'Bloody civil war': Inside the heavily armed contingency force hovering over the Oath Keepers Jan. 6 prosecution

'Bloody civil war': Inside the heavily armed contingency force hovering over the Oath Keepers Jan. 6 prosecution
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While the government builds a conspiracy case against a dozen Oath Keepers accused of storming the Capitol, court documents indicate investigators also remain interested in whether the far-right militia group was staging "quick reaction forces" with heavy weaponry as a contingency to escalate violence.

An unindicted co-conspirator referenced in government court filings as "Person Three" and "Paul" is at the heart of indicted Oath Keepers' discussions about a heavily armed "QRF," or quick reaction force, that was supposed to stage outside DC as backup during the assault on the Capitol. At least two of the Oath Keepers defendants were in direct communication with the QRF leader, according to government filings. Thomas Edward Caldwell, a Navy veteran and former FBI section chief, is one. Another is Jessica Watkins, the Army veteran from Ohio who breached the Capitol. The QRF leader reserved a room at a hotel where other Oath Keepers were staying in advance of the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol, so it's likely that federal investigators know his name.

The QRF leader was also a liaison between the nucleus of Oath Keepers in battle gear who staged the assault on the Capitol and a North Carolina group of Oath Keepers that has since split from the national organization.

Texting Caldwell on Dec. 30, Watkins wrote that she intended to reach out to the individual known as "Person Three" "and see if the NC boys are coming." Caldwell responded that he had already spoken with "Person Three," according to court filings.

"At least one full bus 40+ people coming from NC," Caldwell texted to Watkins, according to government motion opposing pre-trial release. "[Person Three] is driving plus 1 and arriving nite before. As we speak he is trying to book a room at Comfort Inn Ballston/Arlington 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 2) he is committed to being the quick reaction force anf [sic] bringing tools if something goes to hell. That way the boys don't have to try to schlep weps on the bus. He'll bring them in his truck the day before."

Caldwell added in his message to Watkins that while he was composing his text he learned that the QRF leader had succeeded in booking the hotel room.

In a separate filing, the government cites a Facebook message from Caldwell to an unidentified recipient referencing a man named "Paul" who appears to be "Person Three." While recommending the Comfort Inn Ballston/Arlington, Caldwell wrote on Jan. 1: "Paul said he might be able to take one or two in his room as well."

On the same day, Caldwell messaged to Donovan Crowl, a Marine Corps veteran who breached the Capitol with Watkins: "[Person Three] has a room and is bringing someone. He will be the quick reaction force." Later in the same message, he reiterated the connection between the leader of the quick reaction force and the North Carolina group: "Oathkeeper friends from North Carolina are taking commercial buses up early on the 6th and back the same night. [Person Three] will have the goodies in case things go bad and we need to get heavy."

A government motion opposing Caldwell's pre-trial release indicates that Stewart Rhodes, the founder and leader of the Oath Keepers, discussed the quick reaction force prior to the assault on the Capitol in a group chat on the encrypted app Signal that was called "DC OP: Jan 6 21." The motion said an unindicted co-conspirator referenced as "Person One" — widely reported to be Rhodes — warned the group: "DO NOT bring in anything that can get you arrested. Leave that outside of DC." He went on to say, "We will have several well-equipped QRFs outside DC." In addition to Rhodes, the government alleges that the chat included Watkins; Kelly Meggs, described by the government as the "team leader" of the Florida Oath Keepers; "and regional Oath Keeper leaders from multiple states across the country."

While acknowledging there was no discussion about breaching the Capitol in the chats prior to Jan. 6, the government has cited Rhodes' warning as evidence of active preparation for violence.

Communications among various alleged co-conspirators that have been cited in various government filing contain ample references to at least one quick reaction force.

In March 23 motion opposing pre-trial release for government lawyers wrote that on Jan. 2 "Meggs reported that he will be coordinating the 'QRF' with the Oath Keepers from North Carolina."

The filing cites a message from Meggs in the "DC OP: Jan 6 21" chat.

"Good call last night," Meggs wrote, according to the government. "Lots focered [sic]. I'll get with NC team today and find out QRF location." In an additional linkage between Meggs and the QRF leader, the government alleges that three rooms at the Comfort Inn Ballston/Arlington were reserved "in Person Three's name"; two of those rooms, according to the government, were paid for by a credit card in Meggs' name.

And on Jan. 3, according to a March 31 superseding indictment against 12 Oath Keepers defendants, Watkins wrote in a message to another Oath Keeper from Ohio: "We are not bringing firearms. QRF will be our Law Enforcement members of Oathkeepers." In a subsequent message, Watkins walked back her advice on firearms, suggesting some confusion on the issue. "Weapons are ok now," she reportedly wrote. "Sorry for the confusion."

