The U.S. government contends that it has uncovered the closest thing to a large conspiracy to riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, issuing an updated, expanded indictment that names 16 members of the Oath Keepers militia in the suspected plot.
The Justice Department issued the “superseding” indictment in late May, and officials made their 16th arrest Thursday with the apprehension of Jonathan Walden, 46, of Birmingham, Alabama. The indictment lists several yet-to-be-named co-conspirators, suggesting the total cabal could reach two dozen or more.
Oath Keepers in six states organized on encrypted apps; brought military gear, guns and a warrior dog to Washington; commandeered two golf carts; and tried to acquire a boat to ferry a “quick reaction force” across the Potomac River, the indictment says.
The Biden administration has elevated as a top priority the convictions of hundreds of Capitol rioters. With some fanfare, the Justice Department released a fact sheet Friday saying it had charged about 460 rioters and was likely to prosecute another 100. The department said the Jan. 6 invasion is the largest criminal investigation in its history.
Some conservatives have grown weary of the daily Justice Department tally as the Biden team tries to turn Trump-supporting protesters into felons.
Jim Hanson, a former Army Special Forces warrior who now heads a think tank focused on national security, said the superseding indictment, rather than sustaining the idea of a grand cabal, “proves there was no conspiracy.”
“They caught this group of Oath Keepers and associates planning a trip to DC for a political rally, and used the actions of a few who on the spur of the moment broke into the Capitol to dub the whole thing a conspiracy,” Mr. Hanson wrote for the conservative news website Human Events. “The only conspiracy here is by the left to deprive their political opponents of their Constitutional rights.”
The charging document on the Oath Keepers provides a chronology of how the military-style activists began talking and training right after Election Day with the general idea of going to Washington. At first, the chatter was about Inauguration Day, Jan. 20.
President Trump subsequently claimed the election was stolen from him. His supporters kicked off three “Stop the Steal” rallies in Washington, culminating in the Jan. 6 protest against a joint session of Congress to certify Joseph R. Biden’s electoral victory.
Kelly Meggs of Florida, one of the indicted, built enthusiasm among the militia by quoting a Trump tweet saying the rally would be “wild.”
“Trump said It’s gonna be wild!!!!!!!,” said Mr. Meggs, who went by the call sign “Gator 1.” “It’s gonna be wild!!!!!!! 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 s—-!!”
The Oath Keepers is a loose militia-style association, and its members are self-styled defenders of the U.S. Constitution.
The government says the 16 indicted members and unidentified others conspired to stop the Jan. 6 congressional session. They communicated via social media, text messages and encrypted apps such as Signal, and they began training to “learn paramilitary combat tactics.”
At a crucial Nov. 9 meeting, the overall leader, identified in the indictment only as “Person 1,” told the militia members: “We’re going to defend the president, the duly elected president, and we call on him to do what needs to be done to save our country. Because if you don’t guys, you’re going to be in a bloody, bloody civil war, and a bloody — you can call it an insurrection or you can call it a war or fight.”
Person 1 continued: “If things go kinetic, good. If they throw bombs at us and shoot us, great, because that brings the president his reason and rationale for dropping the Insurrection Act. … I do want some Oath Keepers to stay on the outside, and to stay fully armed and prepared to go in armed, if they have to.”
Jessica Watkins, the commanding officer of an Ohio militia, later announced basic training in early January. “I need you fighting fit by,” she said.
On Nov. 17, a recruit asked Ms. Watkins what to expect.
“I can’t predict,” she said. “I don’t underestimate the resolve of the Deep State. Biden may still yet be our President. If he is, our way of life as we know it is over. Our Republic would be over. Then it is our duty as Americans to fight, kill and die for our rights.”
She continued: “[If] Biden get the steal, none of us have a chance in my mind. We already have our neck in the noose. They just haven’t kicked the chair yet.”
On Christmas Day, Mr. Meggs sent another message: “We are all staying in DC near the Capitol we are at the Hilton garden inn but I think it’s full. Dc is no guns. So mace and gas masks, some batons. If you have armor that’s good.”
