, ammunition and travel costs – racked up. While Rhodes would regale the family with stories of fancy meals on the road and militia training sessions, his wife and children frequently subsisted on bags of oatmeal and slices of dried fruit.

Amid all this, in Dakota’s mind, his nagging doubts about the movement led by his father crystallised further.

“I started to see Stewart for who he really was, and I didn’t believe in the end anymore. I didn’t believe in the apocalypse,” he said.

Time and again, his father’s predictions of imminent social collapse and sweeping government crackdowns had failed to come true. That told him something. The end was not nigh.

“That meant that there was potentially something of my own future that I could still salvage,” he said. “And it meant that I had to get my family away from Stewart.”

Fighting fires

But how?

Dakota had no money, no formal education and a very small social circle. He took some steps in the right direction – he learned how to drive, and worked to pass his GED – the equivalent of a high school diploma. But the real transformation came after a random encounter at a petrol station while driving his father back from an Oath Keepers meeting.

Petrol station

A clerk there told him about the local volunteer fire department.

Dakota agreed to come along to the next meeting. It turned into the break that he needed.

Joining the fire department exposed Dakota to a new set of values that initially seemed to mirror what he heard at home: lessons about civic responsibility and preparedness. But at the fire station, people weren’t talking about ancient battles, stockpiling guns and food, and raging against the government. They were getting out and helping people.

The experience expanded his social connections and led to paid jobs miles away from home, fighting wildfires as far away as California. His controlling father allowed him to leave home to fight fires, he said, because it fit the macho ideals he had for his eldest son.

Dakota in firefighter gear

Over all that time, he felt increasingly ready to leave, and as he moved into his 20s, Dakota realised that his siblings had been longing to escape even longer than he had.

“I was the last child to maintain any kind of loyalty or belief in Stewart’s narrative,” he said.

An initial plan developed. One after the other, the older children would move out of the family home, and help the remaining siblings escape.

“We were effectively going to daisy chain each other away,” Dakota said.

A few late night conversations with his mother made him realise Tasha also wanted to leave.

Then came a lightning bolt.

The escape

The Gibralter Ridge Fire devastated thousands of acres in the nearby Kootenai National Forest. It began with a lightning strike in August 2017, and Dakota was one of the firefighters enlisted to fight the blaze.

He spent the summer and early fall battling the flames. It earned him enough money to buy his own truck, the first vehicle the family had that wasn’t in his father’s name.

“We were able to leave the house independently, instead of Stewart maintaining his strict control over our transportation,” he said.

They had strategised for two years but their hand was forced, Dakota said, by the family’s perilous financial situation. Being evicted from their woodland home was becoming an increasingly likely prospect.

“We were going to have to go through the worst case scenario of not having enough money to live and being homeless, with Stewart still in tow, if we did not pull the trigger,” he said.

Tasha filed legal papers for divorce. The night before they escaped, on that grim day in February 2018, Rhodes and Tasha went for a drink at the bar at the nearby crossroads. The bartender kept looking her way, she recalled, because she kept crying.

“Stewart never noticed,” she said. The family fled the next day.

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Years in prison

It hasn’t been easy. The family still lives in Montana. Tasha, Dakota, and his siblings have had to adjust to life outside of the militia movement, getting embedded in the more normal routines of work, school and community life.

Dakota found a house for rent, and later his own small space. In between several jobs and firefighting, he supports his family in a way, he says, that Rhodes never did.

Nowadays, he is studying subjects both new (art) and familiar (American politics) at a local community college.

Tasha still has not been granted a divorce, more than four and a half years after applying for one.

And still the ghosts of Stewart Rhodes and the Oath Keepers continue to linger.

Stewart Rhodes with inset of Donald Trump

Like many other political movements in America, the militia world was transformed by Donald Trump’s first run for president in 2015. Rhodes and his Oath Keepers turned from staunch government opponents into imagined protectors of the Trump movement.

And after the 2020 election, the Oath Keepers geared up for conflict, stockpiling weapons and amping up the rhetoric, according to testimony presented in court.

When Dakota and Tasha tuned into news coverage on 6 Jan 2021, they didn’t need to see Rhodes’s face to know that he was there.

The giveaway was the “stack” – a formation of Oath Keepers in a line, their hands on the shoulders of the militia members in front of them, barging their way inside the Capitol.

Dakota had witnessed his father turn from a Trump sceptic into a full-throated supporter after the 2016 election.

In the lead up to the 2020 election, Rhodes envisioned his militia as a last line of defence protecting the Trump movement. In court he testified that he was waiting for Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act, a 200-year-old law which allows the president to call on armed forces and the National Guard to keep order.

In Rhodes’ reading of that scenario, Oath Keepers would become almost a private Trump army.

“I knew that Stewart was really hitching his wagon to Trump and was going to have to bet it all on Trump retaining power, whether he won the election or not,” Dakota said.

But now, Rhodes and one of his co-defendants, Kelly Meggs, face up to 20 years in prison after being found guilty of the most serious charges to date stemming from the Capitol riot. Three other Oath Keepers were found not guilty of the seditious conspiracy charge but were convicted on lesser charges, including obstruction of an official proceeding.

Dakota portrait

Years after escaping his father’s home, Dakota’s anger is still palpable. So is his relief.

“I’m going to be able to breathe a little bit easier,” he said.

His political path has diverged from his father’s. Prior to the midterm elections he volunteered for local Democratic Party politicians.

And in 2020, Dakota was back in Kalispell, joining more than 1,000 protesters in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Armed militia members were there too. One of them got in Dakota’s face- covered at the time due to Covid restrictions. When he lowered the bandana around his mouth, the man was stunned.

“He very quickly realised that I was Stewart’s son and was completely shocked to see me on the other side of the protest line.”

His apartment today has pictures of wildlife scenes on the walls and a microwave and hotplate in the corner.

His dog Mocha looked on as he pulled out his body armour and rifles.

Dakota admitted that he was out of practice when it comes to shooting and only dons his body armour when reporters ask to see it. He prefers to spend his down time studying, drawing, and writing. He has a blog and recounted his own journey in a long essay for the progressive website Raw Story.

These days the rifles don’t get much use. They bring back unpleasant memories of Rhodes and Oath Keepers training events. Still, Dakota holds on to his guns – just in case.

“I have no confidence in the United States resisting a growing fascist movement,” he said.

After their escape, the Rhodes children had occasional meetings with their father. But those gradually went by the wayside. Since the start of the Covid pandemic, he’s had sporadic text messages from his father, Dakota said.

He hasn’t replied to a single one.

Additional reporting and video by Chelsea Bailey and Eloise Alanna.

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