Oath Keepers Face First Conspiracy Charges Over Capitol Riot
(Bloomberg) -- Three members of the far-right group Oath Keepers are facing the first conspiracy charges to arise from the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, with prosecutors alleging they plotted to disrupt the electoral vote confirmation of President-elect Joe Biden.
Thomas Edward Caldwell, Jessica Marie Watkins and Donovan Ray Crowl were charged Tuesday by federal prosecutors in Washington with conspiracy as well as obstruction of official proceedings and destruction of government property, among other charges. Caldwell, 65, served as a leader in “planning and coordinating” the breach of the Capitol, the government claims. The riot by supporters of President Donald Trump left five people dead and sent lawmakers fleeing for safety.
“Not only did Caldwell, Crowl, Watkins, and others conspire to forcibly storm the U.S. Capitol, they communicated with one another in advance of the incursion and planned their attack,” prosecutors allege in a court filing.
All three belong to Oath Keepers, a large but loosely organized anti-government militia that claims tens of thousands of current and former law enforcement officials and military veterans as members, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The group asserts that its members can refuse to carry out orders that they believe violate the Constitution.
The conspiracy charges are a step up from the relatively minor unlawful entry and disorderly conduct charges brought against most of the rioters arrested in the wake of the siege. Michael Sherwin, the acting U.S. attorney in Washington, said last week that he had established a task force of seasoned national security officials to pursue sedition and conspiracy cases, which carry much longer sentences.
Watkins and Crowl were part of a group of around 10 Oath Keepers wearing helmets and vests designed to carry armor plates who moved in “an organized and practiced fashion” as they breached the building, prosecutors allege.
In a message to Caldwell before the siege, Crowl, 50, addressed the older man as “commander,” according to government court filings. Caldwell also helped coordinate accommodations for the rioters at a hotel a few miles from the Capitol, prosecutors said, describing it in Facebook messages as a “good location” that “would allow us to hunt at night if we wanted to.”
An affidavit by a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent said that Caldwell boasted of his role in the siege in a Facebook message posted the evening of Jan. 6, writing, “I am such an instigator!”
The conspiracy charges reflect investigators’ growing focus on the role of far-right groups in the violence at the Capitol, as the authorities continue to make arrests in a nationwide dragnet. So far, more than 100 people have been arrested for their roles in the Capitol riot, and hundreds more are under investigation.
Crowl and Watkins were both arrested in Ohio over the weekend. A former Marine, Crowl gave an interview to the New Yorker about his role in the siege, insisting that the rioters had peaceful intentions and that the Oath Keepers helped protect Capitol police officers.
Prosecutors identified Crowl and Watkins, 38, as members of the Ohio State Regular Militia, a local militia organization whose members form “a dues-paying subset of the Oath Keepers.” On Jan. 6, prosecutors said, Watkins posted on right-wing social media site Parler a photograph of herself dressed in military garb with an Oath Keeper patch.
“Me before forcing entry into the Capitol Building,” she wrote in the post.
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