Secret communications cited in court records are revealing just how aggressively federal prosecutors are working to understand the paramilitary extremists who played a role in the US Capitol insurrection.
Two court filings Thursday in the Justice Department’s efforts to keep in jail affiliates of the Oath Keepers, an extremist militant group, rely heavily on text messages and other communications between extremists.
Investigators have now cited direct quotes from the walkie-talkie app Zello as paramilitants coached each other – talking about “executing citizen’s arrests” and “everything we f–king trained for” – inside the Capitol. They’ve found a text message from an alleged organizer among the Oath Keepers discussing an idea to bring weapons into Washington, DC, on a boat crossing the Potomac River. And they’ve acknowledged finding planning materials, including bomb-making documents, in multiple defendants’ cases.
Extensive searches of homes, private messages and other data trails by investigators aren’t unusual in criminal cases, though the number of arrests and criminal cases following the Capitol riots has become an almost unmatched dragnet among major federal national security investigations – the sort of sprawling nationwide investigation that hasn’t occurred since after September 11, 2001.
In the conspiracy case against Jessica Watkins of Ohio, prosecutors outline how the alleged Oath Keeper wrote to recruits in the months before the insurrection to discuss training. Watkins mentioned basic training in January – a full-week affair that included war games, riot control and rescue operations as the extremists prepared for the presidential inauguration, prosecutors say. And when police visited her house in mid-January, they found an apparent toolbox for rebellion, complete with a mini drone, pool cues cut down to baton size and a recipe for making a destructive device, prosecutors said in a filing Thursday.
In another detail, prosecutors said Watkins was involved in “national leadership calls” for the Oath Keepers before January 6, but they have not revealed how much investigators have learned about the calls. In the indictment of Watkins and two others late last month, prosecutors described that she responded to an invitation for a call on the encrypted messaging platform Signal.
Watkins’ co-defendant, Thomas Caldwell, has received a similar level of attention from prosecutors, with another court filing on Thursday from the Justice Department zeroing in on what they’ve learned from searches around the Navy veteran. Prosecutors described in the filing messages Caldwell received where another Capitol riot conspiracy defendant, Donovan Crowl, texted him to thank him for hosting a visit as “war is on the Horizon,” Crowl wrote.
Prosecutors also note that Caldwell sent messages about bidding on Ebay for a tomahawk axe called the “Zombie Killer” and maps to walk from Virginia into DC “east toward the target,” according to the court filing Thursday.
Prosecutors have also made clear they’ve obtained many of the defendants’ social media posts, including, in Caldwell’s case, a video he sent and then unsent over Facebook’s messaging app.
Watkins and Caldwell are both fighting for their release from detention, and the Justice Department is pushing in court to keep them detained. They have not yet been arraigned following their indictment in DC’s federal district court.
Building on searching warrants
The fruit of the investigators’ searches adds to an already voluminous record of public posts online, livestreams and even selfies made by participants in the riot.
“All these cases aren’t based upon social media and Twitter and Instagram posts. We also have traditional law enforcement tools — grand jury subpoenas, search warrants — and you don’t get that overnight,” Michael Sherwin, the acting US attorney for Washington, DC, who is leading the Capitol riot cases, said at a news conference in late January.
Sherwin has spoken publicly about having used more than 500 subpoenas and search warrants to sweep in evidence, and federal agents have descended on properties from California to the East Coast.
Some of those searches, such as raids in Orange County, California, in late January, scoured properties of men who haven’t been charged with any crimes. In those raids, the FBI confirmed to CNN they searched the properties of men who run a group that co-sponsored a pro-Trump rally the day before the attack.
And in court filings regarding associates of the far-right group the Proud Boys, prosecutors have described efforts to raise funds and how – in a search of Seattle Proud Boys leader Ethan Nordean’s home – they obtained “ledgers, notebooks, and other records related to Proud Boys operations.”
Loosely organized extremists
One of the issues facing investigators may be how loosely organized the extremist groups are – essentially collections of groups that at times cross paths with one another over their support for for President Donald Trump or anger with the 2020 election and distrust of government.
In Nordean’s case, for instance, prosecutors have described him marching on January 6 with other Proud Boys members, as well as interacting in the crowd with Robert Gieswein, a Colorado man allegedly affiliated with the extremist group the Three Percenters who runs a paramilitary training group. Prosecutors have revealed little in their case against Gieswein following his arrest in mid-January. Nordean and Gieswein have not yet formally faced their charges in DC, and the Justice Department is seeking to reverse a ruling earlier this week that Nordean could be released from detention. Gieswein is detained, according to court records.
“Thus far, evidence has shown that the individuals and groups responsible for January 6th attack were not part of one cohesive group,” said George Selim, who led programs to counter extremism at the Department of Homeland Security and now is a senior vice president at the Anti-Defamation League.
“Instead what we have witnessed through the release of various charging documents and footage released is several disparately organized groups from different geographic areas, backgrounds, and levels of sophistication attempt to join forces for mutual goals,” Selim said.
Marshall Cohen contributed to this report.