Thu, October 28, 2021

in-focus

Alleged organizer in Capitol riot freed from jail as he awaits trial


WASHINGTON - A Virginia man accused of being an organizer of the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol was ordered released from jail Friday by a federal judge, who said the man did not enter the Capitol and "there's no direct evidence that he was planning to do so that day."

Thomas Caldwell, 66, of Berryville, had been in jail since an FBI raid on his home on Jan. 19, and U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta had refused to release him after a hearing on Feb. 12. But Caldwell's lawyer said the government still had no evidence that Caldwell planned an invasion of the Capitol, he didn't physically enter the building, and he noted that Caldwell fully cooperated with FBI agents. That included providing them the passwords to his computers and sitting for a two-hour interview, which seemed to convince Mehta that Caldwell had not destroyed evidence after the Jan. 6 siege.

Caldwell also suffers from severe back pain as a result of injuries received during his 20-year Naval career, his attorney, David Fischer, said, and was unable to receive treatment for that in the Central Virginia Regional Jail in Orange. Mehta said he took that into account, as well as Caldwell's military service, his former top secret security clearance, and his lack of a prior criminal history.

During the hearing in Washington, prosecutors asked Mehta to delay Caldwell's release until Monday while they considered whether to appeal his order, but Mehta declined.

Caldwell is indicted, along with eight others from around the country, with conspiring to block Congress from confirming the winner of the U.S. presidential election, destroying government property, entering a restricted building and destroying evidence. The FBI said it found messages that Caldwell sent to members of the conservative Oath Keepers group lining up their arrival in Washington, and seemingly establishing a "quick reaction force" with weapons, staged outside the city, to summon during the siege if needed.

Caldwell then sent messages and photos from the Capitol on Facebook on Jan. 6 which the government interpreted as his narration of joining the crowd of rioters, while Fischer said they were merely reports to his friends watching from afar. Comments by Caldwell such as "We must smite them now and drive them down" were actually harmless hyperbole from an amateur screenwriter, Fischer said.

Fischer said Caldwell and others were planning to provide protection for Trump supporters from a feared antifa attack. He said the Oath Keepers had traveled around the country to help local police defend against violent protesters.

"Who deputized the Oath Keepers to come in and help the local police?" Mehta asked. "This notion that they are a roving band, ready and willing to step in just in case Antifa shows up seems fanciful."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathryn Rakoczy noted that some of Caldwell's messages referenced more than protection. "Let them try to certify some crud on capitol hill," Caldwell wrote on Dec. 31 on Facebook, "with a million or more patriots in the streets. This kettle is set to boil."

Seven of Caldwell's alleged co-conspirators composed the "stack" of Oath Keepers who marched up the Capitol steps and into the building, prosecutors allege, but the judge agreed that Caldwell was not one of them. "There is an absence of direct evidence of planning by Mr. Caldwell to enter the Capitol building," Mehta said.

Mehta placed Caldwell on 24-hour home confinement with electronic monitoring, with no access to guns, computers or smartphones, to stay away from the District and to have no contact with anyone affiliated with the Oath Keepers.

"Believe me Mr. Caldwell," Mehta told the defendant, "if there's any hint of violation of these conditions, you'll be right back where you are."

"Yes your honor, I understand," said Caldwell, who attended the hearing through a video link from the jail in Virginia.

Separately Friday, prosecutors unsealed charges filed Wednesday accusing alleged Florida Proud Boys member Christopher John Worrell of spraying pepper-spray gel toward police at West Capitol front. At an initial appearance in the afternoon, U.S. Magistrate Mac McCoy of Fort Myers ordered Worrell's release, but Chief U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell of Washington stayed an order to hear a government appeal for detention.

Published : March 13, 2021

By : The Washington Post, Tom Jackman