The government has made no secret of its interest in those involved with the Oath Keepers' plans to field armed teams outside of DC at the time of the insurrection.

"The government is also investigating whether there were additional quick reaction force teams, besides the one led by Person Three, supporting the co-conspirators' efforts on January 6," lawyers wrote in a March 8 motion opposing Caldwell's pre-trial release.

Prior to the assault on the Capitol, the Oath Keepers made no effort to conceal plans for staging quick reaction forces, and if anything seemed eager to publicize them as a signal of strength. In an article headlined "Oath Keepers Deploying to DC to Protect Events, Speakers & Attendees on Jan. 5-6: Time to Stand!" that was published on the organization's website on Jan. 4, Rhodes wrote: "As we have done on all recent DC Ops, we will also have well-armed and equipped QRF teams on standby, outside DC, in the event of a worst-case scenario, where the President calls us up as part of the militia to assist him inside DC."

By late December, Caldwell was devising an elaborate plan to ferry weapons across the Potomac River as a contingency for escalation on Jan. 6.

Texting an individual associated with the Three Percenters, a right-wing militia movement, Caldwell wrote, "Can't believe I just thought of this: How many people either in the military or not (who are still supportive of our efforts to save the Republic) have a boat on a trailer that could handle a Potomac crossing?"

He continued: "If we had someone standing by at a dock ramp (one near the Pentagon for sure) we could have our Quick Response Team with heavy weapons standing by, quickly load them and ferry them across the river to our waiting arms. I'm not talking about a bass boat. Anyone who would be interested in supporting the team in this way? I will buy the fuel. More or less be hanging around sipping coffee and maybe scooting on the river a bit and pretending to fish, then if all went to shit, our guy loads our weps AND Blue Ridge Militia weps and ferries them across."

On Jan. 3, according to the government, Caldwell messaged "Person Three" on Signal, writing, "I'm calling it a night. Got feelers out in the boat idea, will finish new map tomorrow."

Since Jan. 6, Rhodes has attempted to portray plans for the quick reaction force as inconsequential and irrelevant, while presenting Caldwell as someone who didn't represent the Oath Keepers.

"Now, there was some chatter among other people like Thomas Caldwell, who is not an Oath Keeper, about having a QRF outside of DC," Rhodes said in a May 14 interview with the far-right website The Gateway Pundit. "It turns out to be one old veteran that couldn't even hardly walk.

"The media is once against grabbing any little thing they can find and trying to turn it into this grand conspiracy," he complained.

During the Gateway Pundit interview, Rhodes acknowledged that "some our people did go into the Capitol," while suggesting they were acting outside of command. Rhodes argued that the fact that the Oath Keepers entered the Capitol without rifles undermines the government's conspiracy case, but his words also contained an implied threat. In his remarks to Gateway Pundit, Rhodes redirected attention to a man he identified as "Whip," also known as "Mike." Government filings refer to him as "Person 10."

"The team leader on the ground that day was an experienced combat vet," Rhodes said. "The man was an explosives expert in the Army. He worked with Triple Canopy and Blackwater as a contractor all over the world, and he's an ex-cop. If he had actually intended for anyone to go into the Capitol and commit an insurrection, it would have looked very, very different from what we saw. The idea that was somehow an insurrection with no guns, no obvious intent to do anything, is ridiculous — a complete joke."

Rhodes could not be reached for this story.

"Whip," or "Mike," also appears in a video posted on the official Oath Keepers YouTube account documenting the militia's presence in Louisville, Ky. on Sept. 23, the day results of a grand jury investigation were announced finding that police officers were justified in fatally shooting Breonna Taylor. Narrating the video, Rhodes identifies "Whip" as "our team leader."

The following day, according to an account in the Washington Post, following a confrontation with protesters, Rhodes asked Mike, who is Black, to field questions from the news media. Media coverage of the encounter from the Post, along with Sky News and the live-streamer Based Web Developer, shows that Jessica Watkins and Florida Oath Keeper Kenneth Harrelson, who both face conspiracy charges in the Jan. 6 insurrection, were present.

Also captured in the footage is George Douglas Smith Jr., leader of a North Carolina Oath Keepers group based in Columbus County, along the South Carolina line.

As an admin on the Oath Keepers, Columbus County Facebook page last June, Smith pledged that his leadership "will soon lay out our teams and start the training" that would make the chapter "a formidable fighting force capable of defeating the forces of evil that are intent on destroying our nation and murdering those of us that don't sumit [sic] to their evil schemes on bended knees."

