A federal prosecutor said Friday that the federal government’s “working understanding” is that the Oath Keepers had a “quick reaction force” stationed outside the District of Columbia on Jan. 6, prepared with weapons during the siege at the Capitol.
Speaking in open court, prosecutors provided few additional details of what would represent evidence of a much larger threat to Congress and then–vice president Mike Pence on that day than previously known. None of the Oath Keepers charged so far are accused of carrying or using weapons, but the suggestion that they had a plan to access arms raises the specter that the insurrection could have been even more violent and dangerous for police and lawmakers inside the Capitol.
After US District Judge Amit Mehta pressed for more information, he and Assistant US Attorney Ahmed Baset quickly moved into an off-the-record session to discuss the government’s evidence.
The comments came during a detention hearing for Jessica Watkins, 38, the member of the Oath Keepers from Ohio charged with conspiracy and other crimes for leading others from that group into the Capitol. Watkins is facing some of the most serious charges to come out of the insurrection. A grand jury indicted her and eight others associated with the Oath Keepers on charges of descending on the Capitol in “an organized and practiced fashion” to stop Congress from certifying the election of Joe Biden as president.
Watkins was seeking to be released to home detention pending trial, arguing that she was not a danger to the community and was disbanding her militia and renouncing her affiliation with the Oath Keepers. Following a nearly two-hour hearing, Judge Mehta denied that bid, saying she posed an ongoing risk to the community.
He also referred, obliquely, to what he and prosecutors had discussed off the record about the quick reaction force, referring to “weapons placed outside” the District of Columbia and to the fact that “Ms. Watkins knew those instructions.”
That followed an earlier exchange in which the judge pressed the prosecutor on the question of whether there was a quick reaction force stationed outside Washington, DC. “I know there was evidence of planning,” the judge said. “Does the government have evidence that there were in fact … people with weapons?”
“That’s our understanding,” Baset answered. “The investigation is ongoing, but that is our understanding … our working understanding.”
The judge responded: “When you say working understanding, are you suggesting the government has proof that in fact there were people stationed outside the district? And if you want to do this in a non-public session, we can do that.”
At that point, the prosecutor and judge went off the record in a conversation that reporters could not hear
References to a quick reaction force have come up before in the Oath Keepers’ prosecution. Two weeks earlier, the same judge had denied the release of Thomas Caldwell, 66, who is accused of being one of Watkins’ co-conspirators. Prosecutors have accused him of exploring plans to use pickup trucks or boats to transport weapons across the Potomac River at a critical moment.
Watkins herself texted another member of her group on Jan. 3 that a “quick reaction force” would be the “law enforcement” arm of the Oath Keepers on Jan. 6, according to court papers.
Mehta, at the end of Friday’s hearing, called the quick reaction force “the most disturbing aspect of the planning in these cases.” He also noted: “The threats to democracy and threats on the capitol have not fully abated.”
The vast majority of the more than 280 people arrested in connection with the insurrection were allowed to go home after their first court appearance. The government has generally reserved detention requests for cases involving more serious charges and allegations, such as conspiracy, assaulting police, or taking a leadership role that day.
The decision to keep Watkins in federal custody came despite an unusual personal plea from her; defendants typically do not speak during these hearings. Watkins told the judge she had been “appalled” by the actions of some of her fellow Oath Keepers on Jan. 6 and planned to cancel her membership in the group and disband her own Ohio Regular Militia, which she said she founded with her boyfriend to help the community with search and rescue operations.
“We’re done with that lifestyle,” she said, saying she wanted to focus on her small business, the Jolly Roger bar she and her partner operate in Woodstock, Ohio.
Watkins’ attorney, Michelle Peterson, argued that Watkins had gone to the Capitol to provide security at Trump’s rally and that though she had entered the Capitol, she had always been peaceful while inside it, even providing assistance to injured people.
Baset conceded that there was some video showing Watkins providing comfort or aid to another person, who also looked to be affiliated with the Oath Keepers. But he also argued that she was part of a conspiracy to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power, and in fact recruited others to her militia to do the same. He pointed to her own words in text messages obtained by the government, in which she said she did not “underestimate the resolve of the deep state” and that it is “our duty as Americans to fight, kill and die for our rights.”
In a motion to the court filed Saturday, Watkins had raised another reason she should be released: because she is transgender and at “particular risk in custody” for that reason. She also alleged that she had already been “treated harshly” while in a local jail in Ohio. But her attorney did not raise that issue in her hearing Friday and the court did not discuss it.