Self-styled militia members charged with conspiracy over alleged coordination in pro-Trump Capitol riot

Federal authorities said Tuesday that they’ve charged a leader in a paramilitary group with conspiracy and related counts after he and some of the group's members helped storm the U.S. Capitol.

Thomas Edward Caldwell, 65, of Virginia, was the first person to be charged with conspiracy after last week's riot. His arrest and those of other group members offer some insight into the planning and coordination behind the extraordinary attack, which apparently took law enforcement by surprise despite various warnings online.

Caldwell "appears to have a leadership role with" Oath Keepers, a paramilitary group that believes in a "shadowy conspiracy" to strip Americans of their rights, according to FBI investigators. The group often recruits current and former military, police or other first responders.

The FBI stated in charging documents against some Oath Keepers members that they were wearing helmets, protective vests and items with the group’s name. The FBI also said that they seemed to "move in an organized and practiced fashion and force their way to the front of the crowd gathered around a door to the U.S. Capitol."

An affidavit filed against Caldwell states that he was involved in the planning and coordinating of the Capitol breach with other members, including two people from Champaign County, Ohio. Federal documents identify them as Jessica Watkins and Donovan Crowl and state that they are members of the Ohio State Regular Militia, dues-paying members of the Oath Keepers.

FILE - US President Donald Trump's supporters gather outside the Capitol building.

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"Records obtained from Facebook indicate that Caldwell was involved in planning and coordinating the January 6 breach of the U.S. Capitol in which Watkins, Crowl and other Oath Keeper militia members participated," the affidavit states.

Charging documents show messages between Caldwell and the others about arranging hotel rooms in the Washington area in the days before the siege. In one Facebook message from Crowl to Caldwell, Crowl states: "Will probably call you tomorrow … mainly because … I like to know wtf plan is. You are the man COMMANDER."

The FBI wrote that Caldwell is believed to have referenced the leader of the Oath Keepers, Elmer Stewart Rhodes, in a Facebook message to group members in the days before the riot.

"I don't know if Stewie has even gotten out his call to arms but it's a little friggin late," Caldwell wrote, according to the FBI. "This is one we are doing on our own. We will link up with the north carolina (sic) crew."

Federal authorities say that Caldwell also sent Facebook messages following the attack.

"Proud boys scuffled with cops and drove them inside to hide," Caldwell’s message said, according to court documents. "Breached the doors. One guy made it all the way to the house floor, another to Pelosi’s office. A good time."

Federal authorities said that Caldwell sent another message to an Oath Keepers leader encouraging them to storm Ohio's Statehouse in Columbus.

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"We need to do this at the local level," charging documents quote Caldwell as saying. "Lets (sic) storm the capitol in Ohio. Tell me when!"

Caldwell faces other charges that include violent entry or disorderly conduct. It was unclear Tuesday afternoon if he had hired an attorney. A message left Tuesday at his home in Berryville, Virginia, was not immediately returned.

Watkins and Crowl were being held at a county jail in Dayton, after being arrested Monday.

Federal investigators used social media posts and news media interviews the suspects gave to help identify them. The Ohio suspects each face three charges: entering a restricted building or grounds; violent entry or disorderly conduct, and obstruction of an official proceeding. No information was available immediately on whether they had attorneys yet.

It also wasn't clear immediately whether any of three had military or law enforcement experience.

They are among more than 125 people arrested so far on charges related to the Jan. 6 violent insurrection led by supporters of President Donald Trump, where a Capitol police officer and four others were killed. U.S. authorities last week announced arrests of a Cleveland-area woman and a Wilmington, Ohio, man on related charges.

Watkins, 38, self-described commanding officer of the Ohio State Regular Militia, posted video and comments Jan. 6 on the Parler social media site, investigators said.

"Yeah. We stormed the Capitol today. Teargassed, the whole, 9. Pushed our way into the Rotunda. Made it into the Senate even. The news is lying (even Fox) about the Historical Events we created today," she allegedly wrote. Watkins also posted that entry was forced through the back door of the Capitol.

The militia group appeared to be relatively new and small.

Finley reported from Norfolk, Virginia.