Leader of Oath Keepers charged with conspiracy in Capitol riot

Virginia man planned and coordinated attack with team of 8 to 10 militia members, authorities say

The 65-year-old leader of the extremist group Oath Keepers has been charged with planning and coordinating the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol — becoming the first to face conspiracy in the case, according to reports.

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Thomas Edward Caldwell of Clarke County, Virginia, was arrested early Tuesday on four federal counts, including conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States.

A felony conspiracy charge, typically meted out for an offense such as interfering with or obstructing the lawful operation of government, carries a penalty of at least 20 years in prison.

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Court documents allege Caldwell organized and led a team of eight to 10 men, including self-styled Ohio militia members who were also taken into custody Sunday.

The government accuses Caldwell of sending a Facebook message on Jan. 1 in which he said he had secured rooms for several of his cohorts at a Ballston, Virginia, Comfort Inn near the Capitol that “would allow us to go hunting at night if we wanted to,” The Washington Post reported.

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Caldwell allegedly sent the message to Jessica Watkins, a 38-year-old U.S. Army veteran and Ohio State Regular Militia leader who was arrested Sunday for participating in the riot, according to the Post.

The same night of the riot, Caldwell allegedly posted a video to Facebook showing rioters inside the Capitol and wrote “Us storming the castle. Please share. Sharon was right with me! I am such an instigator! She was ready for it man! Didn’t even mind the tear gas.”

Court papers allege that Caldwell continued to boast about the insurrection, saying “Proud boys scuffled with cops and drove them inside to hide. Breached the doors. One guy made it all the way to the house floor, another to Pelosi’s office. A good time,” according to the Post. “We need to do this at the local level. Lets [sic] storm the capitol in Ohio. Tell me when!”

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Investigators were reviewing additional communications between Caldwell “and other known and unknown Oath Keepers members,” according to a 15-page affidavit filed by the FBI.

Investigators were also looking at whether fringe groups plotted the uprising with more sinister aims after photos and video revealed certain actors weaving through the raucous crowd in tactical gear and carrying flex-cuffs to presumably take hostages.

The coordinated team was also observed attacking police lines, and using hand signals and CB radios to communicate amid the chaos, The New York Times reported.

In addition to the Oath Keepers, several other suspects arrested since the riot have been tied to violent right-wing extremist groups including the Proud Boys and Three Percenters, according to federal investigators.

Recent arrests of white nationalists in Ohio, Colorado, Indiana and Texas have helped law enforcement develop a clearer understanding about the depth of the attack by President Donald Trump’s supporters who stormed Congress nearly two weeks ago in an attempt to overthrow confirmation of Joe Biden’s election win.

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The FBI has arrested several members of the Proud Boys, a far-right nationalist group, along with at least four people suspected of being in the Oath Keepers and at least one associate of the Three Percenters.

Prosecutors are focusing closely on the role played by militia members and other extremists groups, The New York Times reported.

As congressional offices and chambers were ransacked, and the crowd chanted “Kill Mike Pence,” lawmakers hid the Electoral College ballots and took shelter from the angry mob. Five people died, including a Capitol Police officer. A Georgia man who participated in the insurrection later committed suicide.

Right-wing militia groups are known to join anti-government protests wherever they occur across the country — and the Oath Keepers are an integral part of this pro-gun network, largely comprised of former law enforcement and military veterans “who believe that the federal government has been co-opted by a shadowy conspiracy that is trying to strip American citizens of their rights,” according to the FBI.

Shortly after the election, Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the Oath Keepers, made an appearance on the conspiracy theory media site Infowars and threatened to seize Washington to keep Trump in office.

“We’ll also be on the outside of D.C., armed, prepared to go in, if the president calls us up,” he said, according to The New York Times.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has denounced the Oath Keepers and say its guiding principles are motivated by white supremacy and based on conspiracy.

“While it claims only to be defending the constitution, the entire organization is based on a set of baseless conspiracy theories about the federal government working to destroy the liberties of Americans,” the advocacy group states on its website.

The Capitol rioters were incited by months of false claims by Trump and others in the GOP who spread the notion that widespread voter fraud got Biden elected and cheated the incumbent out of a second term. However, judges across the country — including some nominated by Trump — dismissed at least 60 cases challenging the election results, citing lack of evidence.

The name of the Three Percenters, an anti-government group, is a reference to the purported 3% of the American colonial population that rose up to fight the British army in the Revolution, according to the Times.

Far-right groups recently expressed worry online that protests and other pro-Trump activities had been a trap set by the government to apprehend them, according to the Times, citing a source briefed on intelligence about the groups.

