WASHINGTON - When die-hard supporters of President Donald Trump showed up at rally point “Cowboy” in Louisville on the morning of Jan. 5, they found the shopping mall’s parking lot was closed to cars, so they assembled their 50 or so vehicles outside a nearby Kohl’s department store. Hundreds of miles away in Columbia, S.C., at a mall designated rally point “Rebel,” other Trump supporters gathered to form another caravan to Washington. A similar meetup - dubbed “Minuteman” - was planned for Springfield, Mass.
That same day, FBI personnel in Norfolk, Va., were increasingly alarmed by the online conversations they were seeing, including warlike talk around the convoys headed to the nation’s capital. One map posted online described the rally points, declaring them a “MAGA Cavalry To Connect Patriot Caravans to StopTheSteal in D.C.” Another map showed the U.S. Congress, indicating tunnels connecting different parts of the complex. The map was headlined, “CREATE PERIMETER,” according to the FBI report, which was reviewed by The Washington Post.
“Be ready to fight. Congress needs to hear glass breaking, doors being kicked in,” read one posting, according to the report.
FBI agents around the country are working to unravel the various motives, relationships, goals and actions of the hundreds of Trump supporters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Some inside the bureau have described the Capitol riot investigation as their biggest case since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and a top priority of the agents’ work is to determine the extent to which that violence and chaos was preplanned and coordinated.
Investigators caution there is an important legal distinction between gathering like-minded people for a political rally - which is protected by the First Amendment - and organizing an armed assault on the seat of American government. The task now is to distinguish which people belong in each category, and who played key roles in committing or coordinating the violence.
Video and court filings, for instance, describe how several groups of men that include alleged members of the Proud Boys appear to engage in concerted action, converging on the West Front of the Capitol just before 1 p.m., near the Peace Monument at First Street NW and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Different factions of the crowd appear to coalesce, move forward and chant under the direction of different leaders before charging at startled police staffing a pedestrian gate, all in the matter of a few minutes.
An indictment Friday night charged a member of the Proud Boys, Dominic Pezzola, 43, of Rochester, N.Y., with conspiracy, saying his actions showed “planning, determination, and coordination.” Another alleged member of the Proud Boys, William Pepe, 31, of Beacon, N.Y., also was charged with conspiracy.
Minutes before the crowd surge, at 12:45 p.m., police received the first report of a pipe bomb behind the Republican National Committee headquarters at the opposite, southeast side of the U.S. Capitol campus. The device and another discovered shortly afterward at Democratic National Committee headquarters included end caps, wiring, timers and explosive powder, investigators have said.
Some law enforcement officials have suggested the pipe bombs may have been a deliberate distraction meant to siphon law enforcement away from the Capitol building at the crucial moment.
The FBI is also trying to determine how many people went to Washington seeking to engage in violence, even if they weren’t part of any formal organization. Some of those in the Louisville caravan said they were animated by the belief that the election was stolen, according to interviews they gave to the Louisville Courier-Journal.
Much of the discussion of potential violence occurred at TheDonald.win, where Trump’s supporters talked about the upcoming rally, sometimes in graphic terms, according to people familiar with the FBI investigation who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an open matter.
After the riot, a statement posted on the website said moderators “had been struggling for some time to address a flood of racist and violent content that appeared to be coming primarily from a small group of extremists who were often brigading from other sites,” leading to inquiries from the FBI.
One of the comments cited in the FBI memo declared Trump supporters should go to Washington and get “violent. Stop calling this a march, or rally, or a protest. Go there ready for war. We get our President or we die.”
Some had been preparing for conflict for weeks.
Prosecutors say Jessica Marie Watkins - an Ohio bartender who had formed her own small, self-styled militia group and had joined Oath Keepers, according to prosecutors - began recruiting and organizing in early November for an “operation.”
Days after the election, Watkins allegedly sent text messages to a number of individuals who had expressed interest in joining her group, which called itself the Ohio State Regular Militia.
“I need you fighting fit by innaugeration,” she told one recruit, according to court papers.
The same day, she also asked a recruit to download Zello, an app that allows a cellphone to operate like a push-to-talk walkie-talkie, saying her group uses it “for operations.”
In conversations later that month, Watkins allegedly spoke in apocalyptic terms about the prospect of Joe Biden being sworn in as president on Jan. 20.
“If he is, our way of life as we know it is over. Our Republic would be over. Then it is our duty as Americans to fight, kill and die for our rights. . . . If Biden get the steal, none of us have a chance in my mind. We already have our neck in the noose. They just haven’t kicked the chair yet.”
In December, prosecutors say, Donovan Ray Crowl, a 50-year-old friend of Watkins’s, attended a training camp in North Carolina, while another friend, Thomas E. Caldwell, a 66-year-old Navy veteran from Berryville, Va., booked a room at an Arlington, Va., hotel, where Watkins also had a reservation for the days surrounding the Jan. 6 pro-Trump rally.
