Oath Keepers Donavan Crowl and Jessica Watkins pause for a selfie video inside the Rotunda at the Capitol on Jan. 6. (via ProPublica)
Three self-identified members of the loosely organized Oath Keepers militia group who took part in the short-lived insurrection at the US Capitol on Jan. 6 maintained ties with a larger network of players in North Carolina, according to a federal indictment issued earlier this week.
Donovan Crowl, a former Marine, can be seen in a video posted on the now-defunct social media platform Parler on Jan. 6. From the Capitol rotunda, wearing olive green military fatigues over body armor and with goggles perched atop a helmet, the 50-year Crowl addresses the camera with bemused glee, saying, “Took over the Capitol. Overran the Capitol.”
Similarly equipped with goggles, helmet and body armor, 38-year Jessica Watkins is more animated as she lurches into the frame.
“We’re in the fucking Capitol,” she says, throwing up a V-sign.
Ten days later, Crowl and Watkins, both Ohio residents, along with 65-year-old Thomas Caldwell of Virginia, would find themselves charged with violent entry or disorderly conduct, entering and remaining on a restricted building or grounds and obstruction of an official proceeding.
An indictment unveiled on Wednesday in federal court in the District of Columbia for those offenses, along with conspiracy, charges that they “did knowingly combine, conspire, confederate and agree with each other and others known and unknown, to commit an offense against the United States, namely, to corruptly obstruct, influence, and impede an official proceeding, that is, Congress’s certification of the electoral college vote” in violation of federal law.”
The indictment sketches a larger network that the three defendants hoped to mobilize in their quest to overturn the legitimate results of the 2020 election and prevent Joe Biden from being sworn in as the 46th president.
The 15-page indictment briefly states that “Crowl attended a training camp in North Carolina” in December. It remains unclear where the training camp is located and who operated it, but in text messages detailed in the indictment, the three defendants repeatedly discussed allies from North Carolina in the runup to the Jan. 6 insurrection, and an unnamed co-conspirator identified only as “Person 3” who was a link to the North Carolina cohort.
In a Dec. 30 text exchange, Watkins and Caldwell discussed planning for Jan. 6, according to the indictment.
“We planned on arriving on the 5th,” Watkins reportedly said. “We want to be in DC by 9 am on the 6th.” Then, she added, “I will reach out to [Person 3], and see if NC boys are coming.”
About two hours later, according to the indictment, Caldwell responded, “At least one full bus 40+ people coming from NC.”
The co-conspirator identified as “Person 3” would be traveling separately in advance of the North Carolina bus, Caldwell said, and would arrive with an unidentified companion on the night before the Jan. 6 Trump rally. “Person 3” and his companion would be booking a room in a hotel in Arlington, Va., across the Potomac River from the Capitol. The location was chosen, Caldwell said, “because of its close-in location and easy access to downtown because he feels 1) he’s too broken down to be on the ground all day and 2) he is committed to being the quick reaction force and bringing the tools if something goes to hell. That way the boys don’t have to schlep weps [weapons] on the bus. He’ll bring them in his truck the day before.”
On Jan. 1, according to the indictment, Caldwell sent a Facebook message with a link to the Arlington hotel to Crowl, mentioning that “Person 3” had already arrived.
“I will probably do pre-strike on the 5th though there are things going on that day,” Caldwell wrote. “Maybe do some night hunting. Oathkeeper friends from North Carolina are taking commercial buses up early in the morning on the 6th and back same night. [Person 3] will have the goodies in case things go bad and we need to get heavy.”
Since at least the spring of 2020, the focal point of Oath Keepers organizing in North Carolina has been Columbus County, a rural, southeastern county that hugs the South Carolina state line. Doug Smith, a local resident, identified himself as the “state coordinator” of the Oath Keepers in an article published by the News Reporter in Whiteville, the seat of government in Columbus County, in September 2020. Smith told the local newspaper he had learned about the Oath Keepers in 2010, after being injured in combat in Iraq during his service in the Army. Smith recently confirmed to the Columbus County News that about 25 North Carolina Oath Keepers members traveled by a charter bus to attend the Jan. 6 rally.
