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As Capitol riot arrests climb, FBI says extremist Oath Keepers conspired in attack

Dinah Voyles Pulver, USA TODAY
·6 min read
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Chilling details emerged this week as federal authorities continued to round up and arrest some of the hundreds who joined the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol two weeks ago.

A criminal complaint filed Tuesday alleges conspiracy and other crimes against three members of an extremist group, the Oath Keepers. The three have been arrested. The complaint traces how they planned the attack weeks in advance, then coordinated by radio as they moved into the Capitol with precision, wearing helmets, reinforced vests and military-style insignia.

The group communicated via Facebook with someone who might have had inside knowledge, egging them on and directing them where to find legislators who were shielded and protected, the FBI alleges in the complaint.

“All members are in the tunnels under capital seal them in. Turn on gas,” one such message read.

The charges – against Thomas Caldwell of Virginia and Jessica Watkins and Donovan Crowl of Ohio – are among a number of more serious crimes alleged as the riot investigation begins its third week. Those three are among seven charged with conspiracy by the FBI and the Department of Justice.

A list of nearly 100 people arrested from the day of the riot on Jan. 6 to the eve of Joe Biden’s inauguration as president Wednesday includes a diverse group: President Donald Trump supporters, members of far-right and anti-government groups and others whose paths to the Capitol started in hometowns around the country but converged in the riot that left five people dead and dozens injured.

It was “a toxic brew of conspiracy theorists,” said Aitan Goelman, an attorney who helped prosecute Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and is a partner with the Washington-based law firm Zuckerman Spaeder.

Among those facing charges in the riot are current and former police officers, a fashion student, grandparents, a fishing boat captain, former athletes and elected officials.

Here’s what USA TODAY research shows:

  • Residents of 32 states and the District of Columbia have been arrested.

  • Texans lead the way, with 10 arrests. Nine New Yorkers have been arrested and six Florida residents.

  • Their ages range from 20 to 70, with an average age of 41.8 years.

  • As of noon Tuesday, the list included 85 men and 11 women.

  • At least six have been charged with assaulting an officer and three with possession of firearms.

USA TODAY’s list does not include a few dozen who were arrested for curfew violations on the Capitol grounds overnight Jan. 6 and focuses on those accused of entering the Capitol or crimes related to violence or weapons.

More: Capitol mob members could face more serious charges, prison time, as investigation unfolds

Identifying and finding all those who participated is a monumental task. FBI officials said they’re reviewing more than 100,000 pieces of digital evidence. That helped them arrest an average of nine people a day over the past week. The agency seeks tips on others who have yet to be identified or arrested, including those responsible for the death of Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick.

The FBI said the trio charged with conspiracy for helping to spearhead the attack are members of the Oath Keepers, a far-right group that promotes a conspiracy theory that the federal government has been taken over and will strip the rights of citizens. The trio also face charges of conspiracy to impede or injure officers, destruction of government property and obstruction of official proceedings.

After reading their Facebook messages and other social media, the FBI alleged Caldwell, 65, helped plan and coordinate with Watkins, 38, and Crowl, 50, who served in the Marine Corps. Watkins identified herself on social media as a commanding officer of the “Ohio State Regular Militia.” Crowl was a member of the group, which the FBI described as a “dues-paying subset” of the Oath Keepers.

There are indications others took part in the conspiracy, sending messages directing Caldwell toward members of Congress. In addition to the message telling Caldwell to “seal them in. Turn on gas,” the FBI documents say he received the following messages via Facebook while at the Capitol on Jan. 6:

“Tom all legislators are down in the Tunnels 3 floors down”

“Do like we had to do when I was in the core (sic) start tearing out floors, go from top to bottom.”

“Go through back house chamber doors facing N left down hallway down step.”

Such comments reflect a question that Goelman, the former prosecutor, said will need to be answered. Did people who were not there physically play a role in inciting the riot, and how could they be charged?

Experts at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, have not been surprised to see a full spectrum of groups – including Oath Keepers, Proud Boys, white nationalists and anti-government types – among those arrested, said Michael Edison Hayden, a spokesman for the law center and a senior investigative writer there.

It also wasn’t surprising to see at least a dozen veterans and current and former police officers and firefighters arrested and identified as members of extremist groups, Hayden said. “First responders, police officers and military are among the most sought-after recruits among the far-right groups,” he said. “They have a level of operational knowledge about how things work.”

The Oath Keepers’ name is derived from the oath military members and police take to defend “against all enemies foreign and domestic.”

Other arrest documents released this week detail violence threatened before and after the riot.

One man threatened to shoot family members if they turned him in, FBI agents said. They alleged that after Guy Reffitt, 48, returned to his home in Wylie, Texas, he told his family “we stormed the Capitol” and he needed to “erase everything.”

The agents reported that during an argument with his son and daughter, Reffitt warned, "If you turn me in, you’re a traitor and you know what happens to traitors ... traitors get shot.”

The rhetoric and conspiracy that fueled the Capitol riot is similar to what took place leading up to the Oklahoma City bombing, Goelman said. “The difference here is that they were peddled online, so they had a much broader reach, and you also have the president tweeting and retweeting from the Oval Office, so it’s an order of magnitude greater problem, but it’s the same basic dynamic.

“If your virtual life is living in QAnon chatrooms and your social media news feed all comes from people talking about how the election was stolen or how the Democrats are a bunch of child-molesting cannibals,” he said, “then that becomes your reality, even though it’s lies.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Among Capitol riot arrests, FBI accuses extremists of conspiracy