Elmer Stewart Rhodes, the founder and leader of the antigovernment Oath Keepers organization, was, at the time of publication, in federal custody awaiting trial for his alleged role in orchestrating events at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021.
Prosecutors' most recent allegations against Rhodes include that he attempted to contact then-President Donald Trump through an intermediary in the days leading up to the Jan. 6 insurrection. They further alleged that Rhodes, in a conference call with Oath Keepers members in the days following Trump’s election defeat, characterized Trump's opponents as a cabal of pedophiles.
In February, Hatewatch met with and interviewed Rhodes’ adult children: son Dakota Adams, 24, and daughters Sedona Adams, 23, and Sequoia Adams, 19, in Kalispell, Montana. Rhodes and his ex-wife, Tasha Adams, have three other children who are still minors, and are not included in this interview.
The conversation shed important new light on the psychology of the Oath Keepers founder and provided the untold story of the impact of his public activities on his family.
They told Hatewatch about living with Rhodes, his motivations for creating the organization, and the reasons for his alleged participation in the riot on Jan. 6.
To be clear, this story contains detailed allegations of domestic abuse. Those allegations reflect patterns in domestic abuse that researchers have repeatedly demonstrated.
Researchers have shown that it is very difficult to leave an abusive partner, and that the moment at which survivors do leave is often the one of greatest danger. If an abusive partner has access to a gun, it’s five times more likely that they will murder their partner.
Up to 99% of domestic violence victims experience economic abuse during an abusive relationship, and finances are often cited as the biggest barrier to leaving an abusive relationship.
And abusers often use social isolation to cut their victims off from friends, family and community.
According to the account of the Adams children, they and their mother suffered all these forms of abuse while they were living with Stewart Rhodes.
The three began by describing how in 2018, they, along with Rhodes’s ex-wife, Tasha Adams, carried out an extraordinary escape attempt from a home they all describe as violent, abusive and chaotic.
Hatewatch: Can you tell me about the day you tried to leave the house?
Dakota: We told him that we were going to the corner store, and he asked us to get steak. He didn’t think it was weird that I picked up my mom’s dog, or that we got all our stuff in the car and snuck it out past him.
We were going to leave early in the morning before he woke up. But he woke up at 4 in the morning and was in a mania all day.
So we snuck our stuff in an overnight bag past him while he was pacing up and down through the one-room cabin.
Sequoia: We had no idea how delayed the divorce papers were going to be. We thought that they were going to be delivered that day. We thought that if he is here and we are here when they are delivered, he would kill all of us. We felt that we were running for our lives.
Dakota: We had everything planned out.
Sedona: I was worried that whatever animals were left behind, he would slaughter them.
Dakota: My mom’s little dog was the one that was in the most danger, so we took him.
Sequoia: We had to go in two separate cars because there were too many of us. We drove down into Eureka to get the restraining order. When we got to the police station they told us they couldn’t do it and that we should just go back.
Dakota: Just go home and live life like normal until you can figure something out! I think they just didn’t want to deal with a restraining order.
Sequoia: We were gone for five hours and he didn’t notice. Eventually my mom called him and he left. He was worried about getting a restraining order because he wanted to keep his guns. But he asked Sedona for a key after our mom changed the locks because he wanted to get into the house. We were pretty much living in constant fear.
Hatewatch: Before Stewart founded the Oath Keepers, would you say that he was a political person?
Sedona: He was always obsessing over the American Revolution. We were home-schooled, and the only history he ever wanted to teach us was the American Revolution. He would talk about how important history was, but the only history he would ever talk about was the American Revolution. You could tell that he wanted to be George Washington.
Sequoia: Everyone in the Liberty movement that he was a part of is obsessed with this stuff. I remember guys coming over to read books about revolutionary history aloud to us. But Stewart thought he was going to be the new Founding Father.
Hatewatch: To your knowledge, was he involved in the militia movement in the 1990s?
Dakota: I don’t think so, but he would have been sympathetic. He, and we, definitely knew people who had. Growing up, I would meet people at gun shows who had been through Bo Gritz’s SPIKE program. He was definitely involved in weird, niche, gun culture stuff, but he wouldn’t then have had the resources to be any kind of major player back then.
Hatewatch: It seems like you all were forced to have a lot of interactions with people in the antigovernment movement.
Dakota: Oh, yeah, that was our only social circle ever. That was all - that was it. And we had to be on guard when we interacted with any of them. Because any loose talk or violation of operational security could damage our family, so we couldn’t talk about our lives, or let unnecessary information slip out even to people inside the movement.