Following the Capitol insurrection, Smith told the Columbus County News that his group was breaking with the national Oath Keepers organization, which is led by Stewart Rhodes, a former Army paratrooper and former aide to libertarian Ron Paul. Smith told the newspaper: “We are rebranding ourselves, and our mission is and will remain the same.”
“We were horrified,” the newspaper quoted Smith as saying. “We went to Washington to support President Trump. When we saw what was going on, we left.” The article goes on to say that Smith distanced his group from the insurrection in a letter to the NC Sheriff’s Association, writing, “I can promise you that no North Carolina Oath Keepers were involved with what happened at the Capitol building that day. North Carolina Oath Keepers were in Washington to hear President Trump after he put out the invitation to his supporters.”
Smith could not be reached for comment.
As of Friday, Jan. 29, the URL oathkeepersnc.com redirected to nc.sdfunited.org, the landing page for a group called NC State Defense Forces. But the “News & Media” page on the website included a brief explainer headlined “What It Means to Be an Oath Keeper.” The item stated, “Men and women who have served in the military or in law enforcement have all taken a sworn oath to protect and defend the Constitution from all enemies, both foreign and domestic.” A spokesperson for the NC State Defense Forces told TCB the group has no affiliation with Smith, or any Oath Keepers for that matter. They did not respond to an inquiry about why the oathkeepersnc.com URL redirected to their group’s website.
As of Sunday morning the oathkeepersnc.com URL was no longer the redirecting to the State Defense Forces website, and the page with “What it Means to Be an Oath Keeper” headline had been removed. The spokesperson for State Defense Forces said in a follow-up email that they did decide, “at least temporarily,” to remove the item to avoid confusion. “The term oath keeper applies to people who have taken an oath of office but don’t agree with Stewart Rhodes’ interpretation(s) or application(s) — or his organization,” they wrote. “We had a few individuals join NC State Defense Forces in September 2020 who were previously with Oath Keepers but left due to misalignment in vision.”
In his statements to the Columbus County News, Smith cast blame on the Oath Keepers’ national leadership, without mentioning Rhodes, its founder and executive director by name.
“The men and women of North Carolina believe that the national leadership [of Oath Keepers] could have stopped this and did nothing,” Smith reportedly said. “The men and myself included can no longer be affiliated with Oath Keepers after this sad event in our nation’s history.”
Thomas Caldwell, the now-indicted Capitol insurrectionist, put Rhodes’ silence in a different light in his Jan. 1 Facebook message to Oath Keeper Donovan Crowl, writing, “I don’t know if Stewie has even gotten out his call to arms but it’s a little friggin late. This is one we are doing on our own. We will link up with the north carolina crew.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center describes the Oath Keepers as “one of the largest radical antigovernment groups in the US today,” noting that the organization “claims tens of thousands of present and former law enforcement officials and military veterans as members.”
On a surface level, the Oath Keepers appears to promote a contradictory double message of backing up law enforcement and the Constitution, while at the same time guarding against government overreach. As the SPLC notes, “While it claims only to be defending the Constitution, the entire organization is based on a set of baseless conspiracy theories about the federal government working to destroy the liberties of Americans.”
The militia group’s conception of when state violence should be deployed depends largely on who is perceived as posing a threat.
A June 9, 2020 post on the national Oath Keepers Facebook page — since de-platformed — includes a video about the Seattle police temporarily ceding control over the area known as the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone during the protests in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd. The text accompanying the post provocatively reads: “To those of you who are still denying this is an armed insurrection.”
“Time for Trump to send in the tanks and troops with STK orders,” one commenter responded, part of a chorus of demands for a military crackdown.