Prosecutors say Caldwell had written earlier to Watkins that “I believe we will have to get violent to stop this, especially the antifa maggots who are sure to come out en masse even if we get the Prez for 4 more years.”
In the week leading up to the rally and riot, Watkins and Caldwell were in regular contact as they talked about various groups of people meeting up on Jan. 5 and Jan. 6, according to an indictment filed this past week against them.
At different points, according to court filings and people familiar with the investigation, Watkins and Caldwell indicated a degree of impatience with Stewart Rhodes, the national leader of Oath Keepers, for not providing more direction.
Watkins messaged Caldwell that if Rhodes “isn’t making plans, I’ll take charge myself, and get the ball rolling,” according to the indictment. Caldwell replied that he was speaking to another person who expected a bus with 40 people to come from North Carolina. Caldwell allegedly told her that person, identified only as “Paul” in other court papers, “is committed to being the quick reaction force [and] bringing the tools if something goes to hell. That way the boys don’t have to try to schlep weps on the bus” - an apparent reference to weapons.
Caldwell added in a subsequent message that he didn’t know whether Rhodes “has even gotten out his call to arms but it’s a little friggin late. This is one we are doing on our own. We will link up with the north carolina crew,” according to court papers and the people familiar with the investigation.
On New Year’s Eve, according to the indictment, Watkins “responded with interest to an invitation to a ‘leadership only’ conference call” for what was described as a “DC op.”
Such exchanges are critical early clues in the planning and coordination that went on before, during and after the riot. Videos from the Capitol show Oath Keepers such as Watkins dressed in military-type gear, moving in coordination with Crowl through the crowds around the building.
Watkins used the walkie-talkie app to tell others she was part of a group of about 30 to 40 people who are “sticking together and sticking to the plan,” according to court documents.
Caldwell, for his part, posted images to Facebook, writing: “Us storming the castle. Please share. Sharon is right with me. I am such an instigator!” Sharon Caldwell, his wife, has not been charged with any crime; Caldwell, Crowl and Watkins are accused of conspiring to obstruct Congress and other violations.
Thomas Caldwell’s lawyer has said his client expects to see the charges dropped or to be acquitted at trial. Caldwell, the lawyer said, is not a member of Oath Keepers.
Watkins has previously denied committing any crimes. “I didn’t commit a crime. I didn’t destroy anything. I didn’t wreck anything,” Watkins told the Ohio Capital Journal, adding that the riot was a peaceful protest that turned violent.
Crowl’s lawyer has described his client as a law-abiding citizen who helped protect people during the riot.
In a phone interview this month, Rhodes, the founder of the Oath Keepers, told The Post that he gave no direction or signals to members of his group to storm the Capitol, and that he considers the entry by rioters a mistake that played into the hands of critics.
Rhodes said the only “mission” the Oath Keepers had organized to undertake in D.C. on Jan. 6 was dignitary protection for far-right personalities who had traveled to the city to participate in “Stop the Steal” events.
At the time of the riot, Rhodes said, he had just escorted one of the VIPs to a nearby hotel. Rhodes said one of his deputies “called and said, ‘People are storming the Capitol.’ I walked back over and found” fellow Oath Keepers, Rhodes said, but did not enter the building.
Rhodes disavowed any meaningful connection to Caldwell or Crowl. Rhodes said Watkins had played an important part in the group’s mobilization in opposition to demonstrations around police abuse in Louisville last year.
Former domestic terrorism investigators say the alleged discussion by Watkins and Caldwell about the group’s leader points to a longtime pattern among such extremists.
“Historically, within the right-wing extremist movements, leadership has produced rhetoric to spin up their members, increase radicalization and recruitment, and then stand back and let small cells or individual lone offenders follow through on that rhetoric with violent action,” said Thomas O’Connor, a former FBI agent who spent decades investigating domestic terrorists. “Domestic terrorism actually developed the leaderless resistance concept, taking the potential blame away from the leadership and putting it down into small groups or individuals, and I think that is what you’re starting to see here.”
Current law enforcement officials said they have not reached any conclusions about the interactions between leaders of extremist groups and their members or followers.
Investigators are examining who may have joined Caldwell and Watkins’s group, and whether any of those individuals, “known and unknown,” had links or communications with others at the Capitol that day or elsewhere.
Colin Clarke, a domestic terrorism expert at the Soufan Group, said the Jan. 6 attack represents a “proof of concept” for dangerous extremists.
“They talk about things like this in a lot of their propaganda, and the fact that the Capitol Police allowed this to happen, you can call it a security breach, or intelligence failure, but these people do not look at this as a failure, they look at it as an overwhelming success, and one that will inspire others for years.”
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The Washington Post’s Julie Tate and Alice Crites contributed to this report.