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Lawyers Battle Over Oath Keepers ‘Split,’ Defendants’ Messages in Dramatic Afternoon Testimony in Jan. 6 Seditious Conspiracy Trial


Court papers contain this image of Oath Keepers members Jessica Watkins and Donovan Crowl during the U.S. Capitol siege.

In an afternoon of testimony that focused largely on a group of Jan. 6 defendants from Ohio, prosecutors and defense lawyers battled over messages and timelines, with the defendants’ representatives continuing to try to poke holes in the the government’s alleged timeline.

FBI Special Agent Justin Eller took the stand shortly before noon on Tuesday, the second FBI agent to testify for the prosecution at the start of the second week of testimony in the Oath Keepers seditious conspiracy case. Founder Stewart Rhodes, along with Jessica Watkins, Kenneth Harrelson, Kelly Meggs, and Thomas Caldwell, are charged with plotting to use force to block the transition of presidential power from Donald Trump to Joe Biden, culminating in a violent breach of the Capitol building on Jan. 6, 2021, alongside scores of other Trump supporters.

Although the five co-defendants have been charged together, prosecutor Alexandra Hughes started off by sharing messages from Caldwell to Donovan Crowl, an Oath Keepers member charged in a different case, indicating dissatisfaction with Rhodes.

“I have been talking with the N. Carolina boys and they were as of today adamant that they would not roll on an op with Stewie again,” Caldwell wrote Crowl on Dec. 4, 2020.

According to Eller, “Stewie” is a reference to Rhodes.

Caldwell told Crowl that he sent the North Carolina “boys” options, such as working in 3- or 4-man teams, which he hoped would please them.

“Ranger is thinking we should hold off on an op surrounding the maga march and plan for the NEXT op which may be much larger and involve supporting the President directly and taking our country back,” Caldwell said, referring to Doug “Ranger” Smith, the head of the North Carolina Oath Keepers.

“That would be our last chance to save the country and may be quite violent,” Caldwell added.

Caldwell then hints at possible dissension in the ranks.

“Stewie has never talked to me or sent me shit since the DC op,” he wrote.

“He [Rhodes] might see me as a threat, though I have no desire to replace him,” Caldwell also said. “Sometimes when people can do something pretty well, or have good ideas, an officer, or in Stewie’s case ‘the boss’ [may feel threatened].”

It was unclear whether Caldwell and Rhodes acknowledged each other as Eller read these messages out loud.

Caldwell also told Crowl that he and his wife were planning on going to the “actual march and marching . . . I’ll be ready for violence if it comes.”

“If Stewie can’t run anything better than last time it’s a waste of your skills and commitment,” Caldwell added.

“I have your back sir,” Crowl replied on Dec. 5, 2020. “You are the shit.”

Crowl expressed an even deeper loyalty to Watkins earlier that month.

“You are my Captain,” Crowl wrote to Watkins on Dec. 10, 2020. “This will ALWAYS stand. I am going on this mission. I need your sponsorship, and blessing.”

“My boss is Jess,” Crowl wrote to Watkins on Dec. 20, 2020. “We are building a Coalition? Aye. Ma’am? Can’t do it if you are not there. I still think you can fight. I also think you are a girl and want to be treated tender like . . . You deserve that Ma’am. Let’s talk tomorrow?”

The line from Crowl — “I also think you are a girl and want to be treated tender like” — is notable for its possible reference to the fact that Watkins is a transgender woman, which her attorney Jonathan Crisp mentioned in his opening statements as a way of characterizing his client as someone who was looking for a sense of belonging.

The prosecutor also shared messages from Watkins and potential “coalition” partners. She told one that she was hosting a “basic training” from Jan. 3-9, 2021, but as Eller testified, that didn’t happen because she was in D.C. on Jan. 6.

Also submitted into evidence were messages between Watkins and a concerned recruit identified in Watkins’ contact list as “Recruit Leah,” for whom Watkins had few comforting words.

“So I should get comfortable with the idea of death?” the possible recruit wrote Watkins on Nov. 17, 2020.

“That’s why I do what I do,” Watkins replied.

“I hope the training will help me be ok with dying for country,” Recruit Leah responded.

“Don’t Look at Her!”

Crisp, who had tried to have admitted into evidence the entirety of Watkins’ communication with Recruit Leah, was allowed on cross-examination show the jury only the messages surrounding that particular exchange.

“[D]amn,” Recruit Leah wrote on Nov. 17, 2020. “U think people will fight this?”

“I hope not,” Watkins replied. “I love this country too damn much to see us killing eachother [sic].”

Cross-examination from Rhodes attorney Phillip Lee Bright was decidedly more confrontational, with Eller not agreeing with Bright’s take that a “split” in November 2020 between the North Carolina Oath Keepers and Rhodes was “fairly evident.”