Hatewatch: How did he come to found the Oath Keepers? Was he just in the right place at the right time?
Sequoia: He was surrounded by people in the Liberty movement at a time when they had failed to get Ron Paul elected and they were really afraid of what Obama would do.
Dakota: There was a lot of energy with nowhere to go.
Sequoia: When Obama took office people wanted some way to restrain him.
Dakota: Before Obama, they were just as afraid of Mitt Romney.
Sequoia: And I think Stewart realized: “Here’s a bunch of people who are already in my grasp, that I can wrap up in a project.”
Dakota: And he already had a schtick.
Sequoia: At the beginning it was nothing like it is now.
Hatewatch: What was it like at the beginning?
Dakota: It was outreach education about constitutional rights. It was opposing the enforcement of illegal orders carried out by the police or military in an emergency, to prevent the creep of emergency powers. It was supposedly bipartisan.
Sequoia: In the beginning it wasn’t even supposed to be political. Obviously they were all libertarians, but the idea was that they would protect everyone. When people called the Oath Keepers a militia, he would correct them.
They weren’t really doing anything wrong for a long time. But then people started donating money occasionally, so he was making money off it, and also he started to travel to make speeches in different places.
But what he wanted was collapse, so he could be the king of the collapse, with his own little army, so it was always going to go the way it did.
Hatewatch: Was he making a lot of money from the organization?
Dakota: He had a lot of expensive stuff coming through the house, but we never saw any money.
Sequoia: He had a hoard of the most expensive survivalist gear available, but yeah, we never saw any money. He spent a lot of money on trips. He’d come home and there would be no food in the house, because my mom was struggling to figure out how to pay the bills, and she would always be selling silver or something like that, and he’d tell us about the fancy restaurants he had been to while he was away.
Dakota: And really expensive stuff would come into the house and it was really unclear what was Oath Keepers property and what was his.
Hatewatch: How was the organization run?
Sequoia: He had a board of directors, an IT guy, a treasury person, who was one of the only people who stayed there the whole time because I always remember him yelling at the same person.
Dakota: And getting yelled at by the same person.
Sequoia: He had a whole team of people working for him.
Dakota: But mostly they would just burn out.
Sedona: There was always an emergency happening, especially around holidays.
Most of the things he did were so he could get exposure. Everything ran on donations. Sometimes [he’d] be on the phone saying, “Oh, well I need money. We need to create an emergency.” And so they’d find something. That’s why they started doing disaster relief.
It had had nothing to do with anything that they were set out to do, but they went into disaster relief because they had nothing else to do. They were like, “Oh, let’s do some kind of a charity thing and make some money.”
Dakota: Anything that they could put up a GoFundMe for – anything that gets a GoFundMe link in front of the mailing list.
Sequoia: People would just not get their paychecks, even though they weren’t getting paid enough to begin with. And then after a while they would realize that he just wasn’t doing anything and drop out. Sometimes whole chapters would close.
People would eventually realize that he was dysfunctional, and the only people who would really stick around were people who were just as dysfunctional.
Dakota: “Yes people,” or those who were in it for the grift.
Sequoia: There were people involved who I liked and who I thought were good people, at least from my point of view, and they never lasted long, because he is just a terrible person to be around.
No matter what he was doing, he was screaming at someone, or cursing, or saying something horribly inappropriate. There’s no way anyone of value would stick around.
Hatewatch: It seems like the Oath Keepers impinged on your lives a lot.
Dakota: It didn’t impinge on our lives – it deformed our lives. Our lives happened in the breathing space left around the Oath Keepers.
Sedona: There was no independence from it whatsoever. According to him it was our brief moment of existence before the world ended.
Sequoia: For my childhood and early middle school years, I did not think I had a future – he told us that the world was going to end.
Hatewatch: Were you able to talk to each other about all of this while it was happening?
Dakota: Sedona tried to talk to me sometimes, but I didn’t want to listen. I was fully wrapped up in the brainwashing to a degree that they were not.
I was completely hung up on Stewart’s approval of me, and whether I was good enough, and my responsibility to see my family through the apocalypse. Then I shifted 180 degrees to plotting against him.
Sequoia: I was definitely brainwashed to the extent that I thought the world was going to end. We were home-schooled in theory, but I had to teach myself how to read and do math. But because the world was going to end, it was hard to even see a reason why I should learn to read. I had no future.
I mean, it’s pretty typical abusive situation in which you’re made to hide everything, but there’s an added layer.
Sedona: And moving constantly was extremely isolating, like changing address all the time.
Hatewatch: Why did you move so much?
