A federal judge ordered one of the alleged Oath Keepers charged in the Capitol riot to be released on Friday, and questioned the strength of the conspiracy case against him.
Thomas Caldwell, a 65-year-old veteran from rural Virginia, was charged in a wide-ranging conspiracy along eight members of the Oath Keepers, a right-wing militia group. He has been in jail for several weeks, and the Justice Department argued he was too dangerous to release.
Judge Amit Mehta criticized Caldwell’s “fanciful” beliefs that the 2020 election should be overturned, and slammed the Oath Keepers for preparing for possible violence. But he also noted Caldwell’s poor health and said there were shortcomings in the evidence against him.
“There is an absence of direct evidence of planning by Mr. Caldwell to enter the Capitol building,” Mehta said. “There are no text messages, communications by him, that speak to entering a building or trying to enter the building. And ultimately, he did not enter the building.”
More than 300 people have been charged in connection with the January 6 assault on the US Capitol by pro-Trump rioters – a figure DOJ now says could easily pass 400. Charges are also likely coming against additional members of the Oath Keepers, building on the existing conspiracy case that already has nine defendants, prosecutors said Thursday in court.
Mehta put Caldwell on house arrest with GPS monitoring, banned him from using electronics, and warned him against communicating with anyone associated with the Oath Keepers. Mehta’s decision reversed a previous ruling he made last month to keep Caldwell in jail pending trial.
Caldwell has pleaded not guilty and his lawyer said Friday he is “innocent” of the charges.
The judge issued a stern warning directly to Caldwell at the end of the 90-minute hearing.
“Don’t take this as a reflection of the seriousness of what you’ve been charged with, or your conduct,” Mehta said. “But I’ve got standards to follow under the law and I think they justify your release. Make no mistake – if you violate my conditions, you will be back in jail very quickly.”
Judge slams Oath Keepers
Even while releasing Caldwell, Mehta criticized the Oath Keepers organization that is allegedly part of, which Caldwell’s lawyer portrayed as a positive force that helps police in troubled cities.
“This is what I don’t get. Who deputized the Oath Keepers to come in and help local police? What are they training for and why are they part of this?” Mehta asked during the hearing.
Caldwell’s lawyer, David Fischer, said his client was afraid of antifa attacking supporters of former President Donald Trump at the rallies that were held on January 6 before the attack. Fischer said this was why Caldwell and other co-conspirators had discussed having an armed “quick reaction force” across the river in Virginia, ready to come into Washington if there were trouble.
But Mehta didn’t buy that argument. He wondered out loud why Oath Keepers hold the “fanciful” belief that they need to act as a “roving band… ready to step in” if antifa comes into town.
“This is right out of a fantastic sense of their own sense of being wronged, and their perceived role in trying to right what has been wronged,” he said. “And that is inescapable. And no amount of rationalization can resolve those facts. It’s unfortunate that they fell victim to those ideas.”
Caldwell’s attorney said he is associated with the Oath Keepers but “is not a member.”
A blow to prosecutors
The Justice Department hasn’t opposed releasing most Capitol riot defendants. But prosecutors have pushed to keep a smaller subset of defendants locked up, primarily members of extremist or paramilitary groups, and people who have been charged with assaulting police officers.
They prevailed with their efforts to keep one of Caldwell’s most prominent co-defendants, Jessica Watkins, incarcerated before trial. But they fell short with Caldwell on Friday, as Mehta drew sharp distinctions between Caldwell and the others who actually entered the Capitol.
“We do not have, at this point, someone explicitly saying, ‘Our plan is to storm the Capitol to stop certification,’ ” prosecutor Kathryn Rakoczy said. “There is evidence of an intent to unlawfully and corruptly obstruct a congressional proceeding … and to use violence to effectuate this plan.”
This story has been updated with additional developments.
CNN’s Hannah Rabinowitz contributed to this report.