On Dec. 30, Thomas Caldwell, 65, of Clark County, Virginia, posted on Facebook: “THIS IS OUR CALL TO ACTION, FREINDS! SEE YOU ON THE 6TH IN WASHINGTON, D.C. ALONG WITH 2 MILLION OTHER LIKE-MINDED PATRIOTS.”
On New Year’s Eve, Mr. Caldwell responded to a Facebook comment: “It begins for real Jan 5 and 6 on Washington D.C. when we mobilize in the streets. Let them try to certify some crud on capitol hill with a million or more patriots in the streets. This kettle is set to boil.”
The Oath Keepers also took to the app GoToMeeting.
On New Year’s Day, “Person 14” messaged Joshua James of Arab, Alabama, on Signal and asked, “Hey we told to bring guns and maybe stage them in VA?? But you are showing hotels in DC for Alabama. Are we bring guns or no if so how will that work?”
Mr. James responded, “Were working on a Farm location Some are bringing long rifles some sidearms. … I’m bringing sidearm.”
Mr. Caldwell took to Facebook to say, “They have morphed into pure evil even blatantly rigging an election and paying off the political caste. We must smite them now and drive them down.”
Ms. Watkins told defendant Bernie Parker of Morrow, Ohio, “Pack Khaki/Tan pants. Weapons are ok now as well. Sorry for the confusion. We are packing the car and heading your way shortly.”
Mr. Parker responded, “We don’t have any khakis.”
The next day, Ms. Watkins asked, “Where can we drop off weapons to the QRF team? I’d like to have the weapons secured prior to the Op tomorrow.”
As they loaded up in Ohio, North Carolina, Florida, Alabama, Texas and Virginia, the crew brought to Washington rucksacks full of guns, camouflage combat fatigues, plated tactical vests, eye protection, chemical sprays, helmets and personal radios.
On Jan. 6, Mr. Walden entered the mix and told some of the others: “I am interested in the QRF team in D.C. I am former Firefighter, EMT-B and have a K-9 trained for security patrol (82 lb. German Shepherd named ‘Warrior’). I have a Jump Bag with Trauma supplies and have ALL the necessary 2A gear that the situation may require. PLEASE ADVISE. As soon as I hear from you I can hit the road to join up!”
Indictment: ‘The January 6 Operation’
Mr. Trump delivered a fiery speech on Jan. 6 on the National Mall. He called for Vice President Mike Pence, who presided over the joint session of Congress, to send the vote back to battleground states. The vice president refused to do so.
The Oath Keepers, among a crowd of thousands, then moved toward the Capitol. An estimated 800 rallygoers broke away from the main assemblage on the west and east entrances and invaded the Capitol to stop the certification proceedings. They broke through barriers and police lines, assaulted officers and occupied the building for hours.
“Person 1” by 1:15 p.m. was telling others that Mr. Pence planned to take no action: “All I see Trump doing is complaining. I see no intent by him to do anything. So the patriots are taking it into their own hands. They’ve had enough.”
According to the indictment, they stayed in contact via Signal and a channel on the public walkie-talkie app Zello called Stop the Steal J6. They mobilized near and at the Capitol. The first cadres breached the Capitol’s restricted area at 2:28 p.m. Around that time, three members arrived in a stolen golf cart, “at times swerving around law enforcement vehicles,” the indictment says.
At 2:35, 10 Oath Keepers formed a column and moved up the Capitol steps, “each member keeping at least one hand on the shoulder of the other on front of them,” the document reads.
“At the top of the steps,” the indictment says, “the Stack joined and then pushed forward alongside a mob that aggressively advanced towards the Columbus Doors at the central east entrance to the Capitol, assaulted the officers guarding the doors.”
An excited Ms. Watkins proclaimed on Zello at 2:44: “We are in the mezzanine. We are in the main dome right now. We are rocking it. They are throwing grenades, they are fricking shooting people with paint balls. But we are in here.”
