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Indictment: Military veterans in three states recruited followers, gathered weapons ahead of Capitol breach

Protesters take over balconies and inauguration scaffolding at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021.

MATT MCCLAIN/THE WASHINGTON POST

By SPENCER S. HSU, RACHEL WEINER AND TOM JACKMAN | The Washington Post | Published: January 27, 2021

WASHINGTON — Three self-styled militia members charged in the Jan. 6 breach of the U.S. Capitol began soliciting recruits for potential violence within days of the 2020 presidential election, later training in Ohio and North Carolina and organizing travel to Washington with a busload of comrades and a truck of weapons, U.S. authorities alleged Wednesday.

A four-count indictment returned in the District of Columbia laid out fresh details and allegations against Jessica Marie Watkins, 38, and Donovan Ray Crowl, 50 — both of Woodstock, Ohio — and Thomas Caldwell, 66, of Berryville, Va. The three, all U.S. military veterans, are accused of conspiring to obstruct Congress and other counts, punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

Prosecutors have said Caldwell appears to have ties to the anti-government Oath Keepers extremist group — although his attorney said he is not a member. They also have alleged that the retired Navy lieutenant commander helped organize dozens of others who coordinated their movements as they "stormed the castle" to disrupt the confirmation of President-elect Joe Biden's electoral college victory.

Real-time conversations recovered from a walkie-talkie-style app captured Watkins discussing a group of about 30 to 40 "sticking together and sticking to the plan" during the breach, according to court documents previously filed in the case.

In a 15-page indictment unsealed Wednesday, prosecutors revealed new allegations, accusing Watkins of contacting recruits on Nov. 9, six days after the election, for a "Basic Training" camp outside Columbus, Ohio, in early January so they would be "fighting fit by innaugeration." Prosecutors also allege that Watkins participated in a "leadership only" conference call via an encrypted app, and that Caldwell arranged with another person bringing "at least one full bus 40+ people coming from N.C." and weaponry ahead of Jan. 6.

Crowl, a former Marine mechanic, attended a training camp in December in North Carolina, while Caldwell hosted Watkins in Northern Virginia, charging papers said.

At one point, Caldwell wrote Watkins, "Don't know what [Person One] is cooking up but I am hearing rumblings of another MAGA march 12 December. I don't know what will happen but like you I am very worried about the future of our country . . . I believe we will have to get violent to stop this."

"You are my kinda person and we may have to fight next time," Caldwell added.

Previous charging papers identified Person One as "Stewie," a possible reference to Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes.

On Dec. 30, Caldwell messaged Watkins saying, "If [Person One] isn't making plans, I'll take charge myself, and get the ball rolling," the indictment stated. On Jan. 2, Caldwell allegedly concluded, "I don't know if [Person One] has even got out his call to arms, but its a little friggin late. This one we do on our own. This is one we are doing on our own."

Caldwell allegedly told Watkins that the leader of another group, unnamed in the indictment but described in previous court filings as "Paul," promised a busload of more than 40 and weaponry.

Paul "is too broken down to be on the ground all day and . . . he is committed to being the quick reaction force and bringing the tools if something goes to hell," Caldwell said, according to the indictment. "That way the boys won't have to schlep weps on the bus. He'll bring them in his truck the day before."

In a statement Wednesday, defense attorney Thomas Plofchan called Caldwell "a highly decorated veteran" and said his client "expects to have the charges dismissed or to be acquitted at trial."

Plofchan called the indictment "a deliberate attempt to find a scapegoat for activities on January 6."

He said Caldwell is "not a member of the Oath Keepers and never entered the Capitol that day," and that the charging document contained no factual assertion that he "coordinated any activity aimed at entering the Capitol, disrupting any procedure, or taking any action against any person."

An attorney for Crowl did not respond to a request for comment.

"I didn't commit a crime. I didn't destroy anything. I didn't wreck anything," Watkins told the Ohio Capital Journal earlier this month, adding that the riot was a peaceful protest that turned violent.

In an interview, Watkins's boyfriend's mother, Joyce Siniff, said, "I think it got out of hand for her." She described Watkins as "a good and kind person" and said she did not know her to be affiliated with any national militia groups. The local organization, she said, "anytime they've gone to anything it was to protect the police."

In a phone interview last week, Rhodes said Caldwell helped "Stop the Steal" protesters navigate arriving in the District for a protest in November but that Caldwell is not a dues-paying member of Oath Keepers and does not hold any leadership position in the organization. Rhodes said he did not know Caldwell to be taking any action on Jan. 6 on behalf of Oath Keepers.

Rhodes said Watkins is a member in Oath Keepers.

In their planning, according to prosecutors, the group cited the perceived direction of then-President Donald Trump, embracing his false claims of election fraud and readying for a fight in apocalyptic terms.

"Trump wants all able-bodied Patriots to come" to the Jan. 6 "Stop the Steal" rally, Watkins is quoting as saying on Dec. 29.

"If Trump activates the Insurrection Act, I'd hate to miss it," she added, according to the indictment.

Asked earlier by a recruit what to prepare for, Watkins allegedly wrote in November that if Biden became president, "our way of life as we know it is over. Our Republic would be over. Then it is our duty as Americans to fight, kill and die for our rights."

"If Biden get the steal, none of us have a chance in my mind. We already have our neck in the noose. They just haven't kicked the chair yet," she said, according to the indictment.

Prosecutors previously detailed the group's alleged communications over the walkie-talkie-style app Zello during the riot.

"You are executing citizen's arrest. Arrest this assembly, we have probable cause for acts of treason, election fraud," one man said as Watkins reported undergoing plastic bullet and tear-gas fire.

"This is . . . everything we f---ing trained for!" an unknown man told Watkins, according to the court documents.

Watkins and Crowl turned themselves in to authorities in Ohio on Jan. 18, and Caldwell was apprehended Jan. 19.

The new charges against the three were among eight indictments returned Wednesday by a grand jury against previously charged defendants. The indictments come one day after Acting U.S. Attorney Michael Sherwin said that investigators are turning their focus to whether militia groups and several states may have coordinated or planned ahead of time to commit criminal acts. Law enforcement officials have focused on the Oath Keepers, the nativist Proud Boys, and Three Percenters, another anti-government group that takes its name from the bogus claim that only 3% of the colonists supported the American Revolution against the British.