Thomas Caldwell’s wife awakened him in a panic at 5:30 a.m. on January 19.
“The FBI is at the door and I’m not kidding,” Sharon Caldwell told her husband.
Caldwell, 66, clad only in his underwear, went to see what was happening outside his Virginia farm. “There was a full SWAT team, armored vehicles with a battering ram, and people screaming at me,” Caldwell told me during a lengthy phone interview on September 21. “People who looked like stormtroopers were pointing M4 weapons at me, covering me with red [laser] dots.”
Agents demanded that Caldwell, a former lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy who suffers from debilitating service-related spinal injuries, come outside and lay down in the grass.
“Someone grabbed my legs and dragged me through the grass. They threw me face down on the hood of the car, kicked my legs apart, put a chain around my waist and put me in handcuffs.” Caldwell said he looked up to see Sharon, his wife of 22 years, dressed in her nightgown holding her hands up with a sock in either hand. She, too, was covered in red dots from the weapons aimed at her. Sharon, 61, begged to put on her socks before they forced her outside in the cold. “I said a prayer, ‘Father, please don’t let them kill my wife,’” Caldwell said through sobs.
Caldwell was forced into the back of a police car for nearly 40 minutes; he asked several times what he was being charged with but FBI agents refused to answer. Eventually, Caldwell was led back toward his house. “I have a [collector] ’63 Thunderbird in my garage as a reminder of my grandfather, a retired Army colonel. An agent kicked one of the doors open and was leaning with his battle gear up against the car, scratching it up.”
Once inside, Caldwell saw that his wife “was still alive.” He was interrogated for at least two hours and realized the raid was tied to his participation in the January 6 protest in Washington, D.C.
Agents read what he called a “version” of his Miranda rights; he consented to the interview without an attorney present. Caldwell told me something I’ve heard repeatedly from January 6 defendants as to why they easily cooperated with the FBI: “I didn’t have anything to hide.”
Roughly 20 agents raided the Caldwell home, taking every electronic device including old computers and hard drives. This included Caldwell’s downloaded copies of cherished pictures. “They took every family photo we have.”
Agents then transported Caldwell to the Central Virginia Regional Jail in Orange, Virginia, two hours from their home. He thought he would be booked and released.
Instead, it was just the start of what he called “an American horror story.”
The Nightmare Begins
During his bond hearing later that day, Caldwell finally learned he had been charged with six federal crimes related to January 6. “The affidavit alleges . . . you were a member of a paramilitary organization called the Oath Keepers and that there are several other people who are also charged,” Judge Joel Hoppe explained to Caldwell.
The Justice Department accused Caldwell and two Oath Keepers—Donovan Crowl and Jessica Watkins—of plotting to attack the U.S. Capitol on January 6. “Records obtained from Facebook indicate that CALDWELL was involved in planning and coordinating the January 6 breach of the U.S. Capitol in which WATKINS, CROWL, and other Oath Keeper militia members participated,” the government’s criminal complaint read. Prosecutors claimed Caldwell had a “leadership role within the Oath Keepers.”
The lead prosecutor at Caldwell’s January 19 hearing argued he should remain behind bars. “The nature of the offense . . . is very much directed at the fabric of our democracy, the attempt of insurrection and to overthrow what was occurring on January 6,” assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Kavanaugh said. “These events threatened the safety of members, the staff, the police. Five people died including one Capitol police officer.”
Caldwell never entered the Capitol building, has no criminal record, and honorably served the country for 20 years in the military, but Judge Hoppe agreed with the government to keep him behind bars. “The conduct and the statements of Mr. Caldwell . . . it really just is pure lawlessness and contempt for laws of this country,” Hoppe said, referring to some of Caldwell’s Facebook posts and texts.
Caldwell spent 53 days in jail, 49 of them in solitary confinement. He could not access his medication to relieve excruciating back pain caused by spinal injuries Caldwell suffered while serving in the Navy. When prison guards asked why he was incarcerated, he said, “I’m a political prisoner because of January 6.”
In prison, Caldwell said he suffered “sadistic brutality by some correctional officers and there was warmth and compassion, the latter by other employees and every single inmate.” His faith, he said, and the love of his wife sustained him. “I thought I would die in jail.”
Caldwell also found a new attorney, David W. Fischer, to take his case. Fischer immediately filed a motion to release his client, slamming the Justice Department for its initial allegations.
In less than a month, the Government’s theory as to Caldwell’s role in the claimed conspiracy has morphed from him being the Commander of Oath Keepers . . . who (presumably) led the attack on the east side of the Capitol, to a guy ‘associated’ with the Oath Keepers. Caldwell’s stellar background and military career was, unintentionally, slandered by the Government’s sloppy, rushed investigation. As the Court knows, the Government typically takes months and even years to build cases, painstakingly gathering and evaluating evidence and interviewing witnesses. By contrast, in this case the Government charged a 20-year decorated Navy veteran with no prior record based on a few hours of investigation and without giving him the courtesy of an interview. Authorities did virtually no investigation before branding Caldwell a felon, and have provided multiple inaccurate statements to the Court.
Caldwell finally went home in March; he remains on home detention with limited ability to leave his farm.
Even though he is a central figure in the Justice Department’s shaky “conspiracy” case against the Oath Keepers, Caldwell said he never joined the group. He was approached by Stewart Rhodes during a post-election rally in Virginia. Rhodes told Caldwell he did “security” for conservatives and asked Caldwell if he would ever volunteer to help. He gave Rhodes his contact information.
Caldwell communicated with some Oath Keepers prior to January 6, discussing travel plans and hotel arrangements. Twenty Oath Keepers have been charged with various crimes; none face an assault or weapons offense. Three have been in jail since last winter under pre-trial detention orders. (Judge Amit Mehta refuses to release the three detainees and just moved their trial date from January 2022 to April 2022.)
But Rhodes, curiously, has not been charged although he is Person One in the indictments. (Darren Beattie at Revolver News has a few investigative reports on Rhodes and the Oath Keepers case.) Even more curious is how the FBI quickly identified Caldwell, accessed his social media posts and other contacts, sought a warrant, and arrested him less than two weeks after the protest when he never even entered the building and committed no serious crime.
I asked Caldwell what he thought about the fact the founder of Oath Keepers and lead unindicted co-conspirator in the government’s biggest January 6 case hasn’t yet been charged. “I’m as curious as anyone on the outside looking in,” he said.
For now, the Caldwells are trying to resume a normal life as they await a trial that won’t begin until mid-2022 at the earliest. Unlike many January 6 defendants, the Caldwells have received an outpouring of support from their friends and community.
“We believe truth will prevail. I have great faith in the American people,” Caldwell told me.
Sharon Caldwell was more direct. “We won’t let the bad guys win.”