Federal prosecutors have charged nine members of the Oath Keepers — an extremist militia that allegedly played a leading role in the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol — with conspiring to delay the certification of the presidential election.
Leveling the most sweeping charges since the insurrection, the Justice Department accused the nine militia members of coordinating efforts to storm Congress and noted that they openly discussed maintaining a cache of “heavy” weaponry just outside of D.C. limits.
Three of those named in the new indictment were arrested last month. Six new defendants were arrested this week.
Private text and audio messages show that multiple members of the group claimed to be acting on then-President Donald Trump’s cues, interpreting his call for a “wild” protest on Jan. 6 as an invitation to come stop the certification of Joe Biden’s victory.
“Trump said It’s gonna be wild!!!!!!! It’s gonna be wild!!!!!!!” Kelly Meggs, 52, a leader of Florida’s Oath Keepers, told a Facebook contact in a private message, according to the indictment. “He wants us to make it WILD that’s what he’s saying. He called us all to the Capitol and wants us to make it wild!!! Sir Yes Sir!!! Gentlemen we are heading to DC pack your shit!!”
And when then-Vice President Mike Pence rejected calls to unilaterally block Biden’s win, one of the leaders of the group, Thomas Caldwell, 65, told his collaborators they were “screwed.”
“Pence has punked out,” the Virginia resident texted at 2:06 p.m., adding, “Teargassing peaceful protesters at capital steps. Getting rowdy here.”
Just 18 minutes later, as the Capitol was being ransacked and lawmakers were fleeing for safety, Trump tweeted an attack on Pence that accused him of lacking the “courage” to overturn the election.
The new charges present the most elaborate case yet against members of an organized group participating in the riot.
Members of the alleged conspiracy agreed to “interfere with the official Congressional proceeding to certify the vote of the Electoral College of the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election,” prosecutors said. The defendants also trained and taught each other military tactics, recruited other participants in the attacks and stormed past the Capitol Police barricades at the onset of the insurrection, Justice Department lawyers said.
FBI and DOJ officials indicated last month they anticipate leveling even more significant charges — including seditious conspiracy — against some Capitol rioters. Indeed, back on Jan. 26, the prosecutor overseeing the hundreds of cases, acting U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Michael Sherwin, said he expected such charges “very soon.”
The new indictment against the Oath Keepers doesn’t include a sedition charge, but the effort to charge nine defendants in a single case still seems to signal a new phase of the investigation.
Prosecutors have also charged numerous members of the Proud Boys, though there have not been linked indictments issued for most members of the group. And other indictments have described individual rioters’ links to militia groups and efforts to join them.
The new indictment offers a blow-by-blow of the nine Oath Keepers’ efforts to coordinate — from the Arlington, Va., hotels they were staying in to the gear they would share, such as communications equipment, goggles and other tactical vests — as well as their communications while they were storming the Capitol.
One unidentified participant told Ohio-based Oath Keeper Jessica Watkins, 38, one of the nine alleged conspirators, that she should be prepared to carry out citizens’ arrests. Watkins allegedly replied, “We are in the mezzanine. We are in the main dome right now. We are rocking it.”
As they pressed forward into the building, Caldwell sent a message on Facebook, writing, “We are surging forward. Doors breached.”
At 3:05 p.m., Caldwell wrote in a Facebook message, “Inside.”
In perhaps the most alarming element of the new Oath Keepers indictment, prosecutors revealed multiple private communications in which the alleged conspirators described setting up a weapons cache — known as a Quick Reaction Force, or QRF — just outside of Washington D.C. that they would call in if they decided to ratchet up the violence.
“You guys Gonna carry?” one of the militia members, Kelly Meggs, asked in a Facebook message to another. “Ok we aren’t either, we have a heavy QRF 10 Min out though.”
Watkins, another member of the Oath Keepers, later told another alleged conspirator that those storming the Capitol initially would not be bringing guns because “QRF will be our law enforcement members.”
An Oath Keeper mentioned only as “Person 3” in the indictment was identified by Caldwell as the head of this QRF.
Person 3 “will have the goodies in case things go bad and we need to get heavy,” Caldwell told his associates.
The indication that prosecutors have identified, but not named, additional participants in the alleged conspiracy, suggests there are still more details to be revealed and more suspects who will likely be charged.
In addition to Caldwell, Meggs and Watkins, prosecutors indicted Donovan Crowl, 50, of Champaign County, Ohio, Sandra Parker, 60, and Bennie Parker, 70, of Warren County, Ohio; Graydon Young, 54, of Englewood, Fla.; Laura Steele, 52, of Thomasville, N.C.; and Meggs’ wife Connie, 59, of Dunnellon, Fla.
An earlier criminal affidavit against a subset of the nine Oath Keepers described Watkins’ efforts to coordinate travel with the Parkers. They indicated that their plans to go to Washington were dependent on weather and parking, and Watkins indicated some discomfort with driving through the mountains of West Virginia and Maryland.
After Jan. 6, when Watkins checked in on the Parkers, Bennie Park said they were doing well but that his wife had been dealing with sinus issues. Watkins called her a “super trooper” for her ability to walk long distances with the rest of the group.
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