US prosecutors say militia members conspired in Capitol riot

Three people linked to a far-right US militia group are facing federal charges in relation to deadly riot at US Capitol.

Supporters of US President Donald Trump in the Capitol Rotunda after breaching security on January 6 [File: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE]

Three people linked to a United States militia from the states of Ohio and Virginia faced federal charges on Tuesday over the deadly riot at the US Capitol, including the first conspiracy charge linked to the breach.

FBI investigators accused Thomas Edward Caldwell, 65, of Clarke County, Virginia, of having a leadership role in the Oath Keepers, a paramilitary group that believes in a “shadowy conspiracy” to strip Americans of their rights.

The Southern Poverty Law Center lists the Oath Keepers as part of the “antigovernment movement” and says it is often associated with the far right.

Caldwell faces charges that include conspiracy and violent entry or disorderly conduct. He was arrested on Tuesday. A conspiracy charge can be used when two or more people agree to commit a federal crime in cooperation.

The complaint (PDF) filed against Caldwell alleges that he was involved in the planning and coordinating of the Capitol breach with others, including Jessica Watkins, an Army veteran, and Donovan Crowl, both of Ohio.

“Records obtained from Facebook indicate that Caldwell was involved in planning and coordinating the January 6 breach of the U.S. Capitol in which Watkins, Crowl and other Oath Keeper militia members participated,” the affidavit states.

The violent insurrection on January 6 that left five people dead was led by supporters of President Donald Trump as Congress met to certify US President-elect Joe Biden’s election victory.

Trump was impeached last week for “incitement to insurrection” in relation to the riot, which US lawmakers say was spurred by the president’s repeated false claims of election fraud and an incendiary speech he gave before the incident.

Social media posts, messages

Federal documents state Crowl and Watkins are members of the Ohio State Regular Militia and are dues-paying members of the Oath Keepers.

A federal affidavit filed alongside the complaint shows messages between Caldwell and the others about arranging hotel rooms in the Washington area. In one Facebook message from Crowl to Caldwell, Crowl states: “You are the man COMMANDER.”

Federal authorities say Caldwell the next day sent Facebook messages regarding the January 6 Capitol attack.

A mob of supporters of US President Donald Trump climb through a window they broke as they storm the US Capitol Building in Washington, DC, January 6, 2021 [File: Leah Millis/Reuters]

“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.”

The FBI stated in charging documents that Oath Keepers wearing helmets, protective vests and items with the group’s name were seen 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”.

Federal investigators said they used social media posts and media interviews the suspects gave to help identify them.

The Ohio suspects each face three charges: entering a restricted building or grounds; violent entry or disorderly conduct, and obstruction of an official proceeding.

Caldwell, who told the judge he is on disability after retiring from the US Navy, said he looks forward to proving at trial that “every single charge is false”.

Watkins and Crowl, meanwhile, appeared in the US District Court for the Southern District of Ohio on Tuesday.

Asked by a federal judge if she understood the charges against her, Watkins said: “I understand what you said. I don’t understand how I got them.”

Crowl, meanwhile, stifled a laugh when he was asked if he understood the maximum penalties he was facing.

Both are being held in custody pending detention hearings.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies