Virginia man with ties to anti-government 'Oath Keepers' pleads not guilty in Capitol riots case

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Sarah N. Lynch
·3 min read
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By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Virginia man whom prosecutors accuse of plotting for months in advance with fellow associates of the anti-government "Oath Keepers" militia to storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 pleaded not guilty to the charges on Friday.

Thomas Caldwell, a retired U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander who has held a security clearance and once worked for the FBI, was indicted last month along with Jessica Watkins and Donovan Crowl on charges of conspiracy, obstruction of an official proceeding, destroying government property and entering a restricted building.

A federal judge on Friday also denied a renewed bid by Caldwell to be released from jail pending trial, after prosecutors said he had tried to destroy evidence against him, and argued he poses a danger to the community.

"The nature and circumstances of the offenses could not be more serious," U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta in Washington, D.C. said. The evidence suggests that Caldwell "engaged in planning and communications with others ... to plan a potential military-like incursion on the Capitol," Mehta said.

Followers of then president Donald Trump stormed the Capitol to disrupt the certification by lawmakers of Joe Biden's election victory after months of Trump making unsubstantiated claims the vote was fraudulent. The riots led to five deaths, including a police officer. Trump was impeached by the House of Representatives on a charge of inciting an insurrection and is being tried in the Senate.

In court on Friday, Caldwell grew agitated as Mehta discussed his ruling and read aloud snippets of texts and other evidence prosecutors had gathered against him, and interrupted the proceeding to object that things were taken out of context.

"Anything you say on this record could be used against you," Mehta reminded him.

In court filings this week, prosecutors said the FBI had found a document entitled "Death List" during a search of Caldwell's home with the hand-written name of an election official in another state.

Prosecutors declined to identify the name of the election official in open court on Friday, except to say the official had received some publicity because of the 2020 presidential election and is not from Caldwell's home state of Virginia.

The Justice Department has said it has evidence of extensive planning by Caldwell, Watkins and Crowl ahead of the Jan. 6 riots, including a plot to stage an armed "quick reaction force" outside of Washington that would be ready to swoop in and fight "hand to hand" if ordered by Trump.

The judge also said he found it "astonishing" that Caldwell allegedly exchanged messages with an associate of another militia group called the "Three Percenters" to discuss the idea of transporting weapons across the Potomac River.

Caldwell's attorney denied his client is a member of the Oath Keepers or that he ever actually entered the U.S. Capitol building itself, citing physical ailments that would have prevented him from doing so.

Prosecutors on Friday acknowledged they don't have evidence Caldwell is a "dues-paying" member, but said he nevertheless has strong ties to the group.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; editing by Grant McCool)