But speaking at militia gathering at Jomeokee Campground in Stokes County in April 2017, Rhodes indulged a fantasy about humiliating President Obama as he looked back at the armed standoff that took place in Nevada in 2014 when a white rancher named Cliven Bundy refused to pay grazing fees to the Bureau of Land Management. Imagining that the federal agencies like the FBI and Department of Homeland Security were decommissioned and it was up to “the militia” to determine whether to uphold federal authority, Rhodes said, “If the people themselves disagreed and said, ‘This is not actually a rebellion and in fact they’re standing up and defending the supreme law of the land and the Constitution while you’re the one violating it’ — if he had to rely on them and that was their response, what could he have done?” Rhodes asked. “Nothing. He’d have been done. They’d tell him to go pound sand and he’d be through because he couldn’t carry it out.”
Steve Kwiatkowski, one of the North Carolina Oath Keepers members, told the News Reporter in September that the group even had members who were currently in law enforcement. (The spokesperson for the NC State Defense Forces also said Kwiatkowski is not affiliated with their group.)
“We’ll concentrate on different things at different times, like communications,” Kwiatkowski told the newspaper, describing Oath Keepers’ meetings. “How can we use our radios, what are the capabilities? We need to know the laws, because it falls under the [Federal Communications Commission]. We need to know first aid. We need to know the laws, like if we’re going to be assisting the sheriff… we need to know the laws in the use-of-force continuum.”
Kwiatkowski’s Facebook page identifies him as a former detention officer at the Bladen County Sheriff’s Office and includes a post with photos of a collection of patches, including two Oath Keeper pieces. It reads, “My life on display.”
A man answering the phone at a publicly listed number for Steven P. Kwiatkowski in Columbus County demurred. “The number’s correct,” he said, “but there’s no one here by that name.”
Watkins and Crowl, the two military veterans facing federal conspiracy charges for their role in the Capitol insurrection, used similar language in their description of their activity to reporters — representing themselves as an auxiliary rather than a foe to civil authority.
When first identified as one of the participants in the insurrection by reporter Jake Zuckerman, Watkins said, “I consider myself as having assisted law enforcement in preventing crimes.”
Similarly, Crowl told Ronan Farrow of the New Yorker that he had gone to Washington DC to “do security” for “VIPs” and that while there “we protected the fucking Capitol Hill police.”
The private communications between the defendants in the days leading up to the insurrection — resulting in the death of a Capitol police officer, and injuries to 81 members of Capitol Police and 58 member of the DC Metropolitan Police, not to mention two officer suicides — tell a different story.
Less than a week after the Nov. 3, 2020 election, according to the indictment, Watkins began sending text messages to individuals who had expressed interest in joining the Ohio State Regular Militia, a subsidiary of the Oath Keepers. She asked them to attend a “Basic Training class” north of Columbus, saying, “I need you fighting fit by innaugeration.” Then, on Nov. 17, responding to a recruit asking her predictions for 2021, the indictment says Watkins responded: “I can’t predict. I don’t underestimate the resolve of the Deep State. Biden may still yet be our President. If he is, our way of life as we know it is over. Our Republic would be over. Then it is our duty as Americans to fight, kill and die for our rights.”
Caldwell, who was recognized by Watkins and Crowl as the “commander,” likewise promised to undermine rather than back civil authority.
“I accept that assignment!” Caldwell wrote on Facebook on Jan. 1, according to the indictment. “I swore to support and uphold the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic. I did the former, I have done the latter peacefully but they have morphed into pure evil even blatantly rigging an election and paying off the political caste. We must smite them now and drive them down.”
State election officials, courts, and even high-ranking officials in the Trump administration have all confirmed that Joe Biden was the legitimate winner of the 2020 election, and there is no evidence that the election was rigged or that officials were bought off by nefarious actors.
According to the indictment, Watkins and others communicated on a Zello channel — a walkie-talkie like app — named “Stop the Steal J6” during the insurrection.
