Alleged ‘Oath Keepers’ leader among self-described militia members jailed on charges from Capitol riot

Alleged ‘Oath Keepers’ leader among self-described militia members jailed on charges from Capitol riot
Supporters of President Donald Trump climb the west wall of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. (Source: AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

CINCINNATI (AP) — Federal authorities presented new details on Tuesday about three self-described members of a paramilitary group who are the first to be charged with plotting the attack on the U.S. Capitol.

The FBI said a Virginia man, Thomas Edward Caldwell, appeared to be a leader of the effort. Caldwell and a man and woman from Ohio were all charged with conspiracy and other federal counts, the first of more than 125 people arrested in connection with the Jan. 6 assault to be charged with conspiracy.

The chilling details in the case included communications between the defendants and others.

“All members are in the tunnels under the capital,” the FBI quoted a message sent to Caldwell during the Capitol attack. “Seal them in turn on gas.”

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Other messages referred to the legislators as “traitors” and called for “night hunting.”

The FBI collected social media messages, photos and video to identify them as part of the Oath Keepers, which believes in a “shadowy conspiracy” to strip Americans of their rights.

Messages included in FBI charging documents had quotes with the three suspects exulting over breaching the Capitol, and Caldwell telling an Oath Keepers leader he was ready to attack Ohio’s capital of Columbus.

“We need to do this at the local level,” he allegedly messaged. “Lets (sic) storm the capitol in Ohio. Tell me when!”

Details of the documents made public offer some insight to planning and coordination behind the extraordinary attack, which apparently took law enforcement by surprise despite various warnings online.

The Oath Keepers group often recruits current and former military, police or other first responders. Records show that Donovan Crowl, 50, served in the U.S. Marines. He was arrested along with Jessica Watkins, 38. Both are Champaign County, Ohio, residents. It wasn’t clear immediately whether either Caldwell or Watkins has military or law enforcement experience.

The FBI said some Oath Keepers members were wearing helmets, protective vests and items with the group’s name and motto: “Not On Our Watch.” The FBI also said that they seemed to “move in an organized and practiced fashion and force their way to the front of the crowd gathered around a door to the U.S. Capitol.”

An affidavit filed against Caldwell states that he was involved in the planning and coordinating of the Capitol breach with Watkins and Crowl. Watkins, who allegedly called herself the commanding officer, and Crowl allegedly belong to the Ohio State Regular Militia, dues-paying members of the Oath Keepers. In one social media post, the FBI said, Watkins pictured Crowl and called him “one of my guys.”

Charging documents show messages between Caldwell and the others about arranging hotel rooms in the Washington area in the days before the siege. In one Facebook message from Crowl to Caldwell, Crowl states: “Will probably call you tomorrow … mainly because … I like to know wtf plan is. You are the man COMMANDER.”

The FBI wrote that Caldwell is believed to have referenced the leader of the Oath Keepers, Elmer Stewart Rhodes, in a Facebook message to group members in the days before the riot.

“I don’t know if Stewie has even gotten out his call to arms but it’s a little friggin late,” Caldwell wrote, according to the FBI. “This is one we are doing on our own. We will link up with the north carolina (sic) crew.”

The complaint reports one male voice is heard on an audio recording near Watkins exhorting: “Get it, Jess,” and that the Capitol breach is what they had trained for.

“Yeah. We stormed the Capitol today. Teargassed, the whole, 9. Pushed our way into the Rotunda. Made it into the Senate even. The news is lying (even Fox) about the Historical Events we created today,” she allegedly wrote. Watkins also posted that entry was forced through the back door of the Capitol.

Federal authorities say that Caldwell also sent Facebook messages following the attack.

“Proud boys scuffled with cops and drove them inside to hide,” Caldwell’s message said, according to court documents. “Breached the doors. One guy made it all the way to the house floor, another to Pelosi’s office. A good time.”

Authorities said Watkins and Crowl returned to Ohio, then went back to Virginia to stay with Caldwell at his Berryville home for three days through Jan. 16. The FBI complaint said Crowl and Watkins told police in Urbana, Ohio, they drove back to Ohio after hearing the FBI was looking for them.

All three are charged with counts including conspiracy, conspiracy to hurt an officer, violent entry, obstruction of official business and destruction of government property.

It was unclear Tuesday afternoon whether any had attorneys. A message was left for Caldwell at his Virginia home. A message to U.S. Magistrate Sharon Ovington in Dayton seeking attorney information for Watkins and Crowl wasn’t immediately answered.

Watkins and Crowl were being held at a county jail in Dayton, after being arrested early Monday. The Dayton Daily News reported they had separate initial appearances Tuesday before Ovington in Dayton. Watkins told Ovington she wanted future hearings to be in Washington and Crowl said he preferred to stay in Dayton.

Asked if she understood the charges against her, the Daily News reported, Watkins replied: “I understand them but I don’t understand how I got them.”

The FBI said a search of Watkins’ home found personal protection equipment and communication devices, along with instructions for making plastic explosives.

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Finley reported from Norfolk, Virginia. Associated Press writer Andrew Welsh-Huggins contributed in Columbus.

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