Prosecutors on Tuesday filed the first significant conspiracy charge in the US Capitol attack, alleging that three members of the so-called Oath Keepers, an extremist militant group, planned and coordinated ahead of the January 6 assault.
In an amended complaint unsealed Tuesday in federal court, an FBI agent divulged striking new details about the group’s efforts. Jessica Watkins, the alleged founder of an Ohio militia, had instructions to make explosives out of bleach printed out at her home, according to the court document.
Chilling messages sent between the militants during the siege that are quoted in the complaint appear to indicate they were searching for lawmakers inside the building as they sought to stop Congress from certifying the presidential election.
While at the Capitol, one alleged member of the conspiracy, Thomas Edward Caldwell, allegedly received a Facebook message reading “All members are in the tunnels under capital seal them in. Turn on gas.”
In subsequent messages, an unidentified person appeared to give Caldwell directions inside the labyrinthian government building:
“Tom all legislators are down in the Tunnels 3floors down” one says. “Go through back house chamber doors facing N left down hallway down steps,” says another, according to court documents.
Watkins turned herself into local police in the state on Sunday along with Donovan Crowl, another member of the Ohio group accused in the conspiracy charges.
The pair, along with Caldwell, are accused of moving together “in an organized and practiced fashion” as they pushed through a crowd towards a door to the Capitol building, according to a charging document.
The three were part of a group of eight to 10 people all wearing paramilitary gear and Oath Keeper paraphernalia, signifying their affiliation with the self-styled militia that’s driven by anti-government conspiracies, according to an FBI affidavit. (The Ohio militia founded by Watkins pays dues to the Oath Keepers, according to the affidavit.)
Individual charges against the three had been revealed in recent days but the new conspiracy charge grouping them together represents the most serious allegation of coordinated activity at the riot made by prosecutors investigating the events of the insurrection. Prosecutors have called Caldwell an apparent leader of the Oath Keepers, and had previously charged him alone with conspiracy. (Oath Keepers leader Steward Rhodes denied that to CNN.)
It’s not clear who is representing Watkins and Donovan on the charges. Caldwell was arrested in Virginia earlier Tuesday and at an initial appearance in federal court in Harrisonburg, Virginia, Tuesday afternoon, a federal magistrate judge ordered that he remain in jail as he awaits trial.
“The conduct and statements of Mr. Caldwell and the others, it really is just pure lawlessness,” Judge Joel Hoppe of the Western District of Virginia said.
Prosecutors said at the hearing that Caldwell could face more charges, potentially including federal riot and sedition charges. He currently faces charges of obstruction of a federal proceeding, destruction of federal property and two conspiracy counts that carry serious possible penalties.
Caldwell’s defense lawyer argued that he should be released because he is at risk of contracting Covid-19 in detention, his charges are not that serious and that he is a retired Navy captain who served the country and was honorably discharged. Caldwell said in court he still receives retirement payments from the Navy.
“Seventy percent of Republicans believe that the election was fraudulent,” his temporarily appointed defense lawyer said, adding that Caldwell’s opposition to the government wasn’t out of the ordinary for “blustering on Facebook.”
According to a recording of walkie-talkie-like communications that the militant group members were allegedly having during the riot, Watkins said that she was part of a team of 30 to 40 people.
“We have a good group. We have about 30-40 of us. We are sticking together and sticking to the plan,” Watkins said, according to the affidavit.
At another point in the recording, after Watkins reports to the group that unknown others were “throwing grenades” and “shooting people with paint balls,” a man responds to her telling her to be safe and adding, “Get it, Jess. Do your F**king thing. This is what we f**king [unintelligible] up for. Everything we f**king trained for.”
In an interview, Crowl’s mother, Teresa Joann Rowe, said her son, who previously served in the US Marine Corps, has expressed increasingly hostile political views in recent years.
“It felt like he did a 180-degree turnaround, felt like the world owed him a living and had a big chip on his shoulder,” she told CNN. “I don’t know if it’s because life didn’t go the way he planned.”
Asked why she thinks Crowl may have been joined to this extremist group, she said, “I would like to understand myself. I don’t get it.”
She said Crowl served in the Marine Corps for about six years starting in the late 1980’s and in recent years has done “odd jobs, being paid under the table so that he doesn’t have to pay taxes.”
She said prior to the news surrounding the storming of the Capitol, she was unaware of Crowl’s involvement in any political groups, though she had heard him express pro-Donald Trump political views. She also said she recalled Crowl stating that “they were going to overtake the government if they… tried to take Trump’s presidency from him. So he did make that statement, but that was two or three years ago so I forgot all about it.”
Oren Segal, vice president of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said he’s concerned some of those arrested have US military backgrounds.
“Some right-wing extremist groups, particularly the anti-government Oath Keepers, have a long history of recruiting from current and former members of the military and law enforcement,” Segal told CNN.
“Oath Keepers are part of the resurgent militia movement, which believes the federal government has been co-opted by a shadowy conspiracy that is trying to strip American citizens of their rights. Though the Oath Keepers will accept anyone as members, what differentiates them from other anti-government extremist groups is their explicit focus on recruiting current and former military, law enforcement and first responder personnel,” he added.
This story has been updated with additional developments.