“We have a good group,” Watkins reported to her comrades. “We have about 30-40 of us. We are sticking together and sticking to the plan.”
According to the indictment, an unknown male addressed Watkins over the Zello channel: “You are executing citizen’s arrest. Arrest this assembly, we have probable cause for acts of treason, election fraud.”
Watkins reportedly responded: “We are in the mezzanine. We are in the main dome right now. We are rocking it. They are throwing grenades, they are fricking shooting people with paint balls. But we are in here.”
An unknown male urged her on, saying, according to the government: “Get it, Jess. Do your fucking thing. This is what we fucking [unintelligible] up for. Everything we fucking trained for.”
The day before the Jan. 6 insurrection, Brandon Patrick, who owns a pressure-washing business in Columbus County, made a post on Facebook, expressing his anger towards COVID-19 restrictions.
“If we don’t stop these people now from taking our country, freedom will be lost forever,” he warned. “They are trying to starve us out by shutting down small business. That’s the fabric of this nation. They are going to push good people to do very bad things and that is war you don’t want.” He signed off with a hashtag: #DCBOUND.
During a Sept. 11, 2020 Facebook Live video, Patrick had identified himself as a “silent member of the Oath Keeper’s group.” On Jan. 6, he rode on the chartered bus with the North Carolina Oath Keepers.
A week after his return to Columbus County, Patrick posted a photo of the Columbus County contingent posing next to the Washington Monument.
“There has been so much support from our towns and county, it’s seriously overwhelming,” he wrote. “Never run or cower down to these people who are trying to shut us up and make it look like what we did was a bad thing, illegal or wrong.”
In response to a question about whether anyone from the group could face criminal charges, Patrick acknowledged in the thread that some had been contacted by the FBI.
“There ain’t nobody going to jail lol,” he responded. “The FBI has contacted a few, laughed, and walked away.”
Reached by Triad City Beat, Patrick denied ever having been a member of the Oath Keepers. He admitted to traveling with them to DC. He said he had initially planned to rent a 14-passenger van, but that the Oath Keepers had invited his group to join them on the charter bus so they could all save costs.
Confronted with the evidence that four months ago he described himself as a “silent member of the Oath Keepers,” Patrick said he made that comment as a retort to a local critic who charged that it was a “white supremacist group.” Patrick describes himself as a “dark-skinned Native American.” During the Facebook Live video, he said, “There’s a lot more African Americans that is part of that group,” seeming to argue that if people of color were involved the group could not be racist.
Patrick told TCB he supports the Oath Keepers “absolutely 100 percent of them and what they stand for” and knows Doug Smith “really good.”
He expressed mixed views of what took place during at the Capitol on Jan. 6.
“I don’t agree with them storming the Capitol,” Patrick said. “I don’t agree with the way the media is blowing it up as a full-blown riot. It’s far from accurate. They did get a little rowdy. They were a little rambunctious. My heart goes out to the five people that died.”
Patrick also expressed false beliefs that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump because of election officials who were “bought by the Deep State.”
Asked about his previous statement on Facebook that conservatives would respond to unwanted changes with “war,” Patrick at first walked it back.
“We’re not into any kind of violence,” he said.
But then he ramped it back up.
“That’s an argument that you don’t want; that’s a fight that you don’t want,” he said. “Do I think it might come to that? It might. They didn’t steal an election; they said, ‘Screw you, we’re going to put in office who we want to put in office.’ It’s getting out of hand. We live in the greatest country on earth. They’re trying to bring socialism, which will bring in communism. That’s when you will see people fighting back.”
This story previously included a characterization by Brandon Patrick of the cause of Capitol police Officer Brian Sicknick’s death, and a rebuttal stating that Patrick’s statement is incorrect. The passage has been removed from this article Sicknick’s death is under investigation and the circumstances are no currently known.
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