Sequoia: He’d lose his job… I don’t know. At one time we moved to Vegas because his mom got cancer, but also because he was losing his job. We were always moving.
Sedona: I remember everyone freaking out about what he was going to do, because at that time he was still a lawyer.
Dakota: Before we went to Vegas he was working for a time for Jim Manly, and I remember them saying that they were going to say publicly that he was leaving to work on his book, but they were just being nice. In reality he was being fired.
Sequoia: Consistently around the time he founded the Oath Keepers [in 2009], we were in Las Vegas. His whole family was there. That’s where his mother lives. It was the longest time we ever spent in one place.
Sedona: In 2011 we came up to Montana, and we bounced around Montana, and we’ve now been 11 years in this part of Montana.
Dakota: He was born in Arizona, but his whole extended family is in Las Vegas. Our mom’s extended family is there, too.
Sequoia: We lived down the road from our grandmother on that side, but I don’t think I saw her more than twice.
Dakota: We would always just get sucked into Grandma Dusty, Stewart’s mother, holding court. When we moved to other places we would often bounce back to Las Vegas as a stopover in between.
Sequoia: It’s a very high-turnover place. People are constantly pulling through, so when Stewart burned everyone around him, he could hop over to a whole new group of people who had never heard of him.
Hatewatch: Was Stewart’s and his siblings’ childhood abusive to your knowledge?
Sequoia: Yes. … Well, I’m not sure how abusive it really was. Because when he was abusive to us, he’d say, “It’s not my fault, I was abused,” so it may have been exaggerated to some extent. It was always his excuse for being terrible, and then he would cry and we were supposed to apologize to him for whatever he had experienced.
Dakota: “You’re lucky, I’m not abusive, I know what abusive people are actually like.”
Sequoia: I know he was definitely hit a lot, and there was emotional abuse – his mom is a narcissist.
Dakota: He was always weirdly enmeshed with his mother. One sister that lived with us was accused of molesting her daughter. And I recall her being fired from a daycare job after allegations that she threw rocks at misbehaving children.
Sedona: He had two sisters that he lived with, but his dad was kind of a deadbeat, so…
Dakota: There is a very large, unknown number of half-siblings. It was a very complicated family situation, and his father was almost totally absent. I only met him a couple of times.
Sequoia: I don’t remember ever meeting him.
Hatewatch: He was involved with Ron Paul as a congressman and presidential candidate. Was he disappointed when Ron Paul failed to become president?
Sequoia: In 2004, he insisted that if Ron Paul lost, we would have to leave the country.
Dakota: And after that he said if Obama won, we’d have to leave the country.
Sequoia: Except I hadn’t even had a birth certificate made when I was born in Virginia, so I certainly couldn’t get a passport or a social security number.
Hatewatch: Why didn’t you have a birth certificate?
Sequoia: We were all home births, and they didn’t have a car at the time, and my Mom wasn’t mobile, and Stewart always said he was too busy with school. But then when he realized he didn’t have to do it, he started talking about it as a good thing.
Dakota: We got praise for that from people in the movement. Sequoia was completely outside the system? They thought that was great! After their divorce he was continuing to hold Sequoia’s birth certificate, and the potential to get her birth certificate straightened out over her as a way to keep up contact.
Sequoia: I knew it wouldn’t happen.
Dakota: It was another manipulation tactic. And he was back and forth to the east coast and Virginia over and over and over again. And he just never did it because he refuses to file any kind of paperwork
Sequoia: And he would like emphasize the importance of me getting my birth certificate so that I could get married or so I could drive a car. And he’d say, “It’s really important that you do this.” And then I’d say, “Okay. So I need you, whenever you go to Virginia, to get it,” because he would travel there all the time. He traveled a lot throughout our childhood.
He’d promise to do it, and then he wouldn’t even call them. He knew what he was doing. He constantly reminded me that I couldn’t do anything about it.
Hatewatch: He’s now awaiting trial for his role in the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021. Was he always a supporter of Trump?
Dakota: At the beginning he was very critical of Trump. He was going to release an open letter to school Trump on the Constitution.
All that changed as he became increasingly afraid that a Democrat president would create political cover for the FBI to arrest and charge him over the Bundy Ranch standoff.
Hatewatch: I recall him being standoffish with regard to the Malheur Occupation.
Dakota: He despised the whole Malheur thing, because it was all about Ammon Bundy trying to be the messiah and trying to fix everything that was wrong in his life by starting a civil war.
It’s hilarious because that is basically what Stewart ended up doing. By January 6th everything was falling apart for him, he was afraid of going to prison, so he decided to double down.
For resources and support in abusive relationships, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
All photos by Athena Photography.