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Older Oath Keepers Member Testifies at Seditious Conspiracy Trial, Tells a Jury ‘Militia’ Just Means ‘Neighbors Helping Neighbors’

Thomas Caldwell

Oath Keepers member Thomas Caldwell shouts at members of Congress on Jan. 6, 2021, in this still frame from a video submitted into evidence at his trial.

Taking the stand in his own defense for the first time on Tuesday, Oath Keepers member Thomas Caldwell denied organizing a group of armed man plotting to ferry heavy weaponry across the Potomac River on Jan. 6, 2021.

Caldwell also offered a homespun definition of what he believes a “militia” means inside the Shenandoah Valley region in Virginia.

Residents there think of it as “neighbors helping neighbors,” Caldwell said.

“A Bit of Creative Writing”

Federal prosecutors have charged more than a dozen members of the Oath Keepers militia with crimes related to the Jan. 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol. Five of them, including Oath Keepers founder and leader Stewart Rhodes, stand accused of seditious conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. government or the execution of its laws by force.

Within this alleged conspiracy, prosecutors say, Caldwell played the unique role of organizing the Oath Keepers’ so-called quick reaction force, or QRF. This group allegedly stashed heavy weapons inside a Comfort Inn in Arlington, Va., in case they needed to ferry those firearms across the Potomac River on Jan. 6.

Asked about encrypted messages speaking of that plan, Caldwell claimed that his reaction was: “Whose stupid freaking idea is this?”

He depicted his own messages referring to “heavy weapons” as the rhetorical flourish of an amateur scribe.

“I’ve gotta own that,” Caldwell said. “I do a bit of creative writing.”

Before the government rested its case, prosecutors showed a jury surveillance footage from the Comfort Inn, which showed Caldwell apparently carting around boxes of firearms on a dolly. Rhodes did not dispute that Oath Keepers members stashed weapons in the hotel during his testimony. FBI witnesses also mapped out how Oath Keepers’ members cell phones pinged with towers from across the country, converging at the hotel.

Thomas Caldwell and Kenneth Harrelson

Oath Keepers members Thomas Caldwell and Kenneth Harrelson move a cart of what prosecutors allege to be weapons inside a Comfort Inn in Virginia, for their so-called “Quick Reaction Force.” Prosecutors allege that they planned to ferry those firearms across the Potomac if then-President Trump called them. (Photo via DOJ)

Assistant U.S. Attorney Louis Manzo confronted the witness with his encrypted messages apparently discussing the QRF.

“Team with heavy weapons standing by, quickly load them and ferry them across the river to our waiting arms,” Caldwell wrote on Jan. 2, 2021, to Shawn Pugh, a man described by the prosecutor as a member of the Three Percenters militia.

The Three Percenters get their name from the erroneous belief that the same fraction of American colonists overthrew the British during the Revolutionary War. Caldwell denied that Pugh belonged to that extremist group, and he claimed that the message was a line from one of his screenplays.

“It’s just poetic justice,” Caldwell said. “I took something out of my screenplay, and I put it out there.”

“Opportunity for Us to Begin the Healing Process”

On Monday, wife Sharon Caldwell — who is not an Oath Keeper herself, but wore the group’s shirt on Jan. 6, 2021 — openly acknowledged that FBI agents found 70 legal firearms in their residence. They did not seize those weapons at the time, but her husband is now prohibited from accessing them by court order.

Both husband and wife spent much of their testimony focusing on Thomas Caldwell’s age and infirmities. Sharon Caldwell said her husband wore “Depends,” not body armor on Jan. 6, referring to the adult diaper. Mr. Caldwell told the jury that he grapples with incontinence issues from spinal issues that necessitated in surgeries.

“When you have spinal issues, sometimes that affects bowel and bladder,” Thomas Caldwell noted. “It just does, and when you gotta go, you gotta go.”

Sharon and Thomas Caldwell

Sharon and Thomas Caldwell on Jan. 6, 2021, in photographs entered into evidence at the Oath Keepers seditious conspiracy trial. (Images via DOJ)

Caldwell, a 20-year Navy veteran who received a disability termination, is now 68 years old and was 65 years old at the time of the U.S. Capitol breach. That would have placed him at the exact age to meet the National Institutes of Health’s definition of “elderly,” and just a few years north of qualifying as a senior citizen.

In conjunction with his various health issues — Caldwell also told jurors he had a big, brass pin keeping his shoulder in place — his defense team hopes that it will lead the jury to conclude that the Oath Keeper was too old and frail to seditiously conspire to overthrow the U.S. government.

On cross-examination, the prosecution confronted both husband and wife with a video of them marching in the vicinity of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. There, Sharon Caldwell could be heard describing fleeing Congress members as “pussies,” and her husband provided a novel take on the remark during the government’s questioning.

“I think that what she’s saying is that it’s a great opportunity for us to begin the healing process,” Caldwell replied.

Later in the footage, Caldwell boasted: “Today I wipe my ass on Pelosi’s doorknob.”

Confronted about his taunting the Speaker of the House, Caldwell said of Nancy Pelosi: “She was a good person to poke fun at at that time.”

Surging in the 1990s, the self-described militia movement came into national focus after the Oklahoma City bombing, the siege at Waco, and the standoff at Ruby Ridge. Some legal experts, however, describe the militia movement as a misnomer and euphemism for unauthorized paramilitary organizations, which are banned in the constitutions of most U.S. states. Actual militias, former Justice Department national security chief Mary McCord told Law&Crime, are run by governments.

The Oath Keepers takes its name from the vows taken by ex-military and law enforcement officials to defend the U.S. Constitution from all enemies, foreign and domestic. It posits that this oath supersedes their obligations to any government, but at least one ex-member who’s now cooperating with the government told a jury that the Jan. 6th siege re-calibrated his idea of a patriot.

“I guess I was acting like a traitor — someone against my own government,” ex-member Graydon Young told a jury on Oct. 31.

Caldwell’s attorney David Fischer‘s redirect of his client will continue on Tuesday. Closing arguments could begin as early as Wednesday afternoon.

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Law&Crime's managing editor Adam Klasfeld has spent more than a decade on the legal beat. Previously a reporter for Courthouse News, he has appeared as a guest on NewsNation, NBC, MSNBC, CBS's "Inside Edition," BBC, NPR, PBS, Sky News, and other networks. His reporting on the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell was featured on the Starz and Channel 4 documentary "Who Is Ghislaine Maxwell?" He is the host of Law&Crime podcast "Objections: with Adam Klasfeld."