Oath Keepers recruiter Jessica Watkins, one of nine members of the militia group to date indicted for allegedly destroying government property and conspiring with other extremists on the day of the Capitol siege, cannot await trial outside of jail, a federal judge ruled on Friday.
Despite Watkins’ lack of criminal convictions, military service, history of small business ownership, and a bevy of letters attesting to her good character, Watkins nonetheless admitted she was a “founder” and a “commanding officer” in an organization she called the Ohio State Regular Militia. She was also a member of the Oath Keepers. The judge said her case involved “militaristic training” attached to a commitment to “fight, kill, and die” — all of which was “followed up by conduct.”
“Ms. Watins was not just a foot soldier, if you will,” the judge said while making the ruling. “This certainly presents a danger.”
“It was an historic event; an incursion on the capitol; a real threat on the fabric of our democracy,” the judge added. “She was not just willing participant in that; she was an organizer and a leader in those efforts.”
The judge noted that “perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this planning was this Quick Reaction Force” which federal prosecutors suggested was poised to move on the Capitol from the outskirts of Washington, D.C., while public eyes were focused on what was occurring at the Capitol itself. The judge noted further that federal agents found documents pertaining to the creation of explosive devices when they searched her home.
“I don’t think putting you on home detention would ensure the safety of the community,” the judge said to Watkins.
Watkins herself addressed the judge in an effort to distance herself from the Oath Keepers and her small Ohio militia — and to keep herself out of jail.
“Given the results of everything Jan. 6th,” Watkins said, “my fellow Oath Keepers have turned my stomach against it.”
“I have no desire to continue with people who say things like that,” she added with reference to the group and its activities.
Watkins said she “disbanded” her small personal militia despite being a co-founder with someone named “Montana.” She also said she was “cancelling” her “Oath Keepers membership.”
“I did it out of love for my country, but I think it’s time to let all that go,” she continued. “We’re done with that lifestyle.”
Watkins said she wanted to focus her time on her floundering small business and that she would stop using social media to vent her political views.
“I’m humiliated that I’m here today,” she concluded.
Watkins’ attorney previously noted that Watkins wished to speak despite the upshot that any statement she made could be legally used against her in future proceedings. The judge also made sure Watkins understood the ramifications of speaking out at this stage in her proceedings.
The judge credited Watkins for renouncing the militia groups but said her words in court needed go be balanced against her prior conduct. He said he worried she could “reaffiliate” herself with militia groups if she is released and that the government lacked the capability to monitor her “text messages or social media” to ensure she wasn’t engaging in trouble.
During the originally scheduled date of the bail hearing on Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Amit P. Mehta told prosecutors and Watkins’ counsel that he needed further briefing to resolve the question of whether destroying government property qualifies as a crime of violence under the statute.
“These are issues that are not going to affect only Ms. Watkins but potentially dozens and dozens of others that are coming down the pipeline,” Mehta told the attorneys at the time.
Given the weightiness of the question, the judge adjourned proceedings to solicit briefings on the issue.
One of the first Oath Keepers charged in connection to the riot, Watkins is one of nine members of the militia group facing that charge and three others in a wide-ranging indictment. She is seen throughout court papers recruiting former military and law enforcement members to join the group and planning the events at the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Oath Keepers channels buzzed after former President Donald Trump called supporters to the Capitol on that day.
“Big protest in D.C. on January 6th,” Trump wrote on Dec. 19. “Be there, will be wild!”
Trump’s follow-up tweet from Dec. 30 added cryptically: “JANUARY SIXTH, SEE YOU IN DC!”
In private text messages with her accused co-conspirators that day, Watkins wrote that same day: “Looks like we are greenlight to come to DC on the 6th.”
Charges against her accused confederates Sarah Parker and her husband Bennie Parker showed how Watkins allegedly brought the Ohio couple into the Oath Keepers fold.
“I need you fighting fit by innaugeration,” Watkins allegedly told the pair in one misspelled missive.
Like many charged with the siege, Watkins has renounced her views through her counsel and blamed Trump for bringing her to the Capitol.
“In November, she believed that the President of the United States was calling upon her and her small militia group to support the President and the Constitution and she was ready to serve her Country in that manner,” her defense attorney Michelle Peterson wrote in a memo seeking bond. “However misguided, her intentions were not in any way related to an intention to overthrow the government, but to support what she believed to be the lawful government.”
Depicting her client as a law-abiding veteran, Peterson submitted a letter by Watkins’ friend, who shielded his surname to preserve anonymity, in a letter roasting his friend as a woman he considered a sister but calling her behavior that day out of character.
“My friend is an idiot, and I have never been more angry or upset with her in my life, but I do not believe that she wanted to become a terrorist that day,” Zach G. wrote in a letter to the court.
During a telephone hearing Friday, Watkins pleaded not guilty and waived her right to a speedy jury trial.