The nation’s capital remained under heavy security Tuesday during Trump’s last full day in office and on the eve of Biden’s inauguration as the 46th president of the United States.

About 25,000 National Guard troops armed with assault rifles lined the steel fences surrounding the Capitol, and other security agents were patrolling the national mall and made a few minor arrests over the weekend.

On Tuesday, two troops were removed from their duty to guard the inauguration, but no details were given about why they were reassigned.

Guardsmen were being vetted after the FBI warned authorities that QAnon actors had recently discussed ways to get by security and infiltrate the ranks of the Guard to cause havoc at Wednesday’s ceremonies, although no solid evidence has been found of an actual plot to carry it out.

Meanwhile, federal agents around the country have made at least 100 arrests, opened more than 300 investigations and gathered about 140,000 media tips as law enforcement officials monitored social media for word of more unrest or coordinated attacks, according to the Times.

Many suspects face a variety of misdemeanor charges including unlawful entry, disorderly conduct and theft. Those charges, however, are likely to be upgraded to federal felonies with lengthy prison terms as the investigation continues to uncover the full scale and depth of the attack, reports said.

A team of federal prosecutors is seeking to file more serious charges including sedition and conspiracy, according to Michael Sherwin, the acting U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia.

“All of these extremist groups are being looked at in terms of their participation at the Capitol,” he told reporters.

Federal authorities are also seeking dozens of alleged individual participants who attacked police officers during the melee.

Two suspects from Ohio surrendered to federal authorities Sunday night after they posted social media photos of themselves dressed in combat gear and declaring they had just stormed the Capitol.

Donovan Crowl, 50, a former U.S. Marine, and Jessica Watkins, 38, an Army veteran, were charged in a criminal complaint with unlawful entry, disorderly conduct and obstructing an official proceeding.

In one post, Watkins points out Crowl in a photo saying: “One of my guys at the Stop the Steal Rally today.”

Watkins is the founder and leader of the Ohio State Regular Militia, a group affiliated with the Oath Keepers, the FBI said.

Robert Gieswein, 24, an affiliate of the Three Percenters from Woodland Park, Colorado, is also facing federal charges after authorities accused him of being among the early wave of Capitol invaders, according to the Times.

Gieswein, who runs a private paramilitary training group called the Woodland Wild Dogs, was photographed in the mob wearing a military vest, goggles and an Army-style helmet, and brandishing a baseball bat as he wrestled with Capitol Police officers to remove metal barricades, the Times reported.

The criminal complaint against Gieswein cites a video showing him encouraging other rioters as they smashed a window and entered the Capitol. He was photographed again inside the building with another suspect now known as Dominic Pezzola, a former Marine and member of the Proud Boys, who was charged last week, the Times reported.

After the assault, Gieswein said in a news documentary interview that he attacked the Capitol to “get the corrupt politicians out of office,” according to court papers, adding, “They have completely destroyed our country and sold them to the Rothschilds and Rockefellers.”

Among the rioters was a retired Air Force commander seen wielding zip-tie handcuffs on the Senate floor while wearing a helmet and tactical vest.

Lt. Col. Larry Rendall Brock Jr., who previously aligned himself with the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters, was arrested in Texas days later and prosecutors alleged in court that he planned “to take hostages.”

The 53-year-old Brock claimed he found the zip ties discarded on the floor and had planned to hand them over to authorities, reports said.

“I wish I had not picked those up,” he told The New Yorker magazine in an interview in the days following the insurrection.

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Weimer disagreed with that explanation at a detention hearing last Thursday, saying Brock came to the Capitol with diabolical intentions.

“He means to take hostages. He means to kidnap, restrain, perhaps try, perhaps execute members of the U.S. government,” Weimer said without providing details of the charges.

During testimony, an FBI agent acknowledged it was possible that Brock had just picked up the cuffs as rioters stormed in and ransacked the chamber.

Weimer, however, noted that Brock’s “prior experience and training make him all the more dangerous.”

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Elsewhere, Guy Wesley Reffitt, a member of militia extremist group Texas Freedom Force, was also arrested over the weekend and charged with obstruction after video showed him in a black helmet and a tactical vest outside the Capitol, reports said. Reffitt’s wife told authorities he belonged to the Three Percenters.

Reffitt’s son told the FBI that his father ordered him to “erase everything” because agents were watching him. Reffitt warned his children: “If you turn me in, you’re a traitor and you know what happens to traitors … traitors get shot,” according to the FBI.

Information provided by The New York Times was used to compile this report.