A federal judge ruled on Friday that Thomas Caldwell, charged with conspiring with members of the Oath Keepers to assault the Capitol on Jan. 6, must remain in jail until his trial because he “represents not just a danger to the community but to the fabric of democracy.”
Prosecutors are accusing Caldwell, a 66-year-old resident of Berryville, Virginia, of planning anti-government activities with members of the extremist militant group over a period of months, dating back to the aftermath of the November election. Among other things, he is alleged to have explored plans to bring weapons into Washington, DC, using pickup trucks or boats to transport them across the Potomac River at a critical moment.
“Mr. Caldwell demonstrates that he’s not just a peaceful protester and that he’s someone willing to plan violent acts in order to offset the results of an election,” said US District Judge Amit Mehta during the at-times impassioned hearing, which was held virtually since the DC federal courthouse remains closed during the pandemic.
Caldwell, who has been in jail since he was arrested on Jan. 19, was indicted along with Jessica Watkins and Donovan Crowl of Ohio on Jan. 27. At his arraignment prior to the hearing on Friday to consider whether he should be granted bond and allowed to go home while his case is pending, he pleaded not guilty to all six counts against him, which include conspiracy against the United States, a felony that has a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.
He is one of more than 200 people who have so far been charged with participating in the insurrection. In most cases, the government has not asked judges to keep defendants behind bars pending trial. Instead, these requests for pretrial detention have been reserved for cases involving more serious felony counts, such as the conspiracy charge that Caldwell faces, and defendants accused of assaulting law enforcement officers, carrying weapons inside the Capitol, and taking any sort of leadership role in the riot. Watkins and Crowl were also ordered to remain in custody after their first court appearances last month, and prosecutors filed papers this week arguing to keep Watkins in jail. A judge has yet to rule on that request.
In a different virtual courtroom on Friday afternoon, another federal judge in Washington denied a request for pretrial release by Capitol insurrection defendant Patrick McCaughey III. McCaughey is accused of using a riot shield to pin Daniel Hodges, an officer with the Metropolitan Police Department, against a door at one of the entrances to the Capitol as the mob tried to break in. During former president Donald Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate this week, House managers showed a video of Hodges screaming in pain.
Caldwell’s attorney had petitioned for his client’s release earlier this week, arguing that the decorated former Navy officer has no prior criminal background and has a physical disability that would preclude him from engaging in a forced breach of the Capitol building. Although Caldwell doesn’t deny being present at the Capitol on Jan. 6, his attorney claimed there was no evidence that he had actually entered the building or, for that matter, was a member of the Oath Keepers, as has been widely reported.
Prosecutors, for their part, acknowledged in court that they did not “have evidence that Mr. Caldwell is a ‘dues-paying’ member of the Oath Keepers,” but said he had worked closely with members of the group from multiple states, as well as its top leadership, to help organize its presence at multiple events, including the so-called Million MAGA March and the Jan. 6 insurrection. In addition, prosecutors said, Caldwell was in close communication with members of other armed anti-government groups, including the Three Percenters, as he made his plans.
Indeed, it was in a text message with a member of the Three Percenters on Jan. 3 that Caldwell had proposed the idea of using boats to ferry weapons into DC, a city that heavily regulates firearms.
“If we had someone standing by at a dock ramp (one near the Pentagon for sure) we could have our Quick Response Team with the 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,” Caldwell wrote, according to a brief filed by the prosecution. “Anyone who would be interested in supporting the team this way? I will buy the fuel.”
Prosecutors added that a search of Caldwell’s property by the FBI turned up receipts for the purchase of “a concealed firearm intentionally built to look like a cell phone” and for live ammunition. Agents also found a notepad with the legend “Death List,” and below that the name of an elections official from another state, as well as a relative of that person. The identity of that official has not been revealed, but Caldwell’s attorney, Thomas Plofchan Jr., said it was “someone multiple states away who is rather famous because of a certain issue.”
In court, Plofchan scoffed at the prosecution’s case, calling it “a very imaginative and almost creative writing indictment.” He noted that the FBI did not find any actual firearms, just the receipts, that Caldwell did not bring weapons with him to the Capitol, and that there are no known photos of him actually inside the building — something prosecutors acknowledged in court.
The attorney said that rather than join the line of Oath Keepers in tactical gear who pushed their way through crowds into the building’s east side, Caldwell was on the west side, accompanied by his wife. The two of them were, he insisted, “peacefully protesting.”
But Mehta saw things differently, focusing on the gun-running boat scheme, which he called “quite astonishing,” and on the fact that in the immediate aftermath of the violent events of Jan. 6, Caldwell had allegedly messaged one of his coconspirators, Crowl, to propose future attacks on government buildings.
The judge also dwelled on the fact that Caldwell had reportedly deleted Facebook messages, videos, and images in the days following the insurrection and suggested that Watkins and Crowl travel to his house where they could “stash” the tactical gear they had used during the assault. From the judge’s perspective, that behavior suggested a risk that Caldwell might destroy evidence, which he used as a chief reason to deny bond.
While laying out his reasoning, however, the judge was abruptly interrupted by Caldwell — who like other parties to the hearing was participating via videoconference — producing perhaps the most dramatic interchange of the two-hour hearing.
“Your honor, I know this is out of order, but my life hangs in the balance,” Caldwell said.
“I need you not to speak,” Caldwell’s lawyer, Plofchan, said.
“I know this is hard, but you need to understand,” Mehta retorted.
“Your honor, these things are taken out of context,” Caldwell responded.
The judge remained unswayed. Caldwell’s next court appearance is set for March 12.