Defense Attorney Peterson accused the government of trying to “lower the standard” for keeping a defendant behind bars before trial. She also said the congressional intent behind the Bail Reform Act was to hold people accused of only “the most serious crimes” behind bars — then suggested that Watkins was not charged with a serious enough offense to warrant her incarceration. Peterson said other judges has released other Capitol defendants — including Friday morning.
The government said Peterson was attempting to replace Congress’s intent with her own personal reading of the law.
The judge sidestepped some of the early and legally weedy procedural questions about whether the charges Watkins faces constituted a “crime of violence” (against property) because he decided there were other, easier to apply provisions of federal law which allowed him to continue with the hearing to decide whether Watkins should be jailed or released pending trial.
Prosecutor Ahmed Baset pilloried Watkins’ “brazen conduct that day” as a “serious cause of concern” given its possibility to “destroy the community’s safety.”
The judge latched onto an accusation by the government that Watkins had called for a “quick reaction force” to be part of the Jan. 6th events. The judge asked repeatedly if such forces were actually standing by outside Washington, D.C., ready to come into the city.
Baset said the government was poised to provide evidence that they were because there were “substantial efforts to make that a reality” and because “guns and weapons [were] at the ready.” The judge implored prosecutors to describe whether the suggested standby force was real or whether it was merely part of the planning and preparation for the Jan. 6th events.
“Were there actually people stationed?” the judge asked.
“That’s our understanding,” Baset said. “The investigation is ongoing,” he added, “but that is our working understanding.”
The judge cut in further by asking if the government had “proof” that a standby force was really waiting outside Washington, D.C., that was more than “implied.”
Baset said he would be more willing to speak candidly in a private session given the ongoing nature of the investigation; the judge then ordered the public — including journalists — to be taken off the line in the remote hearing.
After a pause, the hearing continued.
Baset then told the judge that agents recovered pages from a 1971 publication known as the Anarchist Cookbook, many of which authored by someone known merely as “Jolly Roger,” from Watkins’ home. Many of the pages contained instructions for making explosive devices out of simple household products.
Baset connected the name in the passages to the name of Watkins’ bar, which is also called the “Jolly Roger.”
While Baset acknowledged that video from the capitol did not show Watkins “endaged directly in an assault on an officer per se,” he did note that Watkins claimed via an Ohio newspaper interview that the police attacked her first.
“That is actually evidence from her own mouth that she was actually engaged in some sort of physical confrontation with the police,” Baset said.
He then noted that Watkins’ partner could procure weapons even if Watkins was released and ordered not to possess any.
“She is exposed to an environment of intoxication” by way of her job, Baset then added, referencing another reason why the government believed Watkins should be incarcerated pending trial.
“Our democracy is still very fragile,” Baset said while arguing that Watkins was a leader, not a follower, as she was “involved in active recruitment.”
“No set of [pretrial release] conditions would preclude her from engaging in that sort of activity,” Baset opined.
He then noted that Watkins had previously bemoaned that Joe Biden’s victory would mean her “way of life [would be] over; our republic would be over,” and that other militia members were still willing to fight.
The defense unsuccessfully argued that Watkins was only “loosely associated” with Oath Keepers.” Peterson, the defense attorney, said Watkins paid $50 to be a member of the group and was “more of a consultant, if you will,” who provided “assistance with security” than anything else.
But Peterson did admit that Watkins did organize her own militia — which she called a “small group” in Ohio — and again noted that Watkins intended to “disband” that group (as she “wants nothing to do with it anymore”).
Watkins’ “[artner got rid of “all the weapons” in their home, Peterson said.
Peterson also rubbished the connection between Watkins’ bar and the Anarchist Cookbook recovered by federal agents. Watkins’ bar has a pirate theme, Peterson said, and the name was a reference to the pirate flag known as the “Jolly Roger.”
Peterson said there was “no evidence in the record” that the pages fro the Anarchist Cookbook were used in connection with the charges Watkins faces.
She also pointed to messages Watkins sent: “keep it peaceful,” “deadly force should be avoided at all costs,” etc. And, she said Watkins said she was there to “rescue cops,” helped “save lives,” and “d[o] the right thing.”
Peterson characterized Watkins’ involvement as merely that of someone who “tried to keep order within the capitol” and to “rescue people who . . . suffered from violence.” She said Watkins ditched some of her gear outside the capitol when police told her to do so, was respectful of the police, left the capitol grounds when a curfew was announced, and provided medical services to those who were injured as a trained medic who had served in the Army.
But Peterson admitted that Watkins’ plans were “perhaps misguided at best” as what Watkins perceived as a plan to “stay between people on opposite sides of a dispute,” such as “ANTIFA, BLM and other protesters.”
The government countered that Watkins “was part of the reason police were overwhelmed” and pushed back “strenuously” at the “notion that [Watkins] was respectful to police”
That argument “has no merit,” the government said; the judge ultimately agreed.
[image via screen capture from SKY News]
Editor’s note: this piece was updated several times immediately following its initial publication to contain additional detail from the hearing.
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