Prosecutors say Oath Keepers militia members conspired in U.S. Capitol siege
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Prosecutors on Tuesday said three people affiliated with a far-right militia group conspired to breach the U.S. Capitol, the first time they have directly accused people of organizing the violent Jan. 6 uprising that left five people dead.
Thomas Edward Caldwell, 65, of Clarke County, Virginia, whom investigators said has a leadership role in the Oath Keepers group, was named in a criminal complaint as having participated in the Capitol riots by President Donald Trump's supporters.
His fellow members Jessica Watkins, 38, of Champaign County, Ohio, and Donovan Ray Crowl, also of Ohio, were also charged, and the three are accused of conspiring "to forcibly storm the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021," prosecutors said.
Caldwell, Watkins and Crowl are accused of conspiring against the United States and conspiring to prevent the government from discharging its duties, among other offenses.
A federal prosecutor told a judge presiding over Caldwell's initial appearance on Tuesday it was "likely" additional charges could be on the table as the investigation continues, including rioting and seditious conspiracy. "The weight of the evidence here is very much strong," said Christopher Kavanaugh, the prosecutor.
Caldwell, who told the judge he is on disability after retiring from the U.S. Navy, said he looks forward to proving at trial that "every single charge is false."
In an amended complaint filed by the government on Tuesday, investigators revealed they had collected messages suggesting the defendants extensively plotted the attack.
In one, Watkins can be heard saying: “We have a good group. We have about 30-40 of us. We are sticking together and sticking to the plan.”
Another message Caldwell received during the attack said: "All members are in the tunnels under capital seal them in. Turn on gas.”
After Caldwell apparently verified he was inside the Capitol, he received other messages which read:“Tom take that bitch over;” “Tom all legislators are down in the Tunnels 3floors down."
In other Facebook messages, Caldwell later posted comments about the siege, writing: "Us storming the castle. Please share... I am such an instigator!"
A federal magistrate judge in the Western District of Virginia said Caldwell should be held in custody, noting the alleged conduct reflects "pure lawlessness and contempt" for the country's laws.
Watkins and Crowl, meanwhile, appeared in the U.S. 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.
Jon Schaffer, a guitarist for the Indiana heavy metal band Iced Earth who was photographed during the riot wearing an Oath Keepers cap, stands accused of using bear spray on police officers as the crowd tried to force its way past them, but was not named in the conspiracy.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; additional reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York, and Brad Heath and Mark Hosenball in Washington; Editing by Dan Grebler)
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