“I don’t know that I would define it as a ‘split,'” Eller said.

Nor would Eller give Bright what he seemed to want when it came to characterizing what Oath Keepers members normally wore to events.

Bright appeared to be trying to get Eller to say that he has seen the Oath Keepers members wear BDUs (Battle Dress Uniform) to events. Eller seems to hedge a little bit on the term, but eventually acknowledges that yes, some of the tactical gear he’s seen some members wear could be called BDUs.

“So from your experience it’s not unusual for them to dress in that gear, correct?” Bright asked.

“Correct,” Eller replied.

“In marches that well predate Jan. 6?” Bright pressed.

“I can only talk about the ones I know about,” Eller responded, such as like the Million MAGA March on Nov. 14, 2020.

Bright then shifted to late-December messages between Watkins and other potential recruits or coalition members that surrounded a “training event” that Watkins had planned.

Bright said that “as late as Dec. 24, 2020,” Watkins’ training was proposed to be scheduled from Jan. 3-9, 2021 — his point being that Watkins couldn’t have been planning on going to Washington, D.C. for Jan. 6 because she was still planning a training for her Ohio militia, the Ohio State Regular Militia.

After getting Eller to agree that the messages indicate that just 14 days ahead of Jan. 6, the OSRM was still planning events that, if they had occurred as planned, would have prevented them from being at Jan. 6, Bright dialed up the volume: he alleged that of all the evidence Eller had confirmed that day, there has been “not one bit of evidence” to suggest a “plan” for the Oath Keepers to attack the Capitol on Jan. 6.

The prosecutors objected, and Eller, unsure of how to respond, appeared to look at the prosecutors’ table.

“Don’t look at her!” Bright said to Eller, apparently referring to Hughes.

Judge Amit Mehta told Bright to rephrase the question. Eller said that there were “some chats about going to D.C.”

When Bright tried to get Eller to say that there was “nothing illegal at all” being planned, the government objected; prosecutors did so again when Bright asked Eller if he had seen any chats or texts “regarding the underlying charges of this case.”

“You Would Agree Antifa Certainly Has Nothing To Do With the Electoral College Vote?”

Caldwell attorney David Fischer used his turn at the podium to challenge the government’s theory that there was ever a plan to forcibly stop Congress from certifying the Electoral College vote on Jan. 6.

Fischer introduced text messages between Crowl and someone identified as Mike Metz on Jan. 5, 2021. Crowl said he and his wife would be at the White House in the morning and early afternoon and would “rest up at the hotel” before going “tifa huntin'” at night.

“We expect good hunting,” Crowl said.

According to Fischer, this text shows that Crowl “didn’t have a plan” to attack the Capitol on Jan. 6. Instead, Fischer seemed to imply, the “plan” was to go after “Antifa.”

“You would agree Antifa certainly has nothing to do with the Electoral College vote?” Fischer asked Eller. “It’s the members of Congress that conduct the electoral college certification, not Antifa?”

“Correct,” Eller replied.

On redirect, Hughes referred Eller back to questions regarding the “split” between the North Carolina Oath Keepers and Rhodes.

She noted that Rhodes posted two open letters to Trump, calling on him to invoke the Insurrection Act, later that month — one each on Dec. 14 and Dec. 23, 2020.

She then submitted a Dec. 23, 2020 message from Doug Smith, head of the North Carolina Oath Keepers, to Rhodes.

“Bravo!” Smith wrote, calling it the “best presentation of the truth that has ever been penned!!!”

“You and Kelly have literally laid out what could become the most influential writing that the U.S. has seen since its founding by men inspired by God!” Smith wrote.

Hughes, trying to hammer home the apparent camaraderie between Rhodes and the North Carolina Oath Keepers, then brought up Rhodes’ Dec. 31, 2020 post to the DC Op Jan. 6 21 Signal chat.

“Added some of the NC leaders and experienced prior op veterans from NC,” Rhodes had written.

Unwilling to leave Crowl’s “rest up” message go unanswered, Hughes also posted video of Crowl and Watkins inside the Capitol on Jan. 6.

“We’re in the Capitol!” Crowl can be heard yelling as he faces the camera.

“So was Mr. Crowl in fact sleeping the afternoon of Jan. 6?” Hughes asked Eller.

“No,” the agent replied.

“Where was he?” Hughes asked.

“He was in the Rotunda,” Eller said.

Although Mehta dismissed Eller at the end of Hughes’ redirect, he granted Meggs attorney Stanley Woodward’s request to bring him back to clarify whether Smith was referring to Meggs or self-proclaimed Oath Keepers lawyer Kellye SoRelle, who is facing her own set of Jan. 6-related conspiracy charges.

Trial resumes Wednesday.

[Image of Watkins and Crowl via FBI court filing.]

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