The group reached the Rotunda and moved up and down hallways before encountering police, who doused them with chemical spray. The militia members retreated, went outside, regrouped and broke into the Capitol again.
Roberto Minuta of Prosper, Texas, carried bear spray.
Mr. Walden brought his warrior dog inside the building.
“Get out of my Capitol,” Mr. James yelled at police.
After a flurry of messaging and phone calls, they exited the building about 4 p.m.
The Oath Keepers’ “superseding” indictment lists 13 charges, including conspiracy, trespassing and disorderly conduct.
Case files in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, where all riot defendants are being prosecuted, are dominated by motions about the group’s release from jail and under what conditions.
Thomas Caldwell won release under restrictions that kept him on his Virginia farm, in a county between Leesburg and Winchester, except for medical and legal appointments.
Mr. Caldwell’s attorney, David W. Fischer of Glen Burnie, Maryland, filed a motion to ease restrictions. He said Mr. Caldwell, an active participant on Jan. 6, walked with a cane and needed spinal fusion surgery.
“Medical appointments rarely begin on time, and some of his doctors are located 2 hours away in Bethesda, Maryland (beltway traffic),” Mr. Fischer said in the court filing.
He added: “The Defendant, because of physical limitations and health concerns, rarely travels without his wife, Sharon Caldwell. As the Court may recall, the Defendant often requires a cane to ambulate. Additionally, the Caldwells rarely venture out of Clark County, Virginia, their domicile county, except for legal and medical visits. If the Defendant is granted a curfew, Mrs. Caldwell is willing to accompany the Defendant each and every time he leaves the property.”
Mr. Fischer denied that Mr. Caldwell is an Oath Keeper or entered the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathryn L. Rakoczy opposed the idea of a 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. curfew.
“A major part of his role in the conspiracy was organizing individuals who were on standby with guns in a hotel across the river, conduct that this Court has described as among the most concerning aspects of the conspiracy and for which the evidence has only strengthened since Defendant Caldwell’s release,” Ms. Rakoczy said.
At one point, the indictment says, Mr. Caldwell was talking with another militia group about obtaining a boat and using it to cross the Potomac River as part of a quick reaction force loaded, he said, “with heavy weapons standing by … if it all went to s—-.”
The prosecutor’s motion displayed a closed-circuit television clip of Mr. Caldwell toting a long object under a bedsheet from one motel room to another the night of Jan. 6.
“Defendant Caldwell has sought to distance himself from his co-conspirators, but his own words suggest he was very much a part of this conspiracy,” Ms. Rakoczy said.
Judge Amit P. Mehta denied Mr. Caldwell’s curfew request.
Ms. Watkins, an Army veteran depicted as a main organizer, renounced the Oath Keepers at a February detention hearing.
“I did it out of the love of my country, but I think it’s time to let all of that go,” she told the judge, according to The Associated Press. “I’m not a criminally minded person. … I am humiliated that I am even here today.”
Over the weekend, conservatives on social media took note of Mr. Hanson‘s editorial in Human Events. Mr. Hanson is an Army Special Forces veteran who heads the Security Studies Group, a think tank that focuses on national security.
Headlined “An Invented Insurrection: How the left is trying to criminalize conservatism,” Mr. Hanson‘s editorial compares Attorney General Merrick Garland’s drive to round up invaders with the Justice Department’s lack of interest in prosecuting a summer’s worth of violence by supporters of Black Lives Matter and Antifa.
“This is a far step from equal treatment under the law and should bring a concerted response from all those on the right who oppose tyranny,” Mr. Hanson said.
Of the Oath Keepers indictment, he said: “The government had to present their case to prove there was an insurrection planned for January 6th. Once this indictment saw the light of day, however, it was immediately apparent there was no insurrection and no conspiracy to commit illegal acts of any kind. In fact, the indictment has numerous instances of the so-called conspirators, members of a group known and the Oath Keepers and their associates, discussing the legality of certain actions, then specifically choosing to avoid violating the laws.”