Caldwell, 68, called his past words “a great exaggeration, just like the charges against me.” He testified that a “militia” is just “neighbors helping neighbors.” And he said messages from him about taking out enemies with sniper fire or staging and transporting “heavy weapons” across the Potomac River by boat were “creative writing.”
Caldwell was one of two defendants to take the stand in the seventh week of the Oath Keepers seditious conspiracy trial in federal court in Washington, D.C. His testimony echoed that earlier of Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and two others on trial who did not testify but offered friends and family to provide evidence that their sometimes graphic and inflammatory communications did not reflect their true intentions. A fifth defendant, Ohio militia leader Jessica Watkins, surprised the court by announcing plans to testify after lunch Wednesday.
Caldwell claimed he saw no violence at the Capitol and thought until days later reports of it were “hooey.” But in messages sent the evening of the attack, he talked about stealing riot shields, throwing fire extinguishers through windows and watching Proud Boys fight the police. “It was a great time,” he wrote.
Caldwell and his wife only made it as far as the inaugural scaffolding; like Rhodes, he did not enter the building. But prosecutors argue that both plotted with Oath Keepers co-defendants Kelly Meggs, Kenneth Harrelson and Jessica Watkins to attempt to keep Donald Trump in power by force.
Caldwell was not a formal member of the Oath Keepers, but had become friendly with them after he met Rhodes at a Trump Stop the Steal rally in Purcellville, Va., on Nov. 8, 2020, Caldwell and his wife, Sharon Caldwell, testified. For the pro-Trump “Million Maga March” the following week in Washington, about 15 Oath Keepers camped at Caldwell’s farm in Berryville.
Watkins’s fiance testified that their militia was a small group that only joined forces with the Oath Keepers in late 2020, and that she wanted them “fighting fit” by inauguration not to launch a coup but to protect themselves against possible “enforced vaccination” under President Biden.
On cross-examination prosecutors repeatedly pointed to comments showing a willingness by the defendants and their allies to engage in political violence following Rhodes calls to prepare for civil war and give their lives to overturn the 2020 presidential election.
Don Siekerman, a 69-year-old retired police officer and former Army medic, said he was unaware of any plan to enter the Capitol or stop the election certification. If he had been the Oath Keepers ground commander in Washington as planned on Jan. 6, he said he would have “directed people away from the scene, not towards it”— but he got covid three days earlier.
Despite his gentle demeanor and slow delivery on the stand — which he attributed to covid fog — his text messages were fiery.
In a Nov. 6 Parler message, Siekerman called for “millions of American Patriots” with military training to be prepared for a looming “great confrontation,” writing, “There will be a cleansing of the freedom tree.”
“Cleansing the freedom tree means killing people, right?,” prosecutor Louis J. Manzo asked.
“Yes sir,” Siekerman replied.
“Stewart Rhodes says we’re in for a bloody civil war, and your reaction is, ‘I’m in?’”
“It appears so,” Siekerman said.
The defense struggled at times to put on some evidence, after accusing prosecutors of muzzling its potential witnesses by criminally charging them. One Oath Keepers member described as Rhodes’s “battle buddy” on Jan. 6 invoked his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination in front of the jury. Another Oath Keepers board member and former vice president was outed as an FBI informant and did not appear, a leak that prosecutors wanted investigated.
One key defense witness testified despite facing Jan. 6 charges. Michael Greene, described as Siekerman’s successor as the Oath Keeper’s operations coordinator for Jan. 6, told jurors there was no conspiracy or plan to breach the Capitol or to use force in any way.
Rhodes’s discussion of civil war and call for Oath Keepers to be ready to lay down their lives to keep Trump in office was “nothing different than the old guy at the barbershop talking,” Greene said. The rioters, he said, were “a lot of old guys,” noting wryly, “I’m indicted with them.”