Prosecutors say Oath Keepers militia members conspired in US Capitol siege

Members of the Oath Keepers are seen among Trump supporters protesting in Washington on Jan 6, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - Prosecutors on Tuesday (Jan 19) said three people affiliated with a far-right militia group conspired to breach the US Capitol, the first time they have directly accused people of organising 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 US Capitol on Jan6, 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 offences.

A federal prosecutor told a judge presiding over Caldwell's initial court appearance on Tuesday it was "likely" additional charges could be filed 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 US 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 b****h 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 US District Court for the Southern District of Ohio on Tuesday where a judge ordered both will be held in custody pending detention hearings.

None of the three defendants has entered a plea yet.

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.

Jon Schaffer, a guitarist for the Indiana heavy metal band Iced Earth who was photographed during the riot wearing an Oath Keepers cap, is 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.

As arrests by have mounted since the riot, criminal complaints have revealed that many of the suspects have ties to fringe groups such as the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys, another right-wing group.

Others have been characterized as white supremacists and Nazi sympathisers, or believers in QAnon - a far-right conspiracy theory that casts Trump as a savior figure and elite Democrats as a cabal of Satanist pedophiles and cannibals.

In one such case, a federal magistrate judge ordered Army Reservist and alleged Neo-Nazi sympathiser Timothy Louis Hale-Cusanelli to be held in custody pending a detention hearing for his role in the Capitol riots.

In court, the prosecutor said Hale-Cusanelli's military and security clearance status are under review, and that the FBI uncovered an assortment of white supremacist and extremist literature at his home, including a copy of Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf.

Another federal prosecutor on Tuesday revealed the government expected to file new charges against Riley Williams, who is accused of stealing a laptop from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office during the siege.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.