In another post, Smith signaled his preoccupation with the 2020 election while warning that a Democratic victory would pose an existential threat.

"I'm confident as more people come to the realization that not only is our constitution in danger of destruction, their very lives will hang in the balance if the communist democrats and their army's blm and antifa take control of this country in November. There are not that many training opportunities from now until the election, there is nothing as important as the ability to survive!!!"

Smith could not be reached for comment for this story.

Smith confirmed to the News Reporter, a local newspaper in Columbus County, that the North Carolina Oath Keepers traveled by bus to the "Stop the Steal" rally headlined by President Trump at the Ellipse on Jan. 6. But he said they boarded the bus and returned to North Carolina instead of going to the Capitol. Afterwards, Smith said, his group unanimously voted to split from the Oath Keepers.

"The men of Columbus County will not be a part of anything that terrorized anybody or goes against law enforcement," Smith told the newspaper.

Smith acknowledged having met Caldwell in November, according to the report. According to a government filing, Caldwell texted an unidentified individual on Dec. 23 indicated that he had hosted "a bunch of the Oath Keepers from North Carolina" on his farm in northern Virginia "for the Million MAGA march," a Nov. 14 event that, along with a Dec. 12 rally, was a prelude to the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Smith also told the News Reporter that "an individual up there in Ohio" named "Donovan" had called him. The government alleges that Donovan Crowl interacted with the North Carolina Oath Keepers prior to the insurrection.

Rhodes has said that he abandoned the plan to stage a quick reaction force on the eve of the Jan. 6 Stop the Steal rally. Rhodes told The Gateway Pundit that he and "Whip" discussed the matter the night before and decided that because they didn't expect President Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act, "we don't want to leave the manpower outside DC, so we did not have a QRF on January 6th."

Since late October, Rhodes had been calling on Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act as a preemptive move against anticipated civil resistance if Trump had attempted to cling to power in defiance of the electoral certification.

In an interview with Alex Jones of InfoWars about a week before the election, Rhodes pledged that Oath Keepers would be staged outside DC, while hinting that they could find themselves at odds with the US military.

"Frankly, we're concerned about a Benghazi-style attack," he said. "That's why Oath Keepers will be posted outside of DC. We've got some of our best men working on a plan right now for where we're going to be. We'll make sure we're within range. Because I don't trust the Pentagon. I don't trust the brass. I don't even trust the secretary of defense to stand behind the president. And don't be surprised if you don't get the same kind of stand-down order you saw with Benghazi."

Speaking at the Stop the Steal/Jericho March in Washington DC on Dec. 12, Rhodes elaborated on his recommendation that Trump invoke the Insurrection Act — a move that has been widely rejected by legal experts and military leaders as an illegal power grab.

"He needs to free Julian Assange and put him in charge of doing a data dump to display to all of you all of the skeletons out of the closet into the streets," Rhodes said. "Show the world who the traitors are. And then use the Insurrection Act to drop the hammer on them. And all of us veterans who swore that oath: Until you're age 65, you can be called up as the militia to support and defend the Constitution.

"He needs to know from you that you are with him, that if he does not do it now while he is commander-in-chief, we're going to have to do it ourselves later in a much more desperate, much more bloody civil war," Rhodes continued.

While planning for a heavily armed quick reaction force poised to supply weapons for an escalation of hostilities on Jan. 6 poses a host of unanswered questions, recent court filings increasingly tie Rhodes to the alleged conspiracy.

While Rhodes has roundly rejected claims that Oath Keepers engaged in a conspiracy, communications referenced in the latest superseding indictment against 10 defendants indicate Rhodes was in close contact with at least one of them at the time of the assault.

The government says Rhodes placed a call to Kelly Meggs, the Florida leader, that lasted about 15 seconds at 2:15 p.m. Then, according to the government, Meggs called Rhodes at 2:32 p.m. and spoke for one minute and 27 seconds. Three minutes later, according to the government, Meggs, Watkins, Crowl and five others formed a "stack" that "maneuvered in an organized and practiced fashion up the steps on the east side of the Capitol — each individual keeping with at least one hand on the shoulder of the other in front of them."

At the top of the steps, the government said, "the stack joined and supported the crowd that was pushing forward toward the doors, assaulting the officers guarding the doors, throwing objects and spraying chemical towards the officers and the doors, and pulling violently on the doors."

At about 2:40 p.m., according to the government, "the crowd breached the doors," and the Oath Keepers "forcibly entered